Merely winning your donors’ support on pure Cause differentiation will remain increasingly difficult. It’s simply not enough anymore in today’s marketplace – a great Cause tied to a poor donor experience will detract from your supporters or potential supporter’s perception of your Cause. They are now looking holistically at the cause and donor experience as one complete impression of your “promise”. Donors are demanding a seamless experience throughout your entire relationship.

In my “Are You a #chickenshit Fundraiser” post, one of the characteristics that I pointed out was:

You refer to your Donor Relations department as “Customer Service”.
The words that you use to identify your supporters matter a lot more than you think they do.
Recognize that terminology will influence perceived connection and importance,
which will influence action and communication.
“Customer” service sullies your relationship into the realm of becoming transactional.

I will forever stand by that point [what would your major gift prospect feel if you referred to them as a “customer”], that we shouldn’t be using the vernacular of the corporate sector when “classifying” our supporters. With that said – there are a multitude of areas where it is painfully necessary that our sector does a much better job at leveraging the strategies and tactics that for-profit companies use in order to acquire, engage, retain, and reactivate their ‘customers’. We desperately need to cultivate a heightened sensitivity to our donors’ needs, acknowledging their needs as consumers first, and how we can translate it into our communication channels and journeys.

Let’s take 15 to examine that a bit deeper:

Our donors spend the majority of their waking lives circumnavigating the adulterated landscapes of consumerism, with ever increasing expectations [of product quality, service, responsiveness, customization, personalization] and duly expect nothing but the same type of treatment while we help them navigate the landscapes of their seemingly unadulterated philanthropic pursuits:
amplifying their narratives and and cultivating the joy of giving.

The charitable sector has been going through the growing pains of acknowledging and responding to the zeitgeist of increased transparency and an ever increasing lack of trust [although still a high enough retained confidence] in the public zeitgeist. And sadly, many charities seem more concerned with improving their cost of fundraising index score in Moneysense year over year, than actually making the effort to better understand, engage, inspire, activate, reward, retain, surprise, reactivate, and serenade their donors. Then they blame it on “Donor Fatigue”. Yeah it’s tiring.

This has lead to [and/or stems from] a veritable samsara of #chickenshit fundraising throughout many corners of our sector where many of our leaders [at multiple levels] have failed their organizations through complacency in being wandering generalities, accepting mediocrity – stagnation in a progressively competitive landscape. Year after year there is an increase in registered charitable organizations, and the majority of us are beyond simply leveraging each other’s best industry practices – we are carbon-copying replicating each other’s fundraising programs and tactics verbatim, disrespectfully leaving donors drowning in a sea of sameness: of bland, unremarkable, uninspiring communications and shortsighted growth targets. Then we use cop outs like “Well, if it works, it works”.

Operate in the culture, not the category.
You aren’t just measured up against your competitors anymore;
you’re staked up against the best.

Smart, agile non-profits have realized that the leaders in other industries are setting their donors’ expectations. Think Amazon, Netflix, Starbucks. It’s a tough game to compete in, but we don’t have a choice anymore. We haven’t had a choice in a while.

But those aren’t MY competitors!” said the #chickenshit fundraiser.

Thought experiment:

  • Why is the number one donor objection to giving that they just don’t have enough money to support you at the moment, while they take a sip of their $5 Starbucks coffee? [tip: stop asking your donors for gifts with the tired pitch of “for just the price of one cup of your coffee”. They’ve been dying for a cup of coffee for 30+ years. Let them have one.]
  • Why aren’t your donors in a position to support you monthly because their ‘financial situation is erratic from month to month and I’m just not comfortable with that kind of commitment’ as they never give a second thought to cancelling their $8.99/month Netflix subscription?
  • Why would donors abandon your donation page when the UX is a transactional after-thought rather than in similar in its approach to the elegant, seamless, and personalized shopping experience that they get on ‘Oh, you recommend that with my purchase amazon? Why not!’ Why don’t you leverage Amazon’s recommendations strategy of various product categories throughout your donor touch-points? Maybe your donor can’t give today – but they might be interested in volunteering, signing a petition, shit, even liking your social media page.
And we wonder why upwards of 70% of our donors don’t make a second gift.

“Nearly every brand on the planet, whether they are aware of it or not, is competing primarily on customer experience today. Even in industries that are highly monopolistic, brands are being compared to best-in-breed CX leaders and held to much higher bars. Those that refuse or drag their feet in moving toward this new way of doing business are putting their futures in serious jeopardy. The minute customers have a choice, they will migrate toward companies that show they’re willing to invest in creating experiences−and relationships−that are meaningful.”

Is it that these industry behemoths provide your donor with more value, whether perceive or in actual utility?


What if  you instead developed a unapologetic [remember donors are making a clear statement of their values when they make a gift] market value proposition [some might even call it “an amplified narrative”, right?], and put in the work to care enough to truly customize your donor journeys throughout your relationship’s life-cycle – might you be able to create enough real value for your donors to make it a priority to better their lives by proxy of giving through your organization? Your donors are living their lives, each one with personal issues, challenges, and deep desires – and although many of these may be universal in nature, they are extremely intimate to each donor’s personal narrative. Charitable organizations must capitalize on this insight by crafting and delivering messages and experiences that speak to a donor’s individual, nuanced relationship with your cause.

The terminology used to get many of these points across may have fogged up the essence of the message, so it’s worth reminding ourselves at this point: remember donors give THROUGH your organization not TO your organization.

“The best fundraisers don’t just invite donors to solve a problem. They exceed expectations along the entire donor journey. You have to be ready to go beyond the expected for customers every day. You have to pick one thing you can own, just one, and set a new standard. Be the best at that one thing and bend over backwards to demonstrate that you truly want a donor’s ‘business’. It is about surprise and delight.”

I’ve got a sticky note on my computer on which I wrote “What is the promise?” to remind me, or rather challenge me to ensure that I attempt to deliver donors an exceptional experience and amplified, consistent personal narrative at every touch point. I do my best to remember that every interaction is an ask. Make sure that the narrative is consistent – merely winning your donors’ support on pure cause differentiation will remain increasingly difficult. It’s simply not enough anymore in today’s marketplace – a great cause tied to a poor donor experience will detract from your donor’s perception of your cause. They are now looking holistically at the cause and donor experience as a complete impression of your “promise”.

This is your opportunity to regroup, then dominate the market [my team loves when I say that]. Small shops especially. Here are 15 quick areas to audit in order to amplify your narrative. I could [and may at some point] make an individual post on each one of these but you’ve read this far so here are a few actionable steps and points of reflection.
  1. For the love of all philanthropic gods, we need leaders at all levels to cut the bullshit and put the donor promise at the forefront of everything that your organization does both in public and especially behind the scenes. Stop paying lip service to the promise and hiding behind thin veils of inauthentic donor-centricity rhetoric. Our organizations are donor-centric in usually the most minimal sense of the term – we can clearly see the writing on the wall with our sector’s continuously declining retention rates. Act like the inspirational leaders that you promised to be – and inspire your teams to uncover any and all pain points in which the promise isn’t being fulfilled and include them in the plan to fix it. If not today then get a plan on paper to make it happen within 6 months. Every day another leading fundraising blog’s post is about the retention elephant in the room. Every month another fundraising conference where leaders nod their collective heads in the room that we need to make drastic investments in retention. Rinse and repeat. The donor promise is most easily fulfilled through consistent donor narratives across all organizational service categories. The more personalized the better.
  2. Align your entire organization – vertically, horizontally integration across EVERYTHING. This takes a lot of the right people with the right mindsets and leadership. Create connections across departments. Implement idea incubator meetings. Every employee should know why someone should support your cause if asked “Why” at least 3 levels deep. Destroy silos. Encourage people to destroy silos. SILOS are the worse thing in your organization.
  3. We need you to align your promise throughout your entire organization. There should be both vertical but more importantly horizontal integration across EVERYTHING. From the way you answer a phone, to the volunteer onboarding materials, to the face to face fundraisers scripts, to your DM packages copy, to your corporate team, emails, advocacy, programs and services, legacy giving, it should all be seamless and holistic in the donor life-cycle.
  4. Start creating LONG TERM donor narratives. Scientist have predicted/forecasted the future of the universe 1 hundred quintillion years into the future yet, we only have drafted out donor journeys 12-15 months into the future. I am fortunate enough to work with a great team with whom we’ve drafted literal 20 year monthly donor journeys. We don’t have any idea of what advances will take place in technology, politics, marketing communications, payment systems, socio-economic landscapes in the next 5 years, but we’ve thought about it at that level in order to ensure that we are identifying and leveraging aspects of the donor relationship life-cycle that we may not have if we were only concerned with acquisition numbers. This is not to impress you but impress upon you the opportunity to look at what areas are you current ignoring [celebrating loyalty at year 1 should be a lot different than year 5, for example]. When you approach your relationships like this, you stop worrying about how good your metaphorical first kiss will be and rather focus on how you will cultivate a long term relationship built off trust, respect and appreciation from the get go. More on this below
  5. Recognize the competitive advantage that exists in the fact that most of your competitors treat their donors exactly the same. This is especially prevalent among larger national charities who manage huge donor files and are stuck in paralysis due to having to maintain cost-efficient margins while communicating with these large files. They end up only loving the courtship phase but don’t like putting in the work that it takes to make a figurative marriage work. There is a huge opportunity for disruption by fundraisers who seek to create soulmate bonds with their donors – stewardship serenades that would leave Shakespeare rosy-cheek’d.
  6. The past 3 points should emphasize how important the donor onboarding journey is in setting up a long term narrative for continued support. As mentioned, the majority of large charities share the same cost-effective, yet uninspiring donor onboarding journeys that are planned out to a 12-15 month communications strategy, at the most. I can tell you this from experience as I’ve ‘secret shopped’ many of them.
  7. Most big charities have the same cost-effective, yet uninspiring donor onboarding journeys that are only planned out for a 12-15 month communications stream. I know as I’ve secretly shopped many of them [I’ve written a bit about this here]. They’re mostly along the lines of: Thank you email [from CEO – reeks of “ivory tower”, rather than beneficiary], a thank you form letter from a Development Director with a low res signature, if you are lucky you might get a scripted thank you call, then a series of onboarding emails that basically say “here’s what WE do” [instead of what YOU the donor are accomplishing], then you’ll get the basic 4/4 colour multi page general welcome letter or package that again doesn’t reference the specific area of the cause that originally inspired you to join – added in this will undoubtebly be some throwaway piece of kitsch [perhaps mission aligned, probably not], then maybe another follow up email or letter asking for a second gift before letting you know what they’ve done with your first gift, then a scripted upgrade call that doesn’t reference the proposition on which you joined the organization, perhaps a pre-printed holiday card, oh wait – before that they’ll cannibalize your relationship by asking for a small gift on #givingtuesday, then an impact or annual report of some sort highlighting the great work THEY do, which is then repeated ad infinitum until they either ignore you or put you in their house file for additional asks in the future. And then we wonder why attrition rates after the first year hover around 40-60%.
  8. You need to start institutionalizing EVERY interaction with a donor as if it were an ask. Audit every single way that a donor might interacted with your organization. From the length of time it takes you to process a donor’s cheque [and correctly database their information accurately] From the ease of finding a contact number on your website to the way your receptionist answers the phone, to how you react to receiving a donor phone call that wasn’t meant for you and transferring it to the ‘correct’ person’s voicemail, if you really practiced the #donorlove jargon that is so prevalent in the online fundraising sphere but not so much in actuality.
  9. Celebrate loyalty. I would be happy to make a bet that almost any medium to large charity could easily name its top 10 biggest major gift donors by name but probably couldn’t name 2 of it’s most loyal, longest giving monthly donors. As mentioned way back on bullet #4, me and my team drafted 20 year donor journeys. The need originally stemmed from an observation that our average monthly donor remained on file for 8.5 years and that the majority of donors fell off [like most organizations] at years 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8.5. Therefore, we tested the idea of introducing unexpected rewards through an well-defined affinity program in order to celebrate ‘gift-aversaries’ whereas we would, among various other strategies, strengthen our communications near those pivotal drop off points by being self-referential to the main acquisition messages and mediums in addition to clearly communicating the progress that THEY’VE created since they’ve decided to make that world a better place THROUGH our organization, as well as, celebrate their loyalty in the hopes of strengthening it at those key critical junctures in order to minimize attrition and re-affirm their post purchase decision – over and over. Just one little way that we are actively amplifying narratives. I’ll report back with key learnings in a post at at later date.
  10. Donors give THROUGH your organization. Your organization is simply a conduit between a donor and their need to change what it is that they can’t accept [ie. your cause]. I wrote a short post about it here – jump to the “Donors don’t give a shit about you. Get over it.” section.
  11. Survey your donors. Identify why they give then segment them accordingly.expectations [of product quality, service, responsiveness, customization, personalization. It sets benchmarks.
  12. Every big charity treats donor reactivation as a numbers game. They outsource their reactivation program to a call centre to keep it at 50% and then go back to treating the donor the same way they did before they left. I’ve written a bit about this here – “Lapsed Donor ≠ End Of Support
  13. Invest in your people. Every big charity speaks about #donorlove but then has donor relations departments that are staffed by individuals who make an extremely minimal amount of money, who burnout quick as they’re hands are tied in bureaucracy and aren’t paid enough to deal with constant complaints all day – so they get lazy. Identify the takers. Get rid of them. Every big charity has people in it that shouldn’t be there. Every employee should be giving to their cause before they ask even 1 donor for money.
  14. Cross-polinate. What are the big dogs doing? What can you incorporate. Set up systems to systematically expose yourself to new ideas – I’ve written a bit about this here “
  15. Acknowledge the sonder and The Six Human Needs You Need Address In Your Donor Communications.

Well, you made it this far!


I’ll end this post with Tim Ferris’ thoughts on owning the category:

 Instead of fixating on the often nebulous “brand,” think of how you can “own a category” in the minds of 1,000 die-hard fans who can then act as your strongest marketing force. If you can’t be No. 1 or No. 2 in a category (“Uber for X,” imported light beer, low-cost airline, whatever), find or create another category.

May you continue to amplify your narratives while cultivating the joy of giving.

If you enjoyed this post you may also like “Take 15 – Maximizing Donor Lifetime Value by Maximizing Your Organization’s Lifetime Value” Here are two excerpts:

  1. What exactly is the lifetime value of your organization? What is the long-term narrative that you are weaving in collaboration with your donors’ express motivations for giving? Are the narratives segmented and personalized based also on where they are in their donor life cycle? What is the evolution, the dramatic structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement, from being a new donor, to 6 months in, at 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, 5, 7, 10+? These years are most likely some of your key attrition intervals – are you ensuring that you are pro-actively strengthening their cause-affiliation at these key drop off dates? When lapsed, have you cared enough to ask your donors for the exact reason that they’ve chosen to no longer support you financially? [Take 15 – Lapsed Donor ≠ End Of Support. 15 Point Checklist For When Donors Cancel Financial Support]
  2. The cliche relationship metaphors are cliche, yes, but there’s a reason the it is invoked so often. There are few relationships that you will have in life that will last as long as you will have with some of your donors. For example, if you have a donor that has given to you for 10 years. How many other relationships [beyond the extremely intimate ones such as marriage or kids] have you had in your life that have lasted that long? Around the world we’ve personally institutionalized the close relationships in our lives, anniversaries and the like, in because we understand the importance of continuously amplifying our personal narratives – yet, why do we not seek to do the same in our donor relationships?

Again, read the full post here

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