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Allison Gauss
donor base

How to Stay Connected to Your Donor Base as You Grow

As the story goes, the left brain represents the analytical, exacting, and numbers-oriented side of things while the right brain represents the emotional, image-based, and artistic side of things. Together they form a sort of yin and yang of a person’s mental makeup. You might be more analytical than the average person and therefore predominantly “left-brained,” or you may be more artsy and therefore predominantly “right-brained.”

So what does this have to do with fundraising? Nothing inherently, but the general concept can provide a helpful construct for thinking about a nonprofit fundraising operation, how it evolves over time, and some of the challenges it may face.

Let’s call all the number crunching (open rates, average gift sizes, life-time donor value, etc.) “left-brain fundraising,” and the collection of individual experiences you curate for supporters (the emotional appeal of your mission, your narrative around impact, etc.) “right-brain fundraising.” Just as a person can be predominantly left or right brained, so too can your fundraising operation be weighted in one direction or the other.

What happens if your fundraising is all left-brain focused? You end up with too much head and not enough heart. You may be dialed into financial metrics without putting enough attention on the diverse wants and needs of the people with whom you’re actually communicating. Conversely, if you lean too far in the other direction, you may have great understanding of the people you engage, but lack the analytical rigor that allows you to maximize fundraising returns. As is the case with many things, balance is key.

The Swinging Growth Pendulum

New organizations naturally begin their journey as right-brained fundraisers. When you have a small pool of supporters, it’s easy to take the emotional temperature of the room. It’s also easy to personalize your donor engagement. If you only have 50 donors, for example, you can manage to write thank you notes by hand. With small numbers, you’re at a relative advantage when it comes to individual engagement and you lack the scale that makes data a more pressing concern.

Then, at some point, things begin to change.

As you move beyond an intimate circle of connections into successively larger pools of donors, you start to need data to help manage things. The numbers, rather than personal conversations, become a proxy for figuring out what’s working and what’s not. Excel spreadsheets turn into customer relationship management (CRM) systems and the staff around you grows larger. The pendulum reverses direction, pulling you to become a more and more left-brained fundraiser. Before long, what was once an exercise in personal relationship cultivation becomes a process primarily driven by lists and numbers.

This type of change shouldn’t be terribly surprising. If you tried to manage 10,000 donors the same way you managed 100 donors, you would be in for a rough time. But while shifting toward a metrics-based fundraising approach may be exactly what a growing organization needs, there’s still a danger of losing focus on the individual experience amid the growth.

The question is: how do you maintain the best of the right-brained fundraising approach when the pendulum swings and pulls you more and more in the other direction?

You do it by proactively fostering a culture of donor empathy at your organization.

How to Cultivate Donor Empathy as You Scale

At the most basic level, donor empathy is really just a form of introspection. It’s the practice of putting yourself in your donors’ shoes and imagining the experience from their perspective. What is donating actually like? Why would you keep giving after doing so once? Why might you stop?

Smaller organizations can gather donor feedback organically through conversations and reflect upon those interactions. As you grow though, this becomes a less and less reliable method. With a larger donor base, you eventually need a more systematic way to collect feedback, analyze it, and produce actionable outputs.

Conducting donor interviews is a great way to gather this feedback and get a better window into your supporters’ motivations. Interviews require a significant commitment, but that’s the price of elevating the donor’s perspective.

How to Structure Your Initial Donor Interviews

Before you start reaching out to people, you should create some basic groupings to help categorize your supporters (e.g. new donors, monthly donors, etc.). The criteria you use may vary, but it should give some structure to the process at the outset. Once you have an initial framework, you can begin reaching out to donors and learning. Make sure to include plenty of people that have stopped supporting you; you’ll learn the most valuable lessons from them.

With a good base of interviews in hand you can begin the work of translating the raw output of that process into something more useful for staff members. By looking for patterns in the responses and how those correlate with the characteristics of the participants (demographics, gift amounts, motivations for supporting your organization) you can assemble donor personas that will let people quickly understand your donor segments and that will guide your engagement strategy.

Elevate the Status of the Donor Within Your Organization

Once you produce the first iteration of you personas, you can begin the work of making the donor a constant presence in your organization’s day-to-day activities. Start by printing a copy of your personas for every staff member and hanging pictures of them around the office. Commit to a regular interview process that allows you to update and refine your personas and rotate the interviewers. This way everyone gets a chance to be on the phone and hear directly from your donor base.

You can also think about other activities to add to the mix that would elevate the status of the donor within your office. Maybe you invite nearby donors to visit the office once a month to interact with staff. Maybe you create a “donor advisory board” that you can bounce campaign ideas off of. There is no one right answer. The important part is that you proactively take steps to make it unmistakable to new and old staff alike that the organization places a high value on supporters’ perspectives and feedback.

Eventually the focus on donors will become a shared cultural value and all of your decisions will more naturally reflect the voice of the donor. It won’t matter if you’re no longer a small organization. Your team will find ways to adapt and stay responsive to the needs of donors as you grow. And they will do this because you will have shown them that the donor perspective is part of the very fabric of the organization they work for.


Create Your Donor Personas Today.

Know Your Donors Field Guide


Image Source: Bowen Chin

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