Give donors the respect they deserve

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!

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