Spotlight from Trustees

An organisation’s mindset is critical to the supporter experience

This article, by Angela Cluff and Annie Perez, explains why organisations must put supporters at the heart of their decision making. Angela is an independent fundraising consultant and a Trustee of Oxfam GB and Annie is a fundraiser at ActionAid and a Trustee of Sunday Assembly London and Performers in Mind. Both write in a personal capacity.

Coronavirus has created a perfect storm for charities small and large, local to international. The combination of increased demand on services and reduced capacity and decimated income has left many facing financial crisis and for some it’s existential. Tough decisions – unimaginable a few short months ago – are happening and happening fast. We want to argue that it’s essential to put supporters and supporter experience at the heart of decision making.

Before coronavirus there was much discussion of fundraising being ‘broken’. Despite a shift in mindset, from fundraising activities to the supporter experience, we are now suggesting going one step further by focusing on supporters as people who share our vision and values, to embrace supporters as partners in our mission and to engage them as key stakeholders. It’s a call to shift from short term fundraising activities to long term relationships – a tough but essential call during the crisis. And one that might just give us a way out of crisis.

But first, what exactly is supporter experience? We’d describe it as how a supporter feels and thinks about your organisation, the sum of every interaction, everything you say and do, every time you talk or are quiet, every time you disappoint or delight.

Right now, we need to recognise that every supporter experience is not a great experience – we’d go as far as saying some supporters continue to support despite the experience organisations give them.

Two personal examples from Angela:

“One organisation motivated me to support them for the first time through a powerful story on social media. Since I’ve received endless follow up emails, but not one has mentioned that particular story. A second organisation invited me to a webinar, gave me a fantastic first-hand insight to their work and inspired me to make a gift. But I’m yet to receive a thank you letter. Both fit the disappointed rather than delighted category.”

And from Annie:

“I was part of a give as you earn scheme at an organisation I worked in and when I stopped working there, the charity didn’t follow up with me to see if I wanted to continue my regular gift. Another example is that I have supported a charity close to my heart for a long time but not once have they asked what my motivation is for supporting them. If they asked, I’d be more than happy to share our family story. Both examples highlight that when a charity doesn’t recognise their supporter’s motivation and connection it shows and there is a missed opportunity because the relationship could be nurtured into something stronger."

In our view, supporter experience is not a fundraising tactic or even strategy. Rather it’s a whole organisation mindset shift to see supporters as partners in the mission rather than people to fundraise from. But making the shift will result in raising more money in the long term.

We’d like to suggest three practical changes trustees and senior teams can make.

First, when you discuss fundraising, ask questions and interrogate from a supporter experience perspective, for example

  • when you are discussing the fundraising budget don’t just ask how much you are raising at what cost. Instead also ask how you are investing in supporter experience and how you will measure what is working well and what is not?
  • when you are discussing structure interrogate how well the proposal before you delivers supporter experience. Is it clear who is responsible and accountable for delivering exceptional supporter experience?
  • when you are shown (as boards so often are) the results of a recent campaign probe how the campaign made supporters feel and what it made them think – and how you know

Second, encourage trustees and senior team members to engage actively with supporters. There are many ways to do it – take part in a 'thankathon', participate in a sports event, volunteer in a shop, be a speaker at an event, shadow face to face fundraisers, read and respond to appeal responses or even answer complaints. Each interaction will give you an insight into a supporter’s why – the fundamental reason they support your organisation. And we’d argue this is the single most important piece of insight you can gather. Of course, you are only engaging personally with a few supporters but we hope it will ignite your curiosity into why every supporter’s ‘why’ is fundamental.

Third, consider how you bring the voice of supporters into decision making, all decision making. What might supporters think? What impact will how they think have on their support? What can and should you do to keep their support? At the very least, imagine you have a supporter in the room. The Commission on the Donor Experience project 15 offers a great example from ActionAid – building on the ‘empty chair’ methodology. Trustee meetings take place in a room with photographs of three empty chairs representing beneficiaries, supporters and staff, as a physical reminder of key stakeholders not in the room.

In these ways, you will start to shift the mindset – and build a more sustainable long term future. In fact, it will help you fundraise beyond the crisis. If we genuinely value supporters as partners in the mission they will rise to our challenge. Trust them.

Angela Cluff and Annie Perez