Give donors the respect they deserve

Published by Reinier Spruit on

Many fundraisers are aware of relationship fundraising. Ken Burnett’s famous book Relationship Fundraising has opened many eyes over the last 25 years. There aren’t many fundraisers who haven’t read this book. However, its vision and core message have never been fully implemented in our sector.

The central theme in Burnett’s work is that as fundraisers we should make decisions based on the donor experience. In our fundraising we need to do everything to put the donor at the centre of our thinking. The aim of this is to create a long-lasting relationship: as long as possible. After all, a long-term relationship has a direct effect on the income we desperately need to reach our goals.

Often I think ‘relationship’ is a somewhat exaggerated description of what we have with our donors. In most cases we’re only a small part of our donor’s lives. But that doesn’t mean we need to aim for a fully-fledged relationship. A healthy relationship implies there is mutual respect. That we listen to each other and take each other’s wishes into account. By using and applying the relationship metaphor, we’re raising the bar many times higher compared to what we’re doing right now.

The reality of a donor is: too often forgotten, not enough respected, too often asked, not loved enough, approached too often, not recognized enough and often never even thanked. The good work of our causes can only be done because of our donors. Once we lose track of that notion it goes wrong. Horribly wrong:

A request for a donation is included at every opportunity, even to regular donors. Newsletters should be inspirational communications to donors and they are getting thinner and scarcer. Board members look no further than their term of office. Thank you programs are almost non-existent. CEOs never talk to donors. Lots of fundraisers don’t even talk to donors! Long-term targets are completely absent. And annual targets are chased at the expense of longer-term revenues. Supporter journeys are limited to repetitive annual cycles with no respect for length of the donor relationship. Welcome programs are boring. Upgrade programs are too aggressive and frequent. Retention reports and other quality indicators are missing. Measurement of key metrics and understanding the effects of our actions is simply not happening. Most systems we’re using are not even able to support our work even if we wanted to. And did I mention that donors are not thanked enough??

This is our “business as usual” and because of this we’ve alienated our donors. We’ve forgotten that we need donors. It’s very simple: without donors, no charity. The lack of a long-term strategy to keep donors as long as possible is a mystery to me and extremely unwise.

I think our bad practice is directly linked to our reluctance to invest. The more we spend on fundraising, the less we can spend on our activities bettering the world. This attitude makes us want to save money on everything. Including the experiences we’re giving to our donors. Lots of fundraisers find it unnatural to spend money on something that does not appear to give a direct return on their investments; certainly in the short-term.

If we spend more time, energy and money on the creation of the best experiences for our donors, then they’ll stay longer with us and we’ll raise more funds. And I can assure you that your income increases more than your expenditure. Let’s check out a case study:


Some years ago Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland raised restricted income for victims of the floods in the Philippines. They ended up raising more than they needed, only discovering this approximately eight months later.

At this point, they decided to do something different. They decided to phone their donors to thank them, explain the situation, and ask if they could use the funds elsewhere. After all, there were plenty of other crisis situations around the world, e.g. the ebola-crisis that could benefit from their generous donations.

Of the nearly 6,000 donors they managed to contact, 94% responded positively, 5% did not wanted to engage in a conversation, 1% wanted to re-direct their funds towards the ebola-crisis. Only 15 donors wanted their money back. 0.25%.

Robert Jan Oosterhaven, at that time Coordinator Private Fundraising for MSF Holland:

“The response on the phone call was very positive. Many people did not perceive their donation as earmarked. Almost everyone thought that using these funds for other projects was a non-issue. Naturally” was the most heard word in these conversations. It showed a great deal of trust in MSF.

Like many loyalty campaigns this campaign was also not set up to be measured and analysed in detail. However, analysis afterwards showed that donors that were reached through this phone campaign showed a significant higher income per donor (+20%) in the 18 months after the campaign than donors that were not reached.


If we want to secure sustainable long-term income, we need to develop inspiring experiences. These awesome donor experiences throughout every aspect of your donor journey will create the satisfaction, commitment and trust your donor is looking for. In the end this will make donors want to stay much longer.

Try to hang all donor communication you’re sending out on a wall. From your organizational branding activities for potential donors, then your acquisition activities, your welcome programs, your loyalty and cultivation programs, all your low/mid/high value products, your thank you program, upgrading and reactivation activities, etc.

Now, there are several things that might happen: you scare the living daylights out of yourself, you don’t get very excited looking at it, or you discover lots of inconsistencies in the messaging, frequency, use of language and layout. But, a combination of all of the above is more likely. Now imagine your donors getting this from you.

The experiences we give to our donors result in donor loyalty and eventually donor retention. Yet, we hold back on investing fully in those experiences, while these very experiences are the key to building long lasting relationships. Major donors get focused attention, but there are millions donors who also have needs and who are not thought about in the same way.

My wish is that charities embrace all donors, small and big, so that every donor gets the respect they deserve.

(And that’s why we’ve launched “The Future of Fundraising” in The Netherlands. A Dutch knowledge platform where we will share and promote the implementation of the advice coming fromThe Commission on the Donor Experience. Join the movement!)

PS. Check out the beta version of the results fromThe Commission on the Donor Experienceand give your feedback right now!

Reinier Spruit

Reinier Spruit

Reinier is in love with fundraising since 2001. Ever since he's trying to improve his own fundraising skills and those of others. He's one of the original founders of 101fundraising. At the moment working with amazing clients through his one-man fundraising consultancy. Loves running and baseball.


Daryl Upsall · June 1, 2017 at 16:32

Hi Reinier,

great to hear your strong and persuasive voice again on 101 fundraising.

I could not agree more with what you are sharing with us. What I observe as I work around the world with clients and from various conferences was that non-profits seem to be somewhat afrais of having any from of non-financial engagement, “touch points”, involvement, call it what you may with donors/supporters as they cannot calculate the exact ROI that it generates

Meanwhile, they still send the bloody boring, tedious, tree destroying (even if recycled paper is used) , self-agrandising newsletters and call that donor stewardship. When I was at Greenpeace donors loved to “touch the rubber”. No it was not some kinky sex club we ran but they loved being invited to hear a campaigner do a show and tell about campaign actions such as against French nuclear testing, Brent Spar and have the Zodiac rubber boat in the room that was part of the action for them to look at …and or course gently carress.

Every good cause has some rubber that supporters/donors can touch whether via VR or as MSF Canada used to invite me to via a Skype call with a doctor live from the field.

A few weeks ago at a European Red Cross FR and Comms meeting in Barcelona, Mark Astarita of the British Red Cross presenting a revolutionary new way they are making the Red Cross part of the everyday lives of donors/supporters and the public.

They are focusing on a the “relationship” that will in my opinion have real long term benefit for both the Red Cross and an engaged public. Mark and team…please tell us more!

Finally, for those that have not read Relationship Fundraising and Friends for Life by Ken Burnett please do so. You will not regret it.

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · June 2, 2017 at 11:59

    Thanks Daryl!

    Now I’m very curious what the British Red Cross is going to do…

    If readers know of more great examples, please get in touch!


Rick Nash · June 6, 2017 at 12:30

Hi Reinier

I think this will address some of the issues articulated:


Happy to chat!



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