How to be relevant to your donors

Published by Charlie Hulme on

Six major international development charities were asked a very simple question; “what’s the reason donor’s support you and not your competitors?” Each gave their answer. A cross section of their donors was asked a similar question; “what’s the reason you give to this charity and not the others?”

Not once did the answer the charities gave match the answer their donors gave!

Each organization fundraises for their mission believing they’re one thing. But in the minds of the people paying for that mission they’re something completely different. They could all merge and nobody would blink.

You can easily check how you compare. Just ask your telephone agency to record the number of upgrade calls where the donor doesn’t know they support you. Or the number of reactivation calls where donors have no memory of supporting. The number will be embarrassingly high!

We talk in terms of ‘our donors’. But you’ll rarely hear one who talks of us in the same way.

How can this be? The answers simple; we know what we want from donors, but we don’t know what they want from us. The fix is also simple; ask. Using commitment modelling you can determine precisely how each ‘experience’ you create contributes to lifetime value. One of those experiences is core message; the things we communicate about.

One size fits allEven the smallest charity has a number of ‘messages’. It isn’t a wild assumption to say some matter more to donors than others. But which do and which don’t? And what if some matter to some and not to others?

We don’t ask, so we don’t know. Instead we deliver a one size fits all which fits no one well. 

It’s an absolute certainty you have invisible groups on your file with very different needs and preferences. All you know is their transactional history and demographic profile. So don’t know who these groups are or what they want.

In some cases what we do (not who we are!) will be core to a supporter’s sense of identity. In others we’re a ‘nice to have’; they get that what we do (again, not who we are!!!) is important, but then so are a lot of other things.

Let’s say you’re a health charity. Isn’t it a fairly safe bet to assume those with an immediate connection, i.e. those who’ve been personally affected, will have a very different set of needs and preferences than those who haven’t? And wouldn’t it be the staggering height of insensitivity to tell the person who’s lived that experience the ‘story’ of someone else’s?

How many health charities know about their donor’s connection to the disease? How many animal charities know which of their supporters own a pet? How many child welfare charities know which of their supporters have children? How many veterans’ charities know which of their supporters served, or have loved ones who did? Etc.

Charities always answer this question in a vague way, mumbling something about “…assuming there’s a high incidence”. But when you get specific the results are remarkable.

One health charity quadrupled telephone income simply by opening the call with a question to identify each supporter’s connection to the cause. Fundraisers routed the call based on the supporter’s experience, rather than an organizationally pre-determined one. Frankly this is intuitively obvious. It says so much about our attitude towards donors that we don’t bother do it.

You’re already labelling people based on transactional and/or demographic information. Why not try labelling them based on relevance?

It’s not a complex process. First identify the groups on your file. Second identify through commitment modelling what matters to each group. Thirdly deliver that.

How? It’s child’s play. Take a look at this simple scorecard. These are the seven core messages of a well-known conservation charity. These are the identifiable reasons donors support them. None of these messages came as a surprise to this charity; they knew they were about these seven things. The trouble is these were getting lost amongst the many, many other messages they put out.

Scorecard AudubonIn this scorecard we’re evaluating a mail pack, but it could be anything. It’s not there to evaluate storytelling, design, layout or any other tactical tweak. Rather it’s job is to guarantee relevance. Each component of the pack is listed; envelope, letter, reply form etc. All we need to do is tick or cross whether each piece of the pack is doing its job. So here we can see three quarters of the message that needs to be got across on the envelope outer isn’t there. Why would anyone open it? If they did open it, more than half the message that needs to be delivered in the letter isn’t there (but plenty that shouldn’t be is).

When the letter was reworked according to donor preference net profitability rose by 216%!

Retention isn’t ever going to happen by deploying a series of tactical tag on’s to the existing programme in the hope something changes a year or two down the line. It’s about doing a good job today so they stick around tomorrow. No amount of creative technique can compensate for relevance.

Charlie Hulme

Charlie Hulme

Charlie is MD of Donor Voice. He helps charities uncover what, of all the things they do, cause relationship strength and what is harmful. Partners see a massive improvement in performance, value and retention. Voted top speaker at the Institute of Fundraising's National Convention in 2013, he writes frequently for SOFII, 101 Fundraising, the Institute of Fundraising and many others.


Annie Ekeze · June 2, 2015 at 23:02

I agree that there should be a small relationship of relevance built between donors and the charity. Personally, I am a volunteer for a nonprofit charity, http://www.charityboats.org , that helps families and individuals in need during these rough economic times, and we help with a wide spectrum of things such as medical assistance or providing families with a vehicle for transportation. But all in all, building a connection does make a difference. When I talk with our donors about their generous contributions I often hear a story behind their donation, or at least get an idea as to why they’re donating. Whether they are donating to get rid of their item or because they have a deep connection with the cause, all donors are proud of their contributions to charity. Overall, a good relationship must maintain between volunteers, donors, the charity, and the recipients of assistance.

Timothy L. Smith · September 10, 2015 at 19:55

Really enjoyed your blog Charlie. I’m definitely big on the idea of crafting each donor connection to fit them personally. Ultimately it’s a matter of doing the hard work of getting to genuinely know your donor, and then actually honoring their needs and interests.

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Agar io · June 15, 2024 at 09:02

The disconnect between international development charities and their donors highlights the importance of understanding donor motivations and aligning organizational messaging to foster stronger relationships and increase lifetime value.

One-Size Rarely Fits All | Compel Academy · December 15, 2015 at 16:25

[…] recently posted a blog entitled “How to be relevant to your donors” the author asked six international charities a very simple question “What’s the reason […]

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