The hype over ‘donor journeys’

Published by Sarah Clifton on

‘Donor (or supporter) journeys’ is all the buzz in the nonprofit world, with prominent thinkers peddling the virtues of mapping out the donor experience. But as a fundraiser actually working on the front-line of income generation in a difficult financial climate, I’d like to add a critical voice to the discussion.

journey?First, what do we actually mean by ‘donor journey’?

Hanneke Propitius wrote about this idea back in June:

“Donor journey mapping helps to identify how donors are treated during each contact with your organisation that takes place. From orientation, encounter on the street, becoming a donor, seeing an advertisement on television, the first gift or fill in a form to change your personal information: every moment you can think of….It is a visual representation of the donor experience (just google ‘customer journey mapping’ and you will find lots of useful examples).”

And on an even more recent 101fundraising blog, Tony Elischer praises the ‘journey’ as “a fabulous piece of thinking as it helps charities to see all of their programmes mapped out; how each programme can draw prospects from other programmes, offering donors new propositions, products and gift levels.

Of course the goal is not merely to map the journeys (and therefore better understand the donor interaction via visual representation), but also to manage how donors experience and engage with the organization by planning the journeys – the contact moments and communications necessary to be, as Tony Elischer puts it, a good travel agent.

Let me be clear that I view this framework as an excellent ideal, in theory. But we need to understand what it is, and more important, what it is not. Here are, therefore, some important questions to pose within your fundraising team:

1. Does it work?

And what, specifically, does or doesn’t work? Does a particular communication reduce attrition? Increase the amount that donors give each year? And if so, do you actually need any more than that one communication? Just as in any investment in fundraising, the expected benefits – financial and programmatic – should be well considered before jumping on the bandwagon.

2. What do you actually need?

I challenge a savvy fundraising to go further and ask the question, “what does it actually need to do?” ‘Journeys’ is nothing more than a model, not a goal in and of itself. So strip it down to the critical parts. Do you have trouble retaining new donors? Than focus on your welcome programme. Difficulty upgrading? Then develop a high-value product or offering to entice and motivate donors to give more. Or invest in good major gifts staff that have the time and freedom to build quality relationships with prospects.

And unless you have a lot of personnel and system resources, you can’t do them all at once. So make sure that you are setting clear priorities. Ask yourself what will have the most impact on the bottom line, or on awareness and engagement with the organization’s work and vision.

3. Can it be implemented?

This will be the critical question for most. It’s lovely to have grand plans and big aspirations, but we all know the realities of working in a nonprofit. I would characterize fundraising– and I speak only for myself here – as 50% triage and 50% planning for the future.

Sort out the “triage” bits of your plan and just get them done in the best way you can with what you have to work with now. Then pick out one or two of the other parts that you can realistically work towards for the future and start planning, making sure these don’t fall off the radar.customer journey

4. Are there other, simpler models that get the job done?

On one hand I would say “absolutely, yes.” Thousands of organizations have been fundraising for years with strong annual fund programmes, simple welcome packs, and good relationship managers that know which donors to focus their attention on and how to engage them. Good work and good results should be the basis for good fundraising, not a particular method of communication. (But can we dismiss the importance of good communications to keep donors aware of the good work and the good results? Absolutely not.)

But the flip side is that, through the (attempted) adaptation of new models – no matter the practicality – we move the discussion within the fundraising world about how to better retain and engage donors. When I was coming up in fundraising, RFM – a concept at that time also copied from the commercial world – was holy. Today, while seen by most for its limitations, it remains at the heart of many models. And now the discussion, especially at larger organisations, is moving again toward new learnings taken from commercial world. The infrastructure of nonprofits just hasn’t quite caught up.

Are there any organizations out there that have effectively implemented ‘journeys’? Please, let us hear from you!

Sarah Clifton

Sarah is a Dutch / American fundraiser who has worked for animal protection and human rights organizations for more than 15 years. Since 2015, she heads up the Fundraising department at Save the Children Netherlands. She also (tries to) write occasionally and connect with other fundraisers frequently (especially over a beer).


Brid Hehir · August 29, 2013 at 15:38

I have limited experience as a fundraiser but I have lots of friends who are donors to a variety of causes, and their almost universal complaint about FR orgs is the incessant calls and mailings that they get, ‘pressurising and badgering’ them into increasing the amount they donate. They hate the hard sell and have as a consequence developed really negative views about charity giving. A few have even discontinued donating as a consequence. I understand why charities feel the need to do this but it seems so counter-productive.

    Sarah Clifton · August 29, 2013 at 19:29

    Thanks, Brid. Certainly this donor irritation would be a good argument for at the very least mapping out the donor experience (what they get when) if you are able. Even if you don’t take action, it’s good to have a clear picture. The big question then, naturally, is what are you able to actually *do* with that information. Hopefully at least better understand your donor. Good luck!

Hanneke · September 1, 2013 at 15:26

hi Sarah,

you’re right; never follow a hype just because there is lot of fuss about it. But sometimes a (new) model can help you to see an existing situation from a different perspective. It stimulates to see an issue within the context and without all the assumptions.

And in this era of redefining our relation with donors, it could be useful. Especially if you want to bridge the gap (that exists in some non profit organizations) between marketing/communication and fundraising. But if there is any other tool for this: great, I would love to hear about it on @101fundraising!

    Sarah Clifton · September 1, 2013 at 23:02

    Thanks Hanneke,

    I think looking at donor communications from the donor’s perspective is essential. Whether that is through mapping journeys, mystery shopping, or simply monitoring yourself what you receive as a donor — you have to look at things from a different perspective. Totally agree. What I (and other fundraisers) have struggled with is ‘journeys’ as a model for *implementation* of communications. And in particular communications that go beyond just a welcome programme or a campaign flow to something longer-term. But of course, I’d love to hear from organizations that have made it work. So please, chime up!

Henry Larry · February 14, 2024 at 07:12

The emphasis on donor journeys is commendable but practicality is key. Prioritizing and focusing on impactful strategies like enhancing welcome programs or investing in relationship management can yield better results amid the challenges faced by fundraisers.
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