donor experience strategy

This is part 2 in a 3-part series. Read part 1. Stay tuned for part 3. 

From my perspective, there are three pillars of transformation required of nonprofits that want to thrive in the post-disruption, post-COVID economy. In the first article of this three-part series, I explored why digital transformation must be an immediate priority and looked at some ways to get there. 

Let’s continue to break these priorities down, moving to pillar #2.  

  1. Digital 
  2. Donor Experience 
  3. Culture

Pillar #2—No More Silos: Your Donor Experience Strategy in 2021 and Beyond

Improving the donor experience should no longer be seen as something modest in ambition

For-profit companies have prioritized “customer experience” for years because they know it’s much less expensive to retain a current customer than to acquire a new one. The rush to digital over the past year has made many of them rethink and place even greater emphasis on their customer experience, finding themselves at a critical inflection point regarding customer care

If you want to keep your donors, you need to pay significant attention to the donor experience.

Prioritize Donor Experience Transformation. It’s Key to Sustainability

Donor experience simply means your donor’s emotional and intellectual reaction to any moment of engagement with you. 

To quote Dr. Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

So forget for a moment about politics, silos, budgets, resources, egos, and constraints.  Before rolling out any new strategy, ask the question: “How will this make a donor feel?” 

If it won’t inspire them to take the action you want them to take or make them feel joyful enough to want to renew that action, rethink this strategy. 

If it won’t inspire them to share their love of your mission with family and friends, rethink this strategy. 

If it won’t create a joyful memory or build together with other joyful moments, then subtract this from your strategy. 

“What is the memory that someone takes away from that moment, and how do those moments add up over time? With that knowledge we can reconstruct the entire brand relationship. From there, anyone who cares about human beings can lead the charge for bringing together the organization in a much more cross-functional way, that’s productive, that’s optimized, that’s customer-centered, that’s joyful even…it’s complex, but it’s possible—we just have to shift perspective.”

Brian Solis 

Everyone has a role in the reengineering of your donor experience

Of course, most development staff have known this for a while now. We give it labels like “culture of philanthropy” and “donor-centered fundraising.” What it really boils down to is figuring out how to give folks positive engagement experiences. And it’s not just development staff who engage with donors. Not by a long shot! It takes a village. 

Everyone in your organization has a relationship with donors, whether they realize it or not. Which means all staff, not just “development professionals,” should be held to account for building a positive donor experience. 

Anytime a donor visits your website, calls your reception desk, interacts with a program staffer, engages with you on social media, volunteers, or reads your blog, they’re shaping their view of you. It’s how people determine how much they identify with your values, vision, and mission—or how much they don’t. Leaving these things up to others is a huge mistake if you’re the fundraising professional. 

As the fundraiser, you must lead the way in developing a culture that supports this. For ways to fulfill this responsibility, see here. You have to do everything in your power to knock down silos so they can be laid end-to-end, with information and knowledge freely flowing throughout. The air you breathe should be the same air all of your staff breathe. And all your supporters as well.

Silos make a mess of an otherwise brilliant fundraising strategy. Donors don’t make distinctions. You are one organization to them. If the receptionist is rude, the donor’s ardor for giving will cool. If the marketing-generated email they receive has one message and the development-generated email arrives with a competing message, their resulting confusion will temper any philanthropic impulses. If the website home page has no mention of the campaign for which they just received an appeal, they may conclude it’s not mission critical for you. 

Competing calls to action can result in “analysis paralysis,” resulting in no decision. Or the prospective donor may take some action, but not the one you most want or need them to take.

Donor Experience Transformation Action Steps

The “new normal” requires a degree of connectedness and compassion that’s up close and personal

This connectedness and compassion begins within your nonprofit’s walls. Your job as the fundraiser is to understand the work of program staff—to sense it on a regular basis by getting out into the field and/or meeting with program staff. That’s the only way to really appreciate what you’re asking donors to support. And it’s the best way I know to convey to non-development staff how important their role is in facilitating philanthropy.

Everyone must have a clear understanding of the importance every person—development staff, program staff, support staff, volunteers, and donors—plays in the mission. 

I often met with non-development staff in the organizations in which I worked precisely to let them know that their work, not mine, was what made donors give. I praised them sincerely, and I also talked with them about their greatest client challenges and/or emerging needs. I endeavored to learn more about the things they saw—on the ground—that might be of great interest and importance to potential supporters. 

The truth is that donors may decide who to support based on those organizations’ ability to be relevant and tuned in to their needs. 

Creating successful donor experiences means bringing clear fundraising objectives to the meeting—or a plan to put them into place.  

Here are some action steps to take:

First, do a self-audit to make a map of your best high-touch donor experience touchpoints. 

You’ll likely find a lot of them have nothing to do with interfacing with the development staff. Donors want to meet with folks they consider VIPs—and this tends to mean your executive director, board president, or a person in charge of implementing the program they support. 

Are the people donors want to connect with within your sphere of influence as the fundraiser? If not, what do you need to do to develop the experiences donors crave? Who do you need to build relationships with? How can you get to know these people better?

Next, do a self-audit of your medium and low-touch donor experience touchpoints. 

Increasingly you’ll find many touches are digital in nature. You may not currently have much of a voice in these touches. Take a look at how human your communications come across. Are they authentic? Are they relevant to today’s issues and what your donors care about? 

Find your voice so you can lead the charge for bringing together your organization’s donor-facing messaging and interactions in a much more cross-functional way—one that’s productive, optimized, donor-centered, and even joyful.

Then, forcefully contribute to your organizational messaging agenda. 

Your job is to facilitate philanthropy, and you know donors require honesty, transparency, and relevance before they give. Whatever you don’t know about your donors, develop strategies to find out. 

Likewise, whatever is top of mind with your supporters should be top of mind for you. Stay on top of current events so you’ll know the issues keeping your supporters up at night. Can you help them with something? Your audience probably sees you as an authority figure, so the information you shareor don’t sharecan do a lot of good (or evil).

It’s imperative you get outside your own head. Donors don’t want “politics” from the nonprofits they love (with a few exceptions; you know who you are). Politics is associated with sleaze, greed, and narcissism. There’s no quicker way to tank your nonprofit brand and personal reputation than to tell outright lies, and half-truths, exaggerations or omit relevant facts. 

Donors have a sixth sense. They can sense if all is not well, but if you won’t tell them, they’ll simply worry. Anxiety is not an ideal principle of persuasion. Donors who love you want to help you, if needed. Just tell them what you need and see how they respond. 

So what do you do after that? 

Take the lead in consciousness raising. People often fear what they don’t understand. This extends to staff and volunteers who’ve never heard of “development” or who associate fundraising with begging or with donors with unearned privilege. 

Your job is to make folks comfortable with the process of asking for money from people who welcome the opportunity to be of service. Make sure you have (1) board and staff orientation around the role of donors and philanthropy in your organization; (2) employee handbook information about the role of all staff in building relationships with donors; (3) opportunities for staff to attend board meetings and vice-versa; and (4) a mixing of staff and donors at organizational celebrations. The goal is to facilitate mutual appreciation through relationship-building and the sharing of information.

Closing Thoughts: Time to Eliminate Silos and Include Everyone in Building Positive Donor Experiences 

If philanthropy fuels your mission, fundraising is essential to fulfill your mission. Rather than seeing fundraising as onerous and nothing but money-grubbing, it’s time to embrace the fact it brings joy to donors to give. At the same time, asking for philanthropic gifts should bring joy to everyone—staff and volunteers—working for your cause.

How can you create consistent, compassionate, and connecting donor experiences that come from a place of universal love and appreciation for donors?

Assess the Donor Experiences You Currently Offer

What have you learned over the past year about whether you have sufficient opportunities for donors to connect and feel joy? 

What are your most effective donor touchpoints? 

Are more of them digital than in the past and, if so, how can you create stronger and more meaningful donor journeys? 

Are there certain in-person activities it makes sense to bring back based on donor feedback? 

And if they don’t miss those in-person activities or still don’t feel safe meeting in person, what will you do instead?

Actively Imagine New Possibilities

What new things might make sense given what you’ve learned? 

First consider what you want your donor experience strategies to accomplish. It will depend on where your targeted markets, prospective and current donors included, are in their journey towards becoming philanthropic investors. 

How much do they know about you, and how do they feel about you? Is your strategic goal: (1) creating awareness; (2) building interest; (3) driving engagement, or (4) requesting investment? 

At each of these stages, how can you provide a better experience? For example, have you considered adding a chatbot to greet folks on your Facebook page? Anything you begin to notice becoming mainstream for for-profit businesses is something to consider; they do what works for their bottom line. Your bottom line is securing philanthropy to sustain and grow your mission.

Make Donors Part of Your Mission

You are a leader in the social benefit sector. Donors are looking for social benefit too. 

When you bring them joy, purpose, and meaning, they’re likely to reciprocate. This helps everyone who relies on you for help and support. It’s a symbiotic relationship; you help donors, and they help you. 

When it comes to your staff, what can you do to make them not just willing to engage with donors but actually happy to do so? Begin by reminding yourself and everyone with whom you work that people are starting to figure out how to get back to doing the things that brought them purpose. In fact, many people may be looking for new opportunities with a renewed sense of wanting to be a part of a solution. How can your organization become a part of the conversation in which folks today want to engage?

Stay tuned for the final article in this three-part series: “Beyond Survival: Post-Disruption Nonprofit Culture Strategy.”

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad