De-Mystifying Donor Engagement Strategies

De-Mystifying Donor Engagement Strategies: What Makes Them Effective and How to Create Your Own.
Winter 2018 by Jennifer Weber, M. Ed., CFRE

Donor Engagement

One of the first questions I ask my non-profit clients who want to strengthen their major gift program is this: “Tell me about your current donor engagement strategies? What do you offer your donors in terms of meaningful experiences to inspire them to increase their giving?” I ask this question because I want to know what the organization is doing (outside of their annual event) to deepen people’s understanding of and connection to the mission and move them along the path of increased commitment. The answer I hear most often is “Well, we invite our donors to coffee or lunch to get to know them.” It’s surprising but true, the proverbial coffee meeting is often the only time when many non-profit leaders are interacting with their donors, outside of a large event.

A coffee meeting with your donors is certainly a nice thing to do, but it is not an effective engagement strategy. It doesn’t give the donor a direct experience with your mission and rarely moves them to consider making a major gift. In this article, I’ll explain the hallmarks of effective donor engagement strategies and share 4 examples of powerful strategies from real organizations. I’ll also give you 5 things to consider as you create your own strategies.



Hallmarks of Effective Donor Engagement Strategies 

Imagine this. You’ve just held your annual signature event and brought 500 people together in one room to hear about the life-changing work of your organization and invite people to make a gift. Your event was inspiring, mission-centered, and wildly successful! Now what? How do you engage a subset of your event attendees who have the potential to give more and become major contributors and champions for your cause? The key is to create compelling and creative donor engagement strategies that will speak to the donors’ heart, mind, and soul and build momentum in their relationship with your organization.

Here is a framework to help you think about what makes for an outstanding donor engagement strategy. You may not always have all of these elements in the strategy you create, but you should strive to have most of them.

1. Showcase your mission-in-action
The number one criteria for an effective engagement strategy is to show donors your mission in action. You want your donors to have a powerful and memorable experience, where they leave having seen, felt, and heard your mission in action. Ideally, they are observing, participating, or having a hands-on experience in some meaningful way. The goal is to strengthen the donor’s understanding of your organization, why it exists and its impact in the community.

2. Include a de-brief with a meaningful exchange
The second criteria is to build in some time for the donor to process what they’ve just observed or experienced. In other words, you’re not just giving a presentation about your work in the community. You’re engaging in a conversation, a dialogue, a mutual sharing. The most valuable part of any donor engagement strategy is learning about what matters to the donor. In the relationship building process, you’re undergoing a process of discovering shared values and shared vision. Your goal is to learn what inspires, concerns, excites, and interests your contributors. After they’ve had an experience of seeing your mission-in-action, create time, even if it’s just 20 minutes, to talk about it. Pose a few questions to them and listen carefully to what questions they ask of you. This exchange will unveil a lot about the donor’s thinking and will help shape your next steps with them.

3. Show donors the impact of their gifts 
The third criteria is to show donors the impact of their gifts. They need to connect the dots and understand the effect of their giving. They need to understand the role that philanthropy plays in your service to the community. How are you putting their gift to work? What is happening that could not happen without their financial support? Do you want them to see the impact of specific program or project? Or do you want to showcase the power of unrestricted gifts, which allow you to be flexible and responsive to changing community needs? You want donors to leave feeling a great deal of pride and confidence in their philanthropic investment and how it is being used for good.

4. Foster trust in top leadership
The forth criteria is that donors have an opportunity to interact personally with key leaders in the organization. In order for donors to give major gifts, they need to trust those who are positioned to deliver on the promise of the mission. Donors need to have confidence and faith in the Executive Director, CEO, Program Director, and other key staff leaders. Creating an experience where the donors get to interact with and build trust with these people is a key part of any effective major donor engagement strategy. This is why these engagement strategies are designed for smaller, more intimate groups. You cannot build the same level of trust in a room full of 100 people, the way you can with 10-12 people around a table. When you invite people to participate in these engagement strategies, be sure to segment your donor list thoughtfully and invite small groups at a time (rather than inviting everyone in your database every time). The smaller groups provide an intimate setting, where donors can build trust with organizational leaders and ask meaningful questions that will inspire transformational giving.



Example Engagement Strategies

Now that you know the criteria for effective donor engagement strategies, I want to give you some specific examples from organizations that are doing this particularly well. Here are four real donor engagement strategies that I’ve seen personally and that are achieving outstanding results. Board Members and donors alike, say these experiences have deepened their understanding of the mission, given them great confidence in their giving, and inspired them to do more with their gifts of time, talent, and treasure.

Example #1
The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP)

NWIRP is an amazing organization that keeps families together, protects people from violence and stands up to injustice. They defend and advance the rights of immigrants by providing direct legal services to families, as well as advocacy, and community education.

Engagement Strategy: Visiting Immigration Court
Once a month, NWIRP offers a small group of major donors the opportunity to go into Immigration Court with one of NWIRP’s skilled staff attorneys who is representing a client. The donors observe the court proceedings and witness the different outcomes between an immigrant who receives legal advice and representation in court (from NWIRP) and someone who does not. Those without any legal aid are left to navigate the complexity of the immigration system alone. The difference can be life changing. These experiences are often deeply moving and eye-opening for donors. They often have many questions and the de-briefing time is vital after the court visitation. This all takes place in the span of about 90 minutes and has been a highly effective way for donors to see NWIRP’s mission in action for immigrant justice.

Example #2
Camp Fire Central Puget Sound
is a beloved organization that provides a broad range of outdoor education experiences to inspire young people of all backgrounds and abilities to develop leadership skills, experience the natural world, and discover their unique talents and self confidence.

Engagement Strategy: Day Camp Tours with Lunch and Conversations
Summer is a busy time for Camp Fire, with thousands of children and families attending camp. This is also the peak time for donors to see the impact of their support. Camp Fire raises money for Camperships (like scholarships) every year to make summer camp experiences accessible for children, regardless of their financial circumstances. During the summer, Camp Fire invites small groups of donors to tour their day camp. This tour includes 3 key components: a chance to observe and talk with the kids about what the camp experience means to them, time with the camp counselors to hear about the programs and the impact of kids, and time over lunch with the Executive Director to talk about the future of Camp Fire and the role of donor support. Many donors attended Camp Fire themselves when they were young, so they have fond memories of their experience. A big part of this engagement strategy is asking donors to share their most special memory of their time with Camp Fire. In sharing those stories, donors naturally want other kids to have those affirming experiences as well.

Example #3 
Year Up Puget Sound works with disadvantaged young adults in urban areas and empowers them on a path to success by providing marketable job skills, personal development, internships, and college credits.

Engagement Strategy: Networking Night
Year Up has created a highly successful engagement strategy that allows a group of donors to interact directly with the impressive young adults participating in the Year Up program. Individual donors, corporate supporters and board members are invited to a dynamic Mock Networking Night where students get to practice their newly developed networking skills with key business leaders in the community. Students have an opportunity to practice the art of a professional introduction and get candid feedback. Donors and corporate supporters get to have an in-person experience with the students and get to know more about their professional interests and pursuits. It’s a win-win all around. For donors, they are having a personal experience with the students, seeing the mission-in action. For students, the experience is empowering, builds confidence and helps them build their skills. In this example, executing on a core part of the mission is built into the engagement strategy itself.

Example #4
Bellingham Food Bank
believes hunger is unacceptable, so they work to make sure that hungry families in their community have access to fresh food with dignity, respect, and care.

Engagement Strategy: Breakfast at the Bank
The Bellingham Food Bank wanted to create a way for donors to be in community with each other and learn about food insecurity and hunger issues that their neighbors are facing. Every month, the Food Bank holds a monthly breakfast for 8-10 donors, called Breakfast at the Bank. This 90-minute gathering opens with some personal sharing from each person about why they support the Food Bank, then the Executive Director shares some powerful stories about the clients the Food Bank serves and talks about the incredible volunteers that are the heart and soul of the mission. This is followed by a discussion about hunger issues and food insecurity in the community and the unique approach Bellingham Food Bank is taking. (They have created some amazing partnerships with farmers to ensure that neighbors have fresh food and can choose what they need and want for their families). After breakfast, donors get a tour of the Food Bank and see the impact of their gifts to ensure that no one in their community goes hungry. Donors leave feeling a deep sense of connection with the people they met and are inspired by the scope and impact of the organization.



Important Considerations for Creating Your Own Engagement Strategies

Now that you’ve seen some examples of outstanding donor engagement strategies, it’s time to start creating your own for your donors and potential donors. It’s important to remember that these strategies are a step along the path to invite them to increase their gift so that your organization can do even more to meet the needs in the community.

1. Mission Driven: Make it UNIQUE to your organization
As you can see in the above examples, each strategy is specific to the organization’s mission and showcases how the organization is meeting a critical need. As you think about your engagement strategies, be creative! You can’t replicate another organization’s strategy. You have a unique story to share and you need to come up with a unique way to convey it to donors.

2. Keep it simple: Ease of execution
Ideally, your engagement strategies will be things you can replicate on a monthly basis, at least. So you’ll want to make sure that they are easy to execute. Don’t over-think it. If it’s too complicated, you won’t do it.

3. Low Cost
These experiences don’t need to be expensive. Light refreshments are likely all you’ll need. Again, you should be doing these often, so think about your budget in terms of at least 12 meaningful engagement strategies (one per month).

4. Scalable as your major donor base grows
Your strategies should be scalable as your major donor base grows. The more donors you engage the more money you’ll raise. So keep this in mind as you create your strategies. When I say scalable, I’m not talking about creating larger engagement experiences. You still need to keep them small enough to be intimate, but you can offer the experiences more often. For example, you might go from hosting one lunch-tour a month with 6-10 donors, to hosting 2 or 3 lunch-tours a month, thereby engaging up to 30 major donors a month. You may have the occasional special one-off experience for donors that can’t be scaled, but on balance you want to have something that is simple and flexible in the design so that it can adapt and grow as your donor base grows.

5. Your Board Goes First!
Finally, I recommend that the first group of donors to experience your new engagement strategies be your Board Members. I’m constantly amazed at how many Board Members hunger for an experience that puts them more in touch with the mission. In each of the above examples, the Board Members were the first to participate in these experiences. Some of them had never done it before and said it was one of the most meaningful things they did as board members. It also give the board members confidence that if they invite people from their network to do this, that it will be a great experience.

The success of your major gift program depends on your ability to connect with donors in powerful, memorable and authentic ways. You can now begin to create engagement experiences that bring your mission to life and give donors a chance to see how important their partnership is to advancing your mission in the community. These experiences create the depth of relationship needed to inspire donors to increase their giving. However, inspiration is not always sufficient. Many people still need an authentic and direct invitation to give. Engagement strategies create this pathway, allowing us to naturally extend an invitation to people to partner more deeply and direct the flow of their financial gifts to create a more just, healthy, beautiful, equitable, and peaceful world.

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