Donor centricity is easy, but it’s not

Published by Paul Delbar on

It’s really unfair. Like any fundraiser, you’ll eventually discover the concept of donor centricity, just like any marketeer discovers customer experience optimisation. You’ll love the concept, because your gut tells you it’s the Truth. You’ll read all available material to find out how to do it. And then, as soon as you get started, you’ll start facing problems, resistance and obstruction every single step of your donor centricity project. While you’re trying to make things better for everyone. Really, really unfair.

donor-centric-fundraising-01Shifting an organisation towards true donor centricity requires making a fundamental, disruptive change. It’s not a cosmetic, superficial fix to how you write copy, or a matter of more personalisation in your emails. It’s a matter of placing the donor first, even long before they come a donor, and all the way through their lifecycle. It’s very disruptive, because it needs to change the focus of every process, role, task, policy and donor touchpoint to be successful. So if it isn’t painful, you’re probably not doing it right.

Of course, there’s no standard recipe for your particular situation. However, here are a few tricks that may help you stay away from tissues and self-pity as you guide your nonprofit into the Wonderful World of Donor Centricity.

Tip #1: listen to your donors

Even though you feel like that would be opening the gates of Hell, start engaging in a dialogue with your donors. Ask or beg for feedback, and provide a simple way for them to send it to you, whenever they want to (don’t restrict it to a survey you carefully planned, or to a limited set of interactions such as sending a donation receipt). The information you’ll get is likely to be messy and confusing at first, but you’ll soon discover how eagerly donors sill share what they like and hate, and what you could do better. So promote this channel actively, and reward respondents by reacting quickly, eagerly and thoroughly.

In today’s world, you can use an email address and a helpdesk solution to record and measure the stream and make sure you don’t forget to respond. It makes it easier to have multiple people handling the range of different topics that are raised. Also, you’ll record information and categorise issues, providing you with statistically relevant info.

Tip #2: prove that you are really listening

Your organisation already knows what a lot of donors don’t like. That is, your colleagues who actually interact with donors will know. Ask them for the top 3 complaints or issues, and match that with the data coming from your feedback channel. You can even run a poll to find out what they consider most important. Pick one issue to address, look for a solution, implement it and tell your donors they made that happen. Then, pick the next one.

Don’t forget that your donors are equal partners in a donor centricity change, and they need time to adapt to the change as well. You can’t just start behaving like someone’s BFF and expect them to go with that immediately. Remember, they are not used to being the center of your attention. It’s as new for them as it is for you.

Tip #3: pick your battles wisely

12-30__thank_youBy now, your list of ‘things we need to change’ will be growing. Should you prioritise the ones that will make the biggest impact on the donor, or the ones that are the easiest to address – cheaper, faster or with less internal resistance? I suggest you go for the ones that bring you closer to true donor centricity: issue that are tightly linked to the current donor experience. That way, you’ll learn how to look at everything through your donor’s eyes.

A simple example. Let’s say you get a lot of feedback (or unsubscribes) from donors who no longer want to receive your newsletter. A ‘traditional’ response would be to reword the unsubscribe message at the bottom of your emails, provide a better unsubscribe confirmation or be more restrictive in who you send emails. All of these consider the donor as a black box. Instead, ask yourself why people unsubscribe. Even better — ask them. Is the content you offer uninteresting? Is the email channel not their preferred method of communication ? Is the frequency too high? Do they like the new items but hate the constant appeals to give more? Does their email client make the email look unpleasant? How do they want to be kept up to speed? Yes, it may mean you’re adding six more issue to your to-do list. But they will all be relevant to your donor.

Tip #4: don’t forget future donors

Starting the donor journey after a first donation is like waiting to teach your kid good manners until they turn 18. From the donor’s perspective, it starts when they first hear about you. Expand your mental view of the donor funnel all the way to include brand promotion and basic messages. Yes, this means involving everyone from the board down to worker bee, from communications across to fundraising. I told you it was disruptive, right?

‘Can’t we start with successes in fundraising and expand to the marketing side of things later’? Sure, to an extent. But you risk ending up with a donor-centric silo in a traditional nonprofit. For your donor, it would be like going a restaurant with an exceptional dessert experience after a tasteless entree and a mediocre main course. Start. Thinking. Transversal. Start using words like ‘donor experience’ rather than ‘donor journey’.

I invite you all to share your own golden tip on the way to Donor Centricity. Share the one that helped open your colleagues’ eyes and minds to its power, and that made a real difference in how your donors feel about your organisation.


Paul Delbar

Paul Delbar’s journey into fundraising started with the creation of Belgium’s first online giving platform ikwilhelpen.be. For 10 years, he worked for large and small nonprofits, advising them on online communication and fundraising tools and strategies. Since 2014, he is a fundraising manager for an innovative nonprofit with a global audience.


Pamela Grow · February 25, 2016 at 14:39

I love this post, Paul. Thank you for writing it. This is the very focus of my work and I firmly believe that once an organization ‘gets it’ – from the CEO to the board and staff – fundraising flows.

Donor-centricity isn’t an afterthought or a nonprofit marketing concept, it’s a culture, one that needs to be embraced organization-wide. You don’t ‘try’ throwing a few extra ‘you’s’ in your copy. Listen to your donors, yes. Do you also have a donor on your board? Do you routinely share your donors’ stories on your site, in your marketing materials? Is your donor retention rate always front and center?

    Paul Delbar · February 25, 2016 at 14:42

    Thanks Pamela — you’re right about the culture aspect. We cannot delegate listening to donors to an individual and be done with it. It has to be pervasive.

claire axelrad · March 2, 2016 at 08:34

One thing that helped me was when my E.D. began calling me the “Director of Donor Experiences.” She did this in front of other staff and even in front of the board. It wasn’t a formal title, but it got the message across.

    Paul Delbar · March 2, 2016 at 09:15

    Claire, that was a bold move! What reactions did you get from coworkers and from board members?

D Pires · March 10, 2016 at 20:56

The missing and misspelled words in you article caught my eye more than your message did.

    Paul Delbar · March 10, 2016 at 20:58

    Apologies D, you’ve caught me. It was a clever ploy to attract more readers. And it appears to be contagious too.

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