Going beyond the Buzzwords: Donor Engagement

Non-profit organizations survive in large part because of the participation, commitment and financial support of everyday citizens who choose to donate to causes of personal importance to them. And while we’ve sort of trained these outstanding human beings (who take it upon themselves to do more than required) to expect a fairly transactional relationship with the organizations they care about – it doesn’t have to be this way, and in fact, doesn’t serve anyone’s best interests.

What are organizations doing to ‘engage’?

When I ask charities how they engage their donors, they generally list the usual things one might expect: direct mail, website, thank you letters with tax receipts or sometimes personal delivery of tax receipts, a Christmas card, sometimes an offer of a tour if they have a location donors might be interested in seeing. Often that is where it ends.

Others do more – they have a mailed newsletter perhaps or e-newsletter, a policy of thank you calls for donations of a certain size, or an annual donor appreciation event open to select invitees. Sometimes they do an organizational survey of some sort, or are doing mass outbound thank you calls, or are trying to leverage donors’ passions to sign petitions and share things on social media.

Some of these things can be genuinely engaging. Many of them are not. Some are in that grey area where if done well, with heartfelt human feeling, they can be wonderful – but the sad truth is more often they are not – they take the reserved, formal, informational approach that stops true engagement in its tracks.

Informing isn’t the same as engaging

Program updates, annual reports, and website content are basic, fundamental accountability pieces. They are typically about doing due diligence in informing donors that their money was used wisely. Assuring them that you are on solid ground and a professional, reputable organization. Talking about plans for growth to meet new demands.

These sorts of pieces convey the success of your past endeavours and your careful, strategic plans for the future money you will be seeking from them (if not in the same piece then in the next one – which donors know). While important, (and don’t get me wrong – you need to do them, and they need to be good, and can be done very, very well), they are pretty much the book reports of fundraising.



Even storytelling isn’t the same as engaging

There is a wave of recognition of the importance of storytelling in communications that the charitable sector is riding these days. More and more research supports the findings that humans are hardwired to think in narrative form, that our own life-story is the key to our charitable inclinations, and that reaching someone emotionally is the surest way to connect with a donor. You also likely have many anecdotal experiences where you were deeply touched by a story – perhaps a commercial or movie or such – that you can remember clearly even though it wasn’t about you or anyone you know. It is because something in the story was relatable to you, and spoke to you on a deeply human level.

The adjustments I’ve seen charities making to their approach – sharing stories more, creating compelling videos, sometimes even overhauling their key messaging – is a crucial first step to genuine engagement. It primes the donor to be ready for engaging, but it is not in itself necessarily engaging with the donor.

Engagement is a two-way process

If you think about all of the above examples, for the vast majority they are the organization sending something and the donor receiving something. The communication is one-way. But to engage is, by definition, a two-party connection. From the Oxford English Dictionary:

  1. engage (someone in)
    Involve someone in (a conversation or discussion)
  2. engage (with)
    Participate or become involved in
  3. engage (with)
    Establish a meaningful contact or connection with

Now, I know that with the bulk of the communications pieces you send to donors you are also sending a response card, or buckslip, or something for them to send back in. You also probably measure clickthroughs on your website, and other metrics (like money raised!) to tell you if the piece was a success or not. But is this really engagement? To me, this is the baseline of transactional involvement which organizations and donors alike are accustomed to.

But what if, just imagine if, we could really involve someone in a conversation or discussion, have them participate and become involved, and establish a meaningful connection? What if we could go beyond the buzzwords of “donor engagement” and actually engage donors?

We can. And we must.

About the Author


Aimée Lindenberger is passionate about her role in helping charitable organizations make the world a better place. Armed with her degree in Graphic Communications Management, double minors in Marketing and Multimedia, a tender heart and insightful mind, and nearly twenty years of marketing and communications experience, she has worked with charities across Canada, helping them build fundraising programs. Aimée loathes buzzwords and loves actionable strategies. (Oops! Were those buzzwords?)

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