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What Does It Really Mean To Be An Engaged Donor?

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This blog post first appeared on PhilanTopic.

I interview donors, young and old, all the time to learn why they support and give to the causes that are dear to them. One question in particular generates interesting responses every time I ask it:

How Involved Are Your Donors?

How involved are you with the organizations you support?

You might expect responses to that question to be pretty similar, and in fact I've found that they generally fall into one of three categories:

Response #1: I am fairly involved in the organizations I support and closely follow what they're up to on social media and through their newsletters.

Response #2: I am very involved with the organizations I support and try to help out as a volunteer at least once a month.

Response #3: I am heavily involved with the organizations I support and make a point of attending their annual galas and writing big checks.

What's the common thread here? The donors all believe they are actively engaged with the organizations they support. The sad reality, however, is that the organizations themselves probably see many of those donors as disengaged.

My conversation with donors and fundraising executives over the years merely confirms that view.

Why is that?

How Fundraisers Perceive Donors

It's an interesting question, and I believe the answer has a lot to do with fundraisers' perception of their donors.

I recently had the chance to bring in and talk with fundraisers at five different organizations with which my firm works. Once they were settled, I asked each of them to answer the question: What does it mean to be an engaged donor? Here's what they said:

 Fundraiser #1: "An engaged donor is someone who gives more than once a year, attends an event, and visits headquarters occasionally."

Fundraiser #2: "An engaged donor promotes our work to others, gives regularly, and contributes to making the organization stronger through her advice and counsel."

Fundraiser #3: "An engaged donor is a donor who reads our information, attends events, and gives something every year."

Fundraiser #4: "An engaged donor gives commensurately to their means and encourages others in their networks to give through their example and involvement at events."

Fundraiser #5: "An engaged donor is willing to volunteer, serve, and help the organization regularly throughout the year."

All great answers, right? But do they reflect reality? Do donors like this actually exist?

So I asked the group another question: How many of your donors would qualify as "engaged" based on the definition you just shared?

Not surprisingly, all five of the fundraisers present said that only a small number of their donors actually meet their own definition of "engaged."

So what does that mean?

It means we have a pretty big disconnect between what we would like our donors to be and do and what they're willing to be and do.

Which begs the question: Why do so many organizations feel they have to create programs for their donors that demand a higher level of engagement. And to what end? Isn't it enough that most donors already think of themselves as supporters of your organization?

In other words, many organizations are over-communicating and trying too hard to move donors to a level of engagement that donors themselves are uninterested in. Those organizations need to be reminded that, when it comes to donor engagement, as in life, less is often more.

Simple Rules For Donor Engagement

To help you stay focused on that guiding principle, here are a few simple rules you might want to keep in mind:

Donors, not your organization, should decide how much donor engagement is enough. Allow your donors to choose the level of involvement they want to have with your organization – and to be comfortable in their decision, regardless of what they decide. Be sure to set up post-gift calls as a way to establish an ongoing conversation with your individual donors and use those calls to better understand the involvement each of your donors wants to have with your organization going forward.

Donors want to hear more from your organization than just a call to action. It’s true. Donors want to think they are more than just a source of money or time. They want to hear what you are doing to address the issue that caused them to be interested in your organization in the first place, the ways in which their gifts are being used, and the stories of the people who are being served. Only asking a donor for time or money eventually will turn them off and cool her interest in your work.

Communication is not donor engagement; it's a form of donor engagement. Newsletters, action alerts, and other communications vehicles are an aspect of donor engagement, but they don't define it. Yes, you need to create relationships with your donors in which communication is used to inspire, inform, and motivate them, but the real work of engagement happens on a more personal, high-touch level.

Create categories of support/engagement and donor "personas" to go with them. One thing you can do that doesn't cost a lot of money and may be helpful is to map out your relationships with your donors – the frequency of their communication with your organization, the size of their gifts and frequency of their giving, their level of volunteerism and event participation, and so on.

Next, try to group that activity into different support/engagement categories – high, average, low, etc. – and see if you can identify a generalized donor persona for each category – i.e., what they want, what they don't want, what they expect, and so on. Don't worry if most of your donors would rather not be actively involved with your organization all the time. Do try to learn what they want – and may be willing to do beyond that – and then do your best to give it to them.

It's rather simple, actually. You need to accept the fact that your donors have given some thought to the kind and amount of support they are willing to provide your organization – and then figure out which of them might be coaxed into doing more and which of them are comfortable, for the time being, at their existing level of engagement. If you can do that, more of your donors will be happy, you and your colleagues will be happier, and your organization's future will look a lot brighter.


Are you ready to craft a memorable campaign that will stand out and engage your wealthy donors year after year? Join us for Foundation Center’s webinar, "Retaining Wealthy Donors: Veteran Development Officers Share Their Tips" on Tuesday, July 26 from 2pm-3pm ET.  


Image of Derrick Feldmann

DERRICK FELDMANN is the president of Achieve, a research and creative agency for causes. In addition, he leads a national research team for the Millennial Impact Project, the premier study dedicated to millennials and how they engage with cause work, and is the co-author of Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement. In his last post, he explored the importance of taking your donors on a journey.

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