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Charity begins at home: Getting personal with your donors

Interserve gets personal with its donors, attempting to personally visit all who give more than £200. Alastair McIver invites a cultural shift in the way we treat supporters.

Interserve gets personal with its donors, attempting to personally visit all who give more than £200. Alastair McIver invites a cultural shift in the way we treat supporters.

What does it mean to love our donors? And what would it take to change our culture to one which intentionally sets out to enter into a more personal relationship with them?

There are always problems – as we have seen in recent months – when today’s custodians forget the purpose the charity was originally set up for – its first love, if you like. Good practice in donor relations is not a distant Holy Grail, nor is it rocket science. It is accessible, and we can grasp it.

Today, we in the industry have a choice. We can drift along with internal reviews and meetings and await our fate, or we can be intentionally minded to change our cultures and bring to the table some answers to these questions before they are imposed upon us by legislators.

The reform of donor relations requires not only a change of mindset in how we communicate with our supporters, but a change of heart, or culture.

Targets and balance sheets are necessary, but can lead to approaches to donors that can be perceived as callous, and now, in the internet age, supporters are becoming more savvy about how they engage with charities.

At Interserve, we see our database as family, individuals to be engaged with all year round, not just when we deem to contact them for money. For us, donors are for life, not just for the Christmas appeal.

Of course, we are not able to engage every person on our database but four years ago, we began the process of enhancing our existing relationships with them.

We embarked upon a strategy of connecting with our donors through visiting their homes and businesses, in response to their gifts.

Analysis of what type of visit might be appropriate required some simple research. A basic analysis of each donor’s giving record (for longevity and purpose of donation), their email, for company names and sometimes their age (year of birth is so often a part of an email address), whether their donation was online or by cheque, or whether it is from a couple or an individual, all helps to build up a basic profile of the donor.

Coffee and conversation
Interserve’s finance policy is to send out a fairly standard thank-you letter within five days to all donors, but our fundraising policy is to follow any donation over £200 with a further personalised letter or email.

This has the effect of surprise and introduces personalisation into the relationship. The offer of a visit, or a coffee, ‘next time I am in your area’, brings a favourable response 90 per cent of the time. No one feels threatened by the offer of coffee – especially the lonely – and once established, the donor experience is enhanced through a sense that the charity they support cares enough about them to visit them.

As soon as one person responds positively, a simple, filtered postcode check in the database reveals who else supports the charity in that area, and they also get written to with the same invitation – and by this time there will be a date you can offer. Before you know it, you have a foot in the door of donor homes, gold dust for relationships.

This is effective in so many ways, and can develop into ‘thank-you tours’ of particular towns, regions or even countries. Just before Christmas, I embarked on a mini tour of Scotland, over four days. Several of those I came to thank and inform actually produced envelopes with further donations over and above previous ones. On many occasions, donors have increased significantly their regular giving to the charity as a direct result of this strategy.

The added value of this approach is not always short-term gain but rather the securing of their next donation to the charity, next month, next year, or even beyond.

When their legacies are being written, which of their favourite charities are they going to remember in it? Probably the one who bothered to visit and spend time with them.

For major donors, visits to projects and breakfast gatherings are all vital. And thank-you tokens, events, booklets and Christmas/birthday cards all have their place, but in our experience, there is nothing like a personalised visit to their home or business to build relationships and secure donor loyalty. Such strategy requires intentional budgeting, but the rewards far outweigh the investment.

And that might mean a cultural shift, treating our donors (including trustee boards) as real people, moving our communication with them from functional to friendly.

As people – like you and I – they are to be loved, engaged, informed and invited, not just moved up the pyramid scale.

For us it was easy, as we trusted our donors for their response. For other charities, it may require some questioning of internal processes and challenging of existing cultures. Cultural shifts are not easy things to achieve, but an intentional, industry-wide move that is actively seen to counter the problems of the day, would surely go a long way to reassuring the legislators and the media that we are getting our act together.

And by the way, the media aren’t going to go away. Only recently I received an nfpSynergy report, the findings of which established that of 150 journalists questioned, 70 per cent agreed that there would be ‘more critical coverage of charities in the future’.

These days, with so many charities seeking funding from the general public, the charities that stand out, stand alone in the memories of those who support them, are the ones who go beyond anonymous appeal literature, and engage with them. Are you one of those?

Alastair McIver is head of Fundraising for Interserve England and Wales


Eight ways to love your donor

  • Make it an intentional part of your work
  • Budget accordingly for travel and accommodation if required (eg one trip per month)
  • Check all donations (daily or weekly over a certain amount – for us it’s any gift over £200) and write to those donors ‘in addition’ to that which is sent out as part of your standard procedures
  • Write a personalised email or letter to a selection of those who give to your core work
  • Be selective – check their status and whether they ‘need’ a letter or visit from you and whether, realistically, you are going to visit them
  • Be informal in your approach – tell them that you are in their area and want to drop by to thank them and update them on the work of the charity
  • Be warm and approachable with no agenda other than to listen to their story, and thank them
  • If you have resistance from your board for either this strategy or for the budget required to deliver it, simply combine your first donor visits with a personal visit to a friend or relative – pilot such visits to prove how workable they are.