Unraveling Development: What is Donor-Centrism?

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What is donor-centrism?

“Donor-centric” is another way of saying “building trust.” A donor’s relationship with your organization deepens or frays mostly based on how much trust you can create in three areas:

  • Trust that donors play an essential, vital, central role in your mission’s success.
  • Trust that your organization does worthwhile things with donor gifts.
  • Trust that your organization conducts its operations efficiently.

Sadly, most organizations focus on their own needs and why their good work requires donations. Instead, the donor-centered organization puts the donor at the center. “Because of your gifts, we do this vital work.” “Your gifts stopped the river’s pollution.” “Only with your gift can we feed families.” “Because of you, great things happen.”

To understand what donor-centered means, read the research about what donors want. For example, Adrian Sargeant’s research found that the following components matter in the fundraising relationship: thanking donors for their gifts; informing donors how their money is spent; responding quickly when donors contact the organization; being polite in communications; and more.

Sargeant found that the overall perception of service quality provided by the fundraising department dramatically affects donor retention. No surprise there. We all know that quality of service is critically important.

But how do donors define service quality? Things like: confidence that donations are spent appropriately; keeping donors informed about how gifts are used; employee behavior instills confidence; communications are courteous and timely; employees understand donor needs.

And guess what, Sargeant’s research tells us that almost all donors are not hugely satisfied with the quality of service provided by the fundraising department.

Hey! How does your organization measure up? Are you worried yet?

Donor-centered is like customer-centered. And when you’re customer-centered and donor-centered, you build loyalty. And you want loyal donors.

Dale Carnegie, 1930s self-help guru said it so very well: “You’ll have more fun and success when you stop trying to get what you want, and start helping other people get what they want.”

I told you before, read Building Donor Loyalty by Sargeant and Jay. Check out the Donor-Centric Pledge (DCP) in Keep Your Donors. You can download the DCP from SimoneJoyaux.com.

Interested in trying your hand at a donor survey? See the Audubon Society of RI member survey in Keep Your Donors, inspired by Adrian Sargeant’s research.

  • Hannah Gregory

    I invite you to take a look at a great example of a new campaign Shoestring Creative Group has created for Salesian Missions, that puts their donors front and center.
    View the TV ad here: http://www.youtube.com/FindYourMission
    See the campaign website:

  • Bob Untiedt

    Is it good to be accountable?
    Is is good to be engaging with all stakeholders of a nonprofit.
    No doubt.

    But there are well-documented stories of major donors seeking to control nonprofit programs – and thereby, affecting their mission delivery. It’s more effective to focus on donor needs as a way to obtain more funds. Is it **universally** better for a nonprofit mission? I doubt it.

    If nonprofits spend increasing amounts of time cultivating donors, measuring impact, personalizing messages, and improving “customer service” to donors, there is risk involved. That risk is to mission delivery. I’m not opposing stronger relationships between nonprofits and donors. I’m only pointing out that, in a society as individualistic as ours, ‘serving the consumer’ is not without peril. Nonprofits exist to serve a mission – and THAT should be a focus in donor relationships, too, not just the “needs of the donor”. Some donors need to remember that it’s not about THEM.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Bob Untiedt is correct that effective nonprofits stick to their missions. But being donor-centered and mission-centered are NOT in conflict.

    Operating as a donor-centered organization is done within the context of your organization’s mission and your organization’s needs. You don’t accept a gift that doesn’t meet your mission and your priorities. You don’t compromise your values to thank a donor.

    But you do spend increasing amounts of time cultivating donors, personalizing messages, strengthening your customer service, and measuring impact. That is NO RISK to mission delivery.

    Read Adrian Sargeant’s research, described in Building Donor Loyalty. All of it is common sense and proper etiquette. And it’s shameful that so few organizations behave accordingly.

    Read all of Tom Ahern’s books and newsletters about donor communications. All of it follows good journalism and research. And it’s shameful that so few organizations behave accordingly.

    Read Keep Your Donors: The Guide to Better Communications and Stronger Relationships. There, Ahern and I provide details about being donor-centered, cite research, and give examples.

    Learn more about donor-centered performance and you

  • Nikki

    With everyone fighting for our few dollars, I believe it is absolutely important to be honest, transparent, and a good steward of donor dollars. I don’t believe that nonprofit organizations do a great job of instilling trust. Often times little thought is put into how to share with us the day-to-day activities of an organization and more effort is made into telling us a story and how to get our dollars. If I know the ED and Board are good stewards of my money, I have no problem giving and supporting the mission.

    I do take great offense when I have to search for information that should be public information anyway.:sad: