CDE project 5 sec­tion 1: the approach

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 30, 2017

The approach

Supporter journeys have been discussed within the charity sector for many years ever since Ken Burnett first published his Relationship Fundraising1 book in 1992 and encouraged us to think about building relationships with our donors.

In 2013, Tony Elisher2 likened fundraisers to travel agents, designing donor journeys that would guide donors through their relationship with the charity:

“We need to try to reach out to and assume the role of travel agents thinking tactically and strategically to help build the most appropriate, inspiring and tailored journey that we can to meet people needs and to enrich their lives. Journeys are not about us they are about them, our supporters and donors.”

Bearing all of the above in mind, this project’s aims were:

  • To investigate some of the current thinking regarding the delivery of supporter journeys
  • To see what a supporter journey looks like from a donor’s perspective
  • To review some of the supporter journeys currently being delivered by charities to enable us to develop some practical advice for charities wishing to develop their own journeys
  • To show how supporter journeys are a great way to deliver a great supporter experience.

Current thinking

There have been many articles, blogs, models and theories concerning supporter journeys, some in support thereof and some against. In fact, the very definition of a supporter journey is difficult to pin down across many of these pieces. However, the majority are in agreement that, whatever it is, the supporter journey entails being donor centric in your communications, meeting the donors’ needs and responding in the way in which they want to be contacted.  If donors are communicated with in this way, they should remain more loyal to the charity, with the result that retention will be increased and more income will be available for the cause.

Therefore, the definition of a supporter journey should be “an experience that the charity delivers to the donor from the first moment of their support”. It should be tailored to the donors’ motivations, life stages and communication preferences, and should give donors the opportunity to increase their engagement, commitment and impact at specific points that are appropriate to them.

A good supporter journey will put the donor at the centre, and will include many pathways, recognising the donor’s choice of channel, product, motivation and circumstances, and will allow a flexible, easy transfer to another pathway when the donor chooses to give in a different way, or to provide an easy exit when he or she no longer wishes to provide support.

We live in a world in which the commercial sector has encouraged us to expect an almost instant response to an action taken and clever follow up to suggest our next steps. We only have to order a book from a certain on-line retailer to receive instant recommendations for our next purchase almost immediately in our inbox. Charities are competing against this backdrop and we need to be as smart as the commercial sector in identifying our ‘customer’s’ motivations and the next steps desired.

While a supporter journey can provide a map to help us to determine how we might communicate with each group of supporters, it has to be a map with many pathways that recognises the donors’ choice of channel, product and either transference to another pathway when they choose to give in a different way, or an exit strategy when they no longer want to support the charity.

Emotional storytelling has become part of the way in which we write our initial donor recruitment messages, but the subsequent messages that a donor receives often move away from this technique and can sometimes appear to be random, disjointed information that may make sense to us as experts in our charity, but can result in confusing the supporter.

We have to become better at telling the donors a story over the course of the supporter journey, and not just throwing random bits of information at them.

The supporter journey should be a story in itself, which takes the donor from the recruitment message through how they have helped, on to another story about the same theme to help them to become familiar with the organisation and to build up, through storytelling, to the next point at which they will be asked for support. This story has to continue throughout the lifetime of the supporters’ relationships with the charity and take them from their initial donation to a potential legacy.

A comment from Stephen Pidgeon3 is a good example of what we are aiming to do in creating a supporter journey - “It is the fundraiser’s job, your only job, to make the supporter feel good about supporting your charity. You have to love your donors. The money will follow.”

Along the way, we also need to include some ‘WOW’ moments for donors by delivering something that they didn’t expect to get. These ‘WOW’ moments are really impactful for donors, as they stimulate a release of dopamine in the brain, which is the pleasure-reward hormone. They must be unexpected, unpredictable and be completely tailored to the charity and donor who is receiving them.

Recent research by Rogare  on relationship fundraising describes the donor journey stages as awareness, exploration, expansion and commitment. Donors are moved from an initial first impression of the charity to becoming one with the mission and more connected to the beneficiaries with each donation.

There will, however, always be donors who don’t want to have a relationship with a charity, and their donation is a transaction that they make because of a particular message that hit home with them. The supporter journey also has to recognise these donors, and include a way for their rejection of further requests to be acknowledged and acted upon. 

Mystery shopping research

One of the project groups conducted some mystery shopping research in which they made either a cash donation or signed up to a direct debit with nine different well-known charities to see what they might deliver in terms of a supporter journey over a five-month period. Unfortunately, we were unable to continue to monitor the journey beyond that period because of the project’s timescale.

Cash donations were made either in response to an insert, in response to a direct mail appeal, on-line or via text, and the number of responses received varied from one to 10. There was also considerable variety in the number of cash asks that were made over the five-month period, with five charities not asking again and two asking twice. 

What was more interesting was the type and feel of the communications that were received after the donation:

  • The donation made in response to an insert received an email reply from the charity asking the donor to sign up to the newsletter.  This was followed by a thank-you letter that did not refer to the case study in the insert and gave no indication of how the donation would help. This charity then communicated a further eight times over the period with invitations to become involved, in addition to two cash asks.
  • The direct mail donation received a thank-you letter in response, welcome pack sent over a month after the donation had been made, and no further communication.
  • Four gifts were made on-line, all of which received an automatic email in response. However, one of the emails finished in mid-sentence and had an instruction to log on to update preferences, but the link was inactive. This charity then sent a further email each month, with two of these asking for financial support. The others either didn’t send anything further or sent newsletters.
  • The three text donations received immediate bounce back texts, but one did not follow up further after that, one tried to convert to DD via a text message and the third came back with a further donation request two weeks later.

There was a general feeling among the donors that the communications weren’t specific to the reason or the way that they had donated. They were lacking in emotion and, with just two exceptions, failed to refer to the story that had prompted the donation. They didn’t feel that there were many cases in which they would be inclined to donate to the charity again.

The group members also signed up to donate via direct debit to eight well-known charities. Three were in response to inserts, two to a door drop and the rest on-line.

Again, the results varied in the number of communications that were received, with the majority of charities communicating very little, although one sent 28 emails over the five-month period. 

Direct debits were signed both off- and on-line, and communications from all charities were received via a combination of post and email. There seemed to be more of a link with the initial recruitment message in these communications than there was with the cash donations, and only one charity’s communications felt unemotional and generic. There were two stand-out charities within this batch that made the donor feel really welcomed, valued and happy to continue to support. 

Supporter journeys currently being delivered

We posted a question through the CDE Enthusiasts group asking for charities that were currently delivering supporter journeys to engage with us and answer some questions about their use of such journeys. In all, we had nine responders, three of which wished to remain anonymous.

All of the charities were in various stages of developing their supporter journeys, with some having really thought about why they were creating them and what supporters would get out of them, while others were just at the beginning of implementing something.

One thing that came across clearly from everyone when asked why they implemented supporter journeys was that this was primarily for the benefit of the donor and that, by treating the donor well, this would benefit the charity.

“It is essential to our programme and sustainability of our fundraising to ensure supporters have a great experience when interacting with us. We need to design a programme which is relevant and impactful for them, and journeys help us to achieve this” (Anon).

“To make donors feel more engaged and involved with us, the work we do and the difference we make. We try to make the journey as close and personable as possible, so donors can feel they are really making a difference and contributing to something amazing. Engaged, happy donors who are confident in the impact of the charity and their donations will give for longer and enable us to commit to long-term projects” (VSO).

We were, however, disappointed with the level of response we received and the difficulty we had in sourcing case studies to present. This may be because charities are in the process of defining and testing supporter journeys and don’t feel ready to share their findings and results. Unfortunately, it may also be that long-term donor interaction is not a priority within the sector because ROI and short-term targets are still seen as being more important.

We are grateful to those organisations that were willing to share their supporter journeys and their findings.

In the survey, we asked the charity’s respondent to answer questions about how their journey was being created and delivered, and what the donors thought about it.

Case studies of some of the charities can also be found at the end of the report. 

Survey responses

a. How satisfied are your donors with your communications?

If one of the main reasons that charities have for putting a supporter journey into practice is to make donors feel more engaged and happy, then there must be some way within the journey to measure this and determine that it is successful.

We asked charities to tell us how their donors felt about the communications that they were sending them, and six of the nine charities responded to discuss donor surveys, satisfaction levels and a supporter email address where they gathered responses.

“81 per cent say that the number of communications are ‘just right’ with a further 17 per cent saying that they would like to hear from us more” (Prostate Cancer UK).

“They love it! We’ve had so many lovely comments, and one donor even named their grandchild after one of the VSO volunteers!” (VSO).

“85% of supporters agree that ‘I feel informed about the work’, 77% believe our communications are relevant to them, 16% are neutral, 90% feel the amount is right for them and 6% want more” (Anon).

All of the charities cited a very low level of complaints in relation to their supporter journey, with one charity saying that it assumed that anyone who didn’t like the communications being sent would just unsubscribe.

When asked to describe what was working well in the supporter journey, four of the charities said that supporters enjoyed the engagement that they now had with the charity, which was more donor centric than it had been previously.

“Wide range of engagements and being supporter centric rather than Greenpeace centric. We really try to understand what motivates our supporters to act” (Greenpeace).

“Supporters seem to enjoy receiving personalised communications, which we are able to do now” (Anon).

“I think the donors love the personable element of the journey. VSO as a charity takes a back seat and allows the volunteer to speak directly to the donor. It sounds honest, interesting and right from the source” (VSO).

When asked what wasn’t working, the main points discussed were the difficulties of implementing the journey and measuring the impact thereof. One charity mentioned needing to have more stories to tell and the difficulty of obtaining them from the field. 

b. How else do you measure the impact of your supporter journey?

Apart from the donor satisfaction measures detailed above, most charities also measured the impact in terms of retention rates, income, second actions, ROI and growth of regular giving.

Only four of the nine charities had carried out split tests on their supporter journey, with the others saying that they intend to in the future.

One charity that had conducted a split test stated that it was done to prove a point and that, even if the results had been the same, they would have carried on with the supporter journey as it was the right thing to do for its donors. 

c. Who are the targets of your supporter journey?

Some charities had multiple supporter journeys based on acquisition channels, while others were slowly building up to that point one channel at a time.

Regular givers seem to be the group of donors that is most often on a supporter journey, and this is when most charities start to develop their plans. These donors are some of the most valuable donors for a charity to retain, and journeys need that will engage them in the long term to be developed. These donors should be contacted based on the length of time that they have been donating to the cause, or based on the number of donations made rather than on a seasonal basis, which might be more convenient.

Other donors are more likely to be communicated with based on their first interaction with the charity. This may take motivation into account, but seems more often to be based on what they do rather than on why they do it.

“The welcome channels differ by recruitment channel (up to 12 months). The majority of Practical Action’s committed giving recruitment is through direct dialogue. These donors receive more than donors recruited online or through inserts for example” (Practical Action).

“We have a number of journeys based on their entry to us, so eventer, major donor, legacy pledger, corporate, in-mem etc.” (Rethink).

Charities don’t seem to vary the donor journey based on donor demographics (age, location, and so on), although one did state that the older donors often do not have an email address and thus receive most of the communications via post.

d. How do you take donor preferences into account?

All of the charities reported that they took the consent given by the donor to contact them via the various channels into account, and gave the donors the opportunity to opt out during the course of the journey.

“All donors and fundraisers are asked if they would like further communication from us and this is monitored through our CRM system. A supporter can opt out at any time by emailing, phoning or writing to us and all our marketing emails have the option to unsubscribe”(Anon).

Most of the charities used mail, email, telephone and SMS as part of their journey if they had permission from the donors to do so, with one charity citing that, if the donor gave permission, the donor would expect to hear from the charity by that method.

“Our supporter journey includes postcards, emails, SMS messages, newsletters and telephone calls. If a supporter opts out of one channel we make sure that we replace that communication with another channel that they are opted in to” (Anon).

Half of the charities stated that they had sent out a supporter survey to gather information about donor preferences, which was then used to amend the journey. 

e. How long does your journey last and do donors switch to other journeys?

Some of the charities that responded had welcome journeys that lasted from four months to a year before the donor was transferred to either another journey managed by a different team or entered the standard warm programme.

Others felt that the donor’s journey did not end even if they stopped supporting or opted out of the communications.

A journey last for a lifetime, or for as long as a supporter would like it to last” (Anon).

There is no set time limit of when we will “end” our relationship with them, unless of course they ask us to do so” (Anon).

“We will stay in touch with the supporter long after their support to us has ended, through updates on our work. There is no set time limit of when we will “end” our relationship with them, unless of course they ask us to do so” (Anon).

Some of the supporter journeys were also adaptable in terms of responding to donors’ behaviour, and charities were able to accommodate this by switching to a different journey if the donor became a supporter in a different way. 

f. How many communications do you send in the first year?

There was quite a variety in the number of communications sent during the first year in which the donor was included in the journey. What and how much is sent depends on a variety of factors – acquisition channel, communication preferences and the type of donor (eventer, cash or regular giver).

The least number of communications being sent was between two and four, and the greatest was an email every week with a huge variety in between. There were different types and sizes of charities taking part in the survey and, of course, the practicalities of delivering messages will impact in some way on the type and number sent.

Charities that have the ability to automate the supporter journey through their database or linked software will have a much easier route for delivering their journeys than those who do not.

“If they are on the postal route, then five in their first year, three on subsequent years. On the email route, eight in their first year, then six over subsequent. They will also receive a copy of our supporter magazine Lifechanges twice a year and might get an upgrade phone call once a year” (VSO).

“It completely depends on the donor. If they only interact with us on one way, such as by giving a single cash gift, they will get a small amount of comms (two to four including mandatory comms) – but this too might depend on what they have given to. If they interact with us in several ways – i.e. volunteer, RG, marathon runner, campaigner, they will get more comms to ensure they have a great experience, and receive all the information they need” (Anon).

“It depends on what permissions they (regular givers) have given us to communicate with them. If we have full email, mail and telephone permission they will receive three emails, a newsletter, a thank-you call, an upgrade call and a thank-you card” (Anon).

During the welcome journey they receive seven emails and then they’ll get approximately one per week thereafter” (Greenpeace). The communications that were sent were also a combination of asks (financial and non-financial) and thank-you communications, with one charity citing a thank-you phone call as part of the journey. 

The journeys described by the charities were all very different in terms of the variety and number of communications that donors were sent. Some of the charities, such as VSO and Greenpeace, asked their supporters for feedback to determine whether the number of communications was right for them and adjusted their journey accordingly. Others based the number on what felt right to them. The number of communications sent and the way in which they are delivered has to strike a balance between what is motivational and acceptable by the donor and what is practical to deliver by the charity. However, it is only by beginning to develop a journey that this can be determined.

g. Do you continue the recruitment story throughout the supporter journey?

Donors begin to support a charity because of a particular story that resonates with them when they hear it. All too often, the communications that next come from the charity don’t reference that story or provide an update on the problem that they were asked to help to solve.

Six of the nine charities felt that they continued the story for the donor, with the others saying that they were aiming to do so in the future. There were some really good examples of how the story was followed up:

“The first communication is usually the volunteer’s feeling and preparations before they leave home. The next is their first impressions upon arrival. Subsequent emails/postals tell the story of the volunteer’s placement: challenges, successes, food eaten, friends made, things missed!” (VSO).

“We continue the story of the child that was talked about in the face-to-face recruitment by sending emails with videos of their progress, postcards and a thank-you card from the parents. We also send a newsletter so that they get an introduction to our other work too” (Anon).

The surveys provided some really good examples of how charities are trying to communicate in a more donor-centric way. They also indicated some of the challenges of managing supporter journeys in terms of having the emotional stories to include in communications, liaison among different departments in the organisation and extending the journey beyond the initial stages to longer term supporters.

However, all of the charities that took part were convinced that the supporter journey that had been initiated was a much better way of engaging with donors, delivering a good experience to them and helping to generate long-term support. 

Click here to see Project 5 in full - PDF format

About the author: The Commission on the Donor Experience

The CDE has one simple ideal – to place donors at the heart of fundraising. The aim of the CDE is to support the transformation of fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. It is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.

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