CDE project 9: putting the prin­ci­ples and actions into prac­tice — part 3

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 26, 2017

3. Seeking out the donor’s story

Major donors usually have a story about how and why they came—or want—to support a particular cause and organisation. A vital part of the job of a major donor fundraiser is to hear, respond to and embed these stories into the organisational memory.

The reasons major donors choose charities are not as rationale as we might think. As Beth Breeze says in How Donors Choose Charities[24], they are shaped by donors’

  • tastes, preferences and passions
  • personal and professional backgrounds
  • perceptions of charity competence
  • desire to have a personal impact.

David Harding, founder of Winton Capital Management, underlines these points when talking about his reasons for supporting the Science Museum in London with a £5m gift (the institution’s biggest ever single gift) to create a new mathematics gallery:

‘A belief in the power and beauty of numbers’
‘to inspire a new generation to love maths’[25]
‘I prefer to give money to people or institutions I like — that is really quite key’[26]

David Harding, founder Winston Capital Management

In a more general video piece[27] about his motivations for giving major gifts for The Sunday Times Magazine in association with the publication of the 2015 Rich List, he also talks about a range of reasons including:

‘It seems like a natural extension of my business’
 ‘to make my life more interesting’
‘to have the pleasure of mixing with the people whose fields I support’
‘for the dream of actually achieving something’
David Harding, founder Winston Capital Management

Notice that there is little mention of need. Rather, it is about possibility, interest and pleasure.

So a key to improving the donor experience is capturing your major donors’ stories—the why behind their passions and interests. For David Harding, the story is a combination of his business success based on ‘simply solving the maths problem and searching for patterns’ and a love of the Science Museum ‘where he spent many happy hours “pressing buttons” in his youth’.[28]

The challenge is that while donor stories endure, fundraisers in organisations move more quickly. If the donor’s story gets lost when the fundraiser moves on, it is easy for the donor to feel unappreciated.

One anonymous fundraiser told her own story about making a major commitment (for her) to an organisation she supported passionately. She carefully wrote to the organisation, explaining why she was making a large monthly contribution to the charity. Some years later, her commitment came to an end. The charity called and asked her to renew, without any reference to her story. She felt unappreciated—because they had lost her story. They did not get a renewal, although might have done if her story had been important to them.

Of course, not every organisation can be at the heart of every donor’s story. The Whiny Donor is a blogger on 101fundraising[29] who is a volunteer and chairs development committees of two organisations in the USA. Here she explains that her potential for giving is not equally available to all organisations:

‘But there’s a hierarchy to my giving, so to some extent, I won’t be moved too far no matter what a nonprofit does. I’m on a couple of local nonprofit boards, so my largest gifts go to them, with the others falling in line behind them.’

The Whiny Donor[30]

A key part of the major donor fundraiser’s role is uncovering and celebrating the donor stories that underpin enduring relationships between donors and organisations, and making sure they are held in the organisation, even when the key contact in the organisation changes.

Practically, this requires fundraisers to:

1.   recognise and value donors’ stories.

Good fundraising involves more listening and listening well, than talking. Donors enjoy sharing their stories. Fundraisers must hear and value them—and return to them often. They are a critical part of how to build funding propositions that will inspire and excite.

Fundraisers—and others involved in donor relationship building—many not always know how to prompt the conversations and to ask the open questions that unlock the stories. Training, support and role-plays may all be necessary to help the discovery process. Capturing stories, perhaps for a newsletter or website video, can be a positive process for donors that also helps build wider understanding of donor stories and why they are important.

2.   embed donor relationships into the organisation by building multiple contact points with different people in the organisation.

Major donors will have, and want, contacts in many parts of the organisation—especially with those who deliver the projects and activities they are funding. Different members of staff will have different conversations with donors at different times. It is highly likely they will discover new aspects of the donor’s story. It is the fundraiser’s job to make sure that these are captured, consolidated and celebrated.

3.   create effective ‘handover’ processes for when relationship management moves from one staff member to another. 

Staff turnover is of course inevitable (although as discussed in 9. below, high levels of major donor fundraising staff turnover are a barrier to the major donor experience), so you need to have effective handover processes to smoothly transfer major donor relationships from one staff member to another. Ideally, the existing relationship manager should introduce the new staff member in a face-to-face meeting with the donor. This may of course be practically difficult to achieve, but if you have adopted 2. above, you will have creative and credible options for how to achieve an effective process.

Whatever happens, avoid the situation where a new major donor fundraiser writes to the donor to introduce themselves!

Click on the image below to view project 9 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.

Related case studies or articles

CDE project 9 summary: major donors

This project will look at what’s cutting edge in major donor development with a view to capturing these lessons and where appropriate suggesting how major donor experiences might be applied to other groups of donors too.

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CDE project 9: the approach

There is a clear implication that improving the major donor experience is important to major donors, to individual organisations and to the charitable sector as a whole. This project of the Commission aims to suggest how.

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CDE project 9: putting the principles and actions into practice - part 1

Improve the (major) donor experience by… being really clear about what a major donor to your organisation actually is. 

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CDE project 9: putting the principles and actions into practice - part 2

Deciding whether major donor fundraising is really right for your organisation.

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CDE project 9: links across the Commission projects

Links between the major donors project and all of the other projects of the Commission.

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CDE project 9: putting the principles and actions into practice - part 4

Seeing the relationship from the donor’s point of view. 

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CDE project 9: appendix 3 - methodology

As explained in the ‘Approach’ section, the project draws conclusions from the sources listed here.

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