Creating Extraordinary Experiences for Donors

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Simone P. Joyaux, ACFRE is recognized internationally as an expert in fund development, board and organizational development, strategic planning, and management. She is the founder and director of Joyaux Associates.

Does your organization do this?

Do you, the fund development leader, make sure extraordinary experiences happen for your donors?

As a donor yourself, do you enjoy extraordinary experiences offered by the charities you give to?

Ask yourself: When was the last time you, the donor, were “wowed” by a charity you invest in?

Now ask yourself: When was the last time your organization “wowed” its donors? Ask them!

Explore your organization’s “wow” factor. The “wow” factor for your donors. The “wow” that describes the extraordinary experiences you offer your donors. But keep in mind: The “wow” factor isn’t about glitz or superficiality.

Some of my students at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota proposed the “wow” question. The greatest conversations result from this Master of Arts Program in Philanthropy and Development. The best strategic questions emerge from our conversations.


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And I know that these students take the questions and conversations back to their agencies. These professionals work hard to ensure that their organizations focus on the right stuff.

That’s the job of the development professional. That’s what leaders do. And that’s your responsibility, too.

Think about this statement from British architect Sir Denys Lasdun (1914 – 2001): “Our job is to give the client not what he wants but what he never dreamed that he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time.”

Does your organization do that?

Research shows that customers expect experiences these days. The same holds true for donors.

Just the same old same old doesn’t work so well anymore – whether you’re going to the movie theatre or giving a gift. Remember the days of popcorn at movie theatres? Now you can get Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. You can eat hotdogs and pizza before the movie.

And how about giving gifts?

Sure, the thank-you letter. But it better be more than pro forma. Sure, the public recognition in the annual report. But is there a different way of doing this or adding value to it? For example, how do you recognize loyalty?

How about those cultivation tactics? Dinner with the President/CEO? Some special party thing? The “roast someone famous” fundraising event or the black-tie gala.

Do these seem somewhat ho-hum? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Ask your donors.

For sure, you could make these events more interesting and more engaging. I’ll bet you could transform these activities into experiences.

Imagine this: At its annual fall celebration in 2008, the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island had a mock election. Using a laptop computer, guests voted on issues and candidates. Election results were reported at evening’s end.

Of course, a good newsletter is an important cultivation tactic. But is reading your newsletter an extraordinary experience? Sadly, I doubt it. A “kick-ass” newsletter would be much better. Don’t be conservative. Don’t be safe. Instead, “wow” them. Read Tom Ahern’s books and free e-news so you can do this well.

Extraordinary experiences do not cost more money. Extraordinary experiences do not require more time.

But extraordinary experiences do require innovative thinking. Extraordinary experiences require donor-centrism. Extraordinary experiences demand that you talk with your donors and understand why they give and how they feel and which emotions trigger their action.

And the process of doing this – creating the experiences – is an experience itself. Host focus groups with donors to explore all this. A good focus group is an extraordinary experience for donors. Yes, they say that. A personal interview with donors is an extraordinary experience for donors. Yes, they say that, too.

Here are some more extraordinary experiences for donors:

·        Telling your donors stories in your annual report and on your website is an extraordinary experience.

·        Inviting a donor to join you at the airport to welcome a new refugee family to this country. (Thanks to Rhode Island’s International Institute for that idea.)

·        Inviting donors to help the zookeeper feed the animals. (Yes, zoos are now doing this. Wow.)

·        Inviting your donors to watch surgery. (Of course, the patient must give permission. But I believe hospitals do this.)

Could you invite me to read stories to children? Could I present a topic in a classroom? Could I watch scientists doing lab experiments for a life-saving drug?

Don’t just say “no.” Don’t let your program staff refuse. Instead, explore ideas together.

What a great brainstorming session this would be with your board and your fund development committee. How much fun your staff in every department could have exploring ideas.

Now is the time. Create extraordinary experiences for your donors.

Please comment on this article by sharing extraordinary donor experiences . . . What you’ve experienced as a donor yourself. What your organization offers its donors. Tell us all now. Thank you.

  • Erik Ferry

    Every time we approach communication and overall relationships with donors like this we, the donors, and the organization’s bottom line all benefit. When I am in the role of donor I know that I respond to those meaningful or “extraordinary” experiences which I can have with supported organizations — in fact at one level that’s what it is all about.