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Four Steps Towards Better Donor Experience

In the conversations I’ve been having recently, there has been one question on fundraisers’ minds now, more than at any other time, driven mainly by major changes in behavior and expectations from donors:

“What does a best-in-class donor experience look like, and how do I actually create it?”

By now, most charitable organizations know that a great donor experience is a critical piece to what sets your organization apart. We also recognize that you have created a donor experience whether it’s formally planned or not.

When we talk about experience, it’s about every single interaction that a donor has with your organization – solicited or unsolicited, on or offline, with people, systems, digital real estate or paper.

How your communication makes a donor think and feel is what drives the way they will engage with your organization. It’s about how you are really treating people from start to finish. And it’s about your bottom line, too. It’s about the impact you’re actually able to make with the revenue you raise, and the benefits that creating a great donor experience has on your long-term ROI.

In today’s world — and accelerated by the global pandemic’s disruption of traditional (offline) channels — a strong donor experience HAS to include digital channels and online user experience. It’s key to focus on the donor experience itself rather than its delivery mechanisms, and it’s important to understand that to stay competitive, your donor experience, like the rest of your fundraising program, needs to evolve to be digitally-led.

Understanding this and knowing how critical the donor experience is to your organization’s success, how do you make the experience great across the board?

Here are four important steps to take in creating the best-in-class donor experience, that donors are expecting and need, to engage:


First things first: what are donors seeing from you right now?

Although it may sound obvious, taking an in-depth look at your current donor experience is an underutilized strategy in creating better ones. If you don’t have an holistic view of all the communications donors are receiving, online and offline together – emails, Facebook ads, videos, direct mail, etc. – how are you ever going to be able to treat donors the way they should be treated? And honesty is important. Skipping over a department or channel where your organization is talking directly to donors doesn’t make gaps go away, it makes the problem unfixable. It also makes prioritization (your job, not the donors) impossible.


We feel your pain. We know that when we’re sharing these ideas that we’re usually preaching to the choir, and that the obstacles in the way of a best-in-class donor experience are rarely you and your strategic intentions. More often it’s organizational silos, a lack of alignment between departments, or the feeling you just can’t fix it.

Unfortunately, the donor doesn’t know the difference. The donor sees you as one charitable organization and they have no idea that you have various revenue areas or departments — from Major Gift, Annual Giving, and Event teams or Comms.

Although we can’t fix all institutional roadblocks, we can at least understand them, address them, build understanding internally around monetizing the lost opportunity to deliver amazing donor experience, and work to improve them. What we communicate to donors needs to make sense and be seamless – no matter which department is sending the communication out. Gone are the days when the digital and web teams are just ‘doing their thing.’ We all need to work together. Your website is as much a part of the experience as the annual report, and a key element in your digital real estate that is being seen at key times by donors and prospective donors.

Now is the right time to break down silos within your organization, get your colleagues involved, share the information that is holding you back, make friends in these other departments, and build a great, fully integrated donor experience together!


Once you know where you stand and what the current obstacles are, you can map out where you want to be moving forward. We talk a lot about what it feels like to walk in a donor’s shoes – what do they need from you to engage more deeply in your mission? How can you meet their expectations, and then also exceed their expectations by inspiring them in ways they never imagined?

To do this, you really need to plot it all out. Maybe it’s a journey map; maybe it’s an Excel spreadsheet; maybe it’s a lot of doodles on a whiteboard. However you do it, consider all the campaigns (renewal, spring, holiday, etc.), channels (online and offline — direct mail, email, Facebook, telemarketing etc.), audiences (regular, mid-level, monthly, etc.), strategies (renewal, upgrade, stewardship, etc.), and more as you go along. Don’t map out campaign-by-campaign, but more holistically, allowing you to look at the donor’s overall experience with your organization and not just what they’re seeing from you next month.

If you are not sure what your donors need or want, there are some amazing tools to help you build insights that can really help you, creatively, make a huge impact on building a journey that has power. Start with your own data and look for ways to see past the performance metrics and into motivations and connections – that is where the magic is in creating journeys that are strategic and effective.

Remember, it’s our job as fundraisers to do the heavy lifting on building a great donor experience; we can’t just throw everything at donors and expect them to sort it out themselves. And again, once you’ve mapped the experience out, share it internally; show others what it really looks like to be your organization’s donor, and get input and buy-in. Donor journey strategy is better when you have different voices & ideas on the table.


If you get an eye twitch when you read about journey mapping, relax. It doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Donor experience is the result of how well we communicate with donors. And if we’re looking for donors to feel something different, and therefore do something different, then we really need to focus on making them feel great.

And with cost-effective digital channels at our fingertips and more donors than ever before being online, it’s never been easier to show that you appreciate your donors.

If we’re just throwing appeals at them without ever giving them feedback on what they’ve already impacted, or never giving them a newsletter telling them stories about the difference they’ve made, or never thanking them or surprising and delighting them… then, guess what? They’re going to behave the same way they already have been. Or worse! They’re going to get tired of the way you’re treating them and drop off your file.

Much of the data we look at on retention, and numbers of lapsing and inactive donors, validate that. With the number of new donors that organizations have realized during the global pandemic, this is particularly worrying. We don’t want to lose the people who have been generous with us through this crisis, so sorting out our donor experience now is urgent!

Take Action

Figure out where you are today, address what’s in the way of doing better, and then figure out how to do your best in the face of the obstacles that remain.

Regardless of what you do, keep it simple and tell your donors, “thank you.” Tell them what they’ve made possible. Sadly, that’s one of the biggest missing pieces from most charities’ donor experience — which means it’s also an easy way to make your donor experience great, by leading with gratitude, even if you can’t fix it all today. Increasing your thanking and storytelling on outcomes and impact, both online and offline, is a positive step in moving your organization into the future and better meeting the needs of your supporters now!