Donor experience: Are we doing it all wrong?

It’s just one month until the IOF Convention, and I’m looking forward to some exciting sessions this year on an increasingly important topic.

If we look at the most commonly used phrases in our sector at the moment, I’d hazard a guess that ‘donor experience’ must come a very close second to ‘GDPR’. We’ve had the Commission on the Donor Experience, we’ve got a new IoF Donor Experience Special Interest Group setting up the Donor Experience Project, we have donor experience teams and ‘donor experience’ is appearing in more and more job descriptions.

And, excitingly, we have included a number of sessions focusing on individual giving and the donor experience at Fundraising Convention this year. As a member of the Convention Board, and part of the team that has put together the Individual Giving track, I am excited by these sessions, and that we are curating a ‘Donor Experience journey‘ through the convention sessions that will allow you to identify the most relevant ones to go to – from advice on creating multi-year, multi-channel fundraising campaigns to a global view of mid-value giving or how to harness the power of community when talking to audiences connected to your cause there are many different angles of donor experience to explore. Academics will take you through social psychology principles in Relationship Fundraising 3.0 and how to write a better thank you.

But first, it’s worth taking a look at what we mean by ‘donor experience’ – how important is it; and, crucially, are we doing it right?

It’s this last question that I’ll be focusing on in my session, How to Get Your Whole Organisation Behind Delivering Great Experiences. While it is great that we’re taking this subject seriously, I see common mistakes. I’ll cover several of these, but there are two things I’d like to point out now that I think we’re getting badly wrong:


We spend too much time eliminating negative experiences

Does that sound odd? Surely we don’t want to give our donors a bad experience? Surely that’s what caused the problems in the first place?

Of course, that’s right. And we should certainly try to get things right – it’s right that we spell the donor’s name right; use tactics that don’t unduly pressurise the donor; and spot when a donor is vulnerable and support them rather than exploit them.

But we need to recognise that these are simply satisfiers – noticed when you get it wrong, but expected (and therefore unnoticed) when you get it right.

It is moments that surprise and delight donors that they remember, that they talk about and that build the most valuable commodity of all, donor commitment.

It’s the hand-written note from the CEO that simply says thank you and that we’ve noticed your long-term support; it’s the private message to the donor that says what a difference they’ve made; it’s the book of stories from the children the donor’s donations have helped. At Cascaid, we used to call it ‘magic’.

We spend far too long worrying about the things that donors will never notice, ensuring the experience of giving to us is no worse than (and therefore the same as) giving to everyone else. And too little trying to create magic.


We measure the wrong things

The second common mistake I see is that we measure the wrong things. Or, more to the point, we don’t measure the most important things.

Peter Drucker famously said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”. If we want to improve the donor’s experience then we need to measure it. And that means measuring how they feel about giving to us.

Yes, there’s a cost involved. Yes, it will take up time. Yes, it’s scary. But if you’re serious about wanting to improve the donor’s experience, you’ll want to know how they feel.

Many of you will know that I set up About Loyalty, which offers charities a quick and simple way to measure the commitment, satisfaction, trust and emotional loyalty of their donors and, importantly, benchmark them against other participating charities to evaluate their own performance. Our research shows that higher scores in these areas lead to greater retention of donors, and a quantifiable increase in repeat giving. (A copy of the report can be requested here.)

This is just one option – you can create your own donor satisfaction scores, use the simple Net Promoter Score or even do as the NSPCC did and create your own ‘donor happiness‘ index. I wrote about these in the Commission on the Donor Experience Project on Measuring Satisfaction and Commitment.

Whatever route you choose, the single most important step you can take in improving your donor’s experience is to measure something. The moment you start to measure something you change it, and it changes you. So choosing any one of these measures will change the way you behave, the way you understand your donors and the way you plan your fundraising.

Measure it. Something. Anything! And report it just as widely as you do your financial results.


These are just two of the things that I see us getting wrong. In my session, I’ll go through others, the research behind them and some tips for getting it right.

And yes, we’ll be asking you how you feel about the session when you finish. So I’ll definitely spend a bit of time thinking about how to include a little bit of magic too that you still want to talk about it in years to come.


This post is also being published on the Institute of Fundraising’s site today.

Newsletters – was I wrong?


A couple of weeks ago I blogged about how poor I think charity newsletters are and how I’d like to see the end of them. A lot of people have told me they agree with me (whilst still producing their next newsletters!) which is always nice. But I am most grateful to one person who was keen to disagree, which is great.

I received a tweet from Denisa Casement, Head of Fundraising at Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI). In this tweet she shared her results which are, frankly, brilliant. One newsletter had raised €92,000 from just 8,500 donors. That’s nearly €11 for every person mailed!

Intrigued, I asked to see a copy of this newsletter which arrived very promptly in my post.

At first glance, the newsletter is nothing special. It’s not glossy, is only 4 or 6 pages long and doesn’t have masses of striking images.

What it does have, in bucket-loads is authenticity. The design is simple, and in keeping with the idea that this is a local charity who just get on with the life-changing work every day. And it has stories – of project workers, of clients and of volunteers. I was particularly touched by Davey Page, a Project Worker, sharing his experiences in one newsletter and then saddened to learn that he had passed away in the next.

But what strikes me more than anything is the way it says thank you. Over and over again. Every article talks about something real and tangible that MQI has done from building a new building to opening a new kitchen or opening a new Centre. And they thank me for my donations, because this is what they have been spent on.

I could talk here about how having clear objectives and obviously writing for a very specific audience pays off, but I don’t think that is the reason they work.

What comes across is the passion that Denisa obvious feels towards the work of the charity and, especially, towards her donors. It is this passion that drives the newsletters and, I suspect, drives all communications. She also told me that they have increased their donor file by 50% in the last three years, so it’s not just the newsletters that work!

So do I think I was wrong about the newsletter? To be honest, I’m not fully convinced. MQI has proved that they can be done well, but I still believe that more often than not they aren’t. In most of the donor research I’ve conducted, donors aren’t very excited by them and neither, in my experience, are many fundraisers.

I like what MQI have done and I’m impressed by what they achieve. I hope it lasts and that they continue to build the stories, the passion and the thanks into the newsletters and that no-one gets bored of them.

But I also have this nagging question at the back of my mind that wonders if creating a one-off piece of magic once in a while might pay back more. Am I wrong?

Is it time to ditch the newsletter?


Think about it. When was the last time you received a charity newsletter that really excited you? One that you couldn’t wait to open; one that you read from cover to cover; or one that you showed to someone else?

No, I can’t remember that far back either.

Now I want you to be really honest. Does your charity’s newsletter make you want to open it and to read it? Will it really inspire a donor and make them feel great? Does it send shivers down the back of your neck? Or does it simply bring you out in a cold sweat?

You’re not alone!

Let’s face it, newsletters are boring. But they shouldn’t be. We have the most powerful stories, incredible images, we can tell people about lives we’re saving, cruelty we’re stopping and the support we’re giving.

Newsletters that I've never got round to opening

Why do we get it so wrong? Here are the main reasons that I see.

No clear objectives: The point of a newsletter is to inspire your donors. It might have a fundraising target against it, or it may be intended to increase future income – either way, it’s about money. Too often charities want to ‘educate’ the donor or to introduce them to all the other bits of work that the charity thinks is really important, but that the donor won’t.

No targeting: Too many newsletters are corporate mouthpieces, designed for everyone from the Chairman’s wife, to a minister in Westminster, to an employee at one of your corporate partners, to a service user. If you’re lucky your donors might make the list, but they’ll be somewhere towards the bottom.

Produced by your Publications Team: Probably the biggest culprit of all, your newsletter is produced by the Publications Team. You know, the same people who don’t like your appeals because “they’re full of emotional clap-trap and oversimplify what is actually a rather complex problem – wouldn’t it be great if we could educate them”.

They aren’t edited: I know, they will all have an Editor, but a vital part of an Editor’s job is to say no to people who want their bit of the organisation to be included “because it’s really important”. This is the same problem many websites suffer from.

Not topical: the clue is in the name – newsletter. How can it be news if the lead time means it’s got to be produced three months before it goes out? I’m getting newsletters from international aid charities that don’t even mention Syria!

Badly researched: A survey included in a the middle of a newsletter that asks people if they read it isn’t research. If it’s included in a newsletter the people who read it are the only people who’ll respond! And don’t ask people if they read it, they’ll say yes – ask them what they remember.

You’re bored: Another biggy – I’ve seen it so many times. The charity redesigns its newsletter (based on the same research I mentioned above, of course). Everyone is excited about the first issue, there are lots of great stories to select from, it’s fresh and packs a punch. Issue two comes along, and the excitement has worn off. You get some decent stories, and manage to fill the rest. Phew! By issue three it’s a chore. “Oh no, I’ve got to get a newsletter out in September, where will I find a decent story, everyone’s too busy to help me.” If you’re bored and think it’s a chore, what do you think the effect on your donors will be?

You can solve some of this by addressing the above points:

  • Set a clear objective to inspire and excite donors.
  • Write for your donors
  • Let your fundraisers create it – you know, those people that know your donors best, know what interests them and know how to write for them.
  • Edit it. Ruthlessly! As much as you would an appeal letter
  • Cut down the lead times so that you can be topical. Talk about things that are going on today and give real feedback on recent appeals.

But I have a more radical suggestion. Ditch the newsletter.

Look again at the list about – it’s no accident that I started with setting a clear objective. If the objective is to ‘inspire and excite donors’ then think again.

A few years ago I worked with the NSPCC and their Stewardship team. Their budgets looked a little different to most. Oh yes, they had points in the year when they scheduled in to feed back to donors, but the budget line didn’t say ‘newsletter’ it said ‘magic’. At these points of the year, we and they sat down and came up with an idea to use that point in the calendar to send something unique to donors to really inspire them.

They had already created their ‘Little Book of Change’ (which you can see here on SOFII). After that they created a photo album with stories of the children they’d helped. Another time they sent a simple letter from a ChildLine counsellor talking about a call they had taken and the difference they had made all because, she knew, of donations from ‘people like you’.

Some of these were quick and easy, others took a lot of time to put together. All of them were personal, emotive and geared towards exceeding the donors’ expectations. And they all touched the donors in a way that a newsletter never could.

St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK) did a similar thing by always theming their news around an anniversary. I remember creating a magazine that celebrated the 60th anniversary of D-Day that received more positive comments and more donations than any newsletter I’ve ever been involved with because it was interesting and relevant for their donors and talked about what the donors were interested in rather than what the charity wanted to say.

So please, ditch the dry, corporate mouthpiece that you’re bored of already, and use the time and money to create magic for your donors. Don’t they deserve it?

PS If you have any examples of a great newsletter, I’d love to hear what makes it different.

PPS I’m not holding my breath.