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What is Donor Engagement, Anyway? 3 Ideas to Make it Real

461783274_5368b2a147_zWe’ve got a lot of buzzwords in fundraising. But the king of buzzwords right now is the word “engagement”. What does that mean? Everyone is always saying how important it is to engage your donors, but it seems like the words are actually placeholders for something we can’t quite define – and maybe we aren’t really sure how to do.

Consider two definitions for the word engage:

1. To occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention)

2. To participate or become involved in

So, how do we “involve” our donors in the work that we do in an authentic way? Not because it’s something you’re supposed to do to increase fundraising return, but because you truly want them to play an active role in moving the work forward?

First, you have to want to have involved donors. Some organizations look at donor engagement as just another thing they have to do to get more money, rather than a way to involve or partner with donors to make a bigger impact. You have to want a two-way relationship with your donors and you have to be willing to respond to their desires and feedback. You also have to invest in systems that support their work on behalf of your organization.

This is an attitude. The organization that does this well has made a conscious decision to mobilize their donors to accomplish their mission – not through fundraising, but through other actions that involve the donor. And it just also happens, that a donor who is more involved is more personally invested in the success of the organization, and that kind of involved donor is more likely to give more money.

Clearly volunteering for an organization is one of the most effective ways to engage donors and prospects in the work that you do. Volunteering becomes more than a way to save money; it becomes a way to make more money by deepening relationships between the donor and the organization. (Investing in good volunteer training and orientation is key to this strategy!). In addition, many organizations can involve their donors in advocacy initiatives that really get them involved.

But, not all organizations have programs that have natural volunteer or advocacy opportunities. What else could you do to involve your donors?

Ask for their guidance: How often do you ask your donors for advice? While you have to be clear about the decision making process, one of the most important things you can do is to listen to what your donors think. Ask them their opinion on your newest initiative. Ask them how you can better reach a specific community. Ask their opinion on ways to re-tool struggling programs.

How?  Think surveys, informal focus groups, and new donor “intake” sessions.

Report on their philanthropy: Can you communicate with your donors on an annual basis to go over their giving in the last year and the impact it made? Can you let them know what next year will bring and how they can support the organization – with money as well as their talents?

How? Think personalized reports, “insider” e-mails from the executive director, and phone calls with program staff.

Support donors to recruit others their own way: Involved donors love the organizations they support. And if the engagement is authentic, they want to spread the word and get others involved. But organizations often make the mistake of over-designing systems and events to make this happen.  Have you asked your donors how they could help to bring others to the table in a way that feels true to them?

How? Think donor-designed events, retreats, and affinity groups that your organization supports, but does not lead.

This stuff will sound routine to major gift folks, and it should because most major gifts officers are trained to build personal donor relationships.

But the trick really is how to you extend this attitude beyond the major gifts level and make it a part of the culture of the organization so that a $25 donor has a sense of involvement that is as compelling as a $25,000 donor.

Maybe you aren’t able to be as personalized about communicating with those $25 donors. Maybe you use webinars to hold a “donor meeting” to ask for advice. Maybe you create a short written report to detail the investment the donor made that goes in the mail. And maybe you empower a group of donors to create their own personal fundraising pages or initiate their own member-get-member campaign online.

In any case, donor engagement is not just for the big fish. It’s an ethos that permeates across and up and down the giving pyramid (whatever shape yours is). It’s not a gimmick to get more money, it’s something you have to weave into your strategic plan. It’s not just a word, it’s a culture. Do you have it?

photo courtesy of jcb2u

3 Comments

  1. Carl Peterson says:

    Great article. To often I hear folks say engagement ( and they really mean “how can we get them to give money”) and I cringe. I even had one ED who refused to ask their volunteers for donations.
    I will pass this on as I do with most of your stuff, but this is to good not to pass on.

  2. Commnt8r says:

    I particularly like the guidance “mobilize our donors to accomplish our mission.”

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