In search of the supporter experience – the Holy Grail of fundraising

In search of the supporter experience – the Holy Grail of fundraising

Guest Bloggers | 16 January 2020

Mark Dibden says that charities need to ask more of their data to turn it into genuine, actionable insight that fundraising teams and agencies can mobilise behind to grow long-term value.

If the years leading up to 2016 can be defined as the era of transactional fundraising, 2019 can best be described as the ‘age of engagement’.

The two are often painted as mutually exclusive options, with engagement fundraising offering charities the chance to redeem the wrongs of the transactional model.

The laser-like focus on short-term metrics  volume and annual income – that characterised the transactional era were a tantalising reward for most ambitious fundraisers and charities.

Whilst the perils weren’t immediately obvious, damage was being done. The public became sceptical of big charities who seemed to only want them for one thing – their hard earned cash. The bottom fell out of the market, and charities had to switch to a less well-travelled path.

A new age: ‘engagement’ is all the rage

Now, in 2020, at first glance, it seems that fundraisers have seen the light. A glance through most fundraising strategies will reveal the new quest: to “improve the experience,” or “deepen engagement,” or some combination of the above.

But is this a worthy quest for ambitious fundraisers? Or are charities wasting time and money on their search for the holy grail?

The problem of definition, measurement and progress

A major challenge at the outset is that there is no consistent definition of what is meant by delivering a great “supporter experience”. Similarly, no charity, in their annual report at least, is reporting on a consistent way of measuring progress.

There is of course a large industry built around measuring the “experience” – be it Net Promoter Score, loyalty, trust, commitment or satisfaction – and many charities are attempting to adopt some of these metrics.

But from what I saw at a recent IoF Supporter Experience conference (and have experienced myself when working at a large charity), there is a great expense and time involved in trying to crack the code for measuring the quality of the experience. And very little evidence that it’s impacting the bottom line. In fact, we’ve seen that the communications created to improve the experience are deemed to be at best “no worse” than the old approach, despite the additional time and cost.

The old adage, “what gets measured gets done” is a pertinent reminder that if something can’t even be defined, it’s even harder to measure it, let alone get anything actually done.

A recent article by Daniel Fluskey, Head of Policy and External Affairs at IoF, asked “are people giving less simply because they are not being asked as much?” as charities have shied away from fundraising asks and increased the volume of “other” communications.

But not only are donors not being asked, they are potentially being sent more communications with less focus on their primary reason for engaging in the first place. Which, perhaps ironically, was simply to donate and make a difference to the causes they care about.

Ambitious fundraisers are lacking the short-term goals that fuel success

The problem has never been that it’s bad to ask people for money – there are just better or worse ways to do it. And if all charities do is ask, and never thank properly, or put time into communicating how money is being spent, then it does become a one-way transaction.

In the quest for improving the supporter experience, we also seem to have done away with focusing on sensible fundraising KPIs. Even if you do develop a formula to measure the supporter experience, it still needs to be translated into tangible progress.

Here’s a radical idea. Rather than focusing on vague, unproven ideals such as improving the supporter experience – we simply need to focus on short-term measures of success that will also provide long-term financial growth.

After all, if you’re successful in raising money from supporters today and confident that it’s also giving you a stronger platform for future growth, you can be confident that it’s also good for your supporters.

Here’s an example:

As we developed a dashboard report to shine a light on the performance of one large charity regular giving programme, we were able to see a clear link between email clicks and 3-year financial value.

For supporters who clicked on an email, 3-year value was notably higher than for those who didn’t, due to reduced cancellation rates. Meaning that we could calculate the value of one click on an email in terms of pounds. It gave the team an immediate action plan: Test a burst of emails early on to drive clicks. The content would be primarily focused on telling donors how their regular donation was being used and what it would be used for in the future.

This wasn’t about pursuing an “improved supporter experience”. It was just basic data insight and great fundraising.

More charities are adopting performance dashboards which place real-time data in the hands of fundraising teams in the hope that they can solve similar problems. But if reports aren’t built on a solid foundation (based on deep insight), they will still send fundraisers in the wrong direction – or end up not being used.

Charities need to ask more of their data to turn it into genuine, actionable insight that fundraising teams and agencies can mobilise behind to grow long-term value. It’s not a futile quest and getting this right means that expensive or time-consuming work doesn’t just gather dust.

Mark Dibden is Senior Planner at Signal.