Transactional to Transformational: Better Giving Experiences

When donors are committed to an organization’s solution to improve the world, they often give on with their dollars what they cannot give with their time.

In return, the organization’s staff puts in the time, thus leveraging donor dollars toward those solutions.

Sometimes, though, donors DO need to give of their time. Likewise, it’s ok for an organization to use some of its capital to say thank you and inform donors.

Some of you reading this may bristle at that concept. . Some might think it is entirely up to the organization to determine outcomes and progress. Others might oppose any dollars being earmarked to activities that go beyond the core mission (such as coffee for the break room or wine for a gala dinner).

Let’s think about the relationship between donor and charity a bit differently for a moment. Instead of emphasizing the financial side, let’s examine the experience of being a giver, something that is often overlooked. When you engage beyond the transaction of giving and focus on the broader experience, then you begin to affect real change.

How Donors Can Give Time

Donors know that if they become dissatisfied with an organization they are supporting, they can easily turn off the spigot and redirect their money (or simply stop their giving entirely!) Charities need to always remember this (more on this in the next section).

Before you give up on a certain group, however, please remember the key reason you supported it in the first place. If you remain passionate about the cause, and if you are convinced the organization can still achieve certain outcomes, then you have a donor obligation to push for improvement.

DonorsTrust president Lawson Bader discusses this point in our Investing for Liberty booklet (you can get a copy here):

To ensure non-profits stay on course toward their stated aims, donors at all levels play a critical role. Donor feedback – both verbal and financial – serves as a key market signal for a non-profit. When an organization drifts, it’s vital you let it know. If it continues to move away from the goals that attracted you to it in the first place, then end your contributions.

The inverse is true as well. If a group you support makes real gains, grows beyond expectations, has an unexpected win, or simply plows steadily ahead in a difficult environment, donor feedback and support ensures that progress or momentum continue.

In other words, don’t be a passive investor. Creating social change requires engagement from all sides.

If you are dissatisfied or feel there is a weakness, donors need to communicate those concerns to the organization. The organization may do nothing, in which case it is perfectly acceptable for you to shift your resources to another entity that matches your goals. But as with any relationship, the other person can’t fix what they don’t realize may be broken.

How Organizations Can Improve the Giving Experience

In the years I spent crafting donor events, I learned a valuable lesson: donors have many reasons to justify attending an event, but they need a phenomenal experience in order to return. .

A good speaker, like a good mission statement, gets someone in the door. But a magical moment creates a lasting partnership.

Groups don’t need to go to extremes to achieve a positive giving experience for their donors. A handwritten thank you note, a personal call from the CEO, a timely gift receipt (ideally all three!) will go a long way toward creating goodwill in the donor’s mind.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your relationship with the donor stops at the end of the thank you process. Just as you can’t get someone to marry you by following an elusive “love checklist,” you also can’t retain your great donors by simply meeting the minimum requirements.

Even donors who say they don’t want anything other than for you to go “do good work” need care and feeding. That might look like a professional-looking mid-year update so they can feel the forward progress. It may be a mailing to announce a big victory.

Donor events, small-group gatherings, and conference calls matter as well. These encourage donors to be amongst each other and also engage with the staff. You create more personal connections this way, helping donors understand all the facets of your work while developing an understanding of the donors themselves.

I led my church’s capital campaign, which involved a gala dinner. More than one frugal parishioner questioned the need for a fancy feast. I understood their concerns. However, we had more people in that ballroom Saturday night than we did in the pews the next morning. The change of venue and the elegant atmosphere sparked new conversations.

Even years later, people still talk about that dinner. It’s become a touchstone in our church history and we’re a stronger congregation because of it. Yes, it cost a little money. However, saving those few thousand dollars would have cost the congregation those enduring memories that strengthened our community.

From Transactional to Trusting – To Transformational

True success for non-profits comes when all the stakeholders work together to create change.

Donors, don’t be alarmed, but as organizations develop a greater personal connection with you, you will likely give them more money. You’ll do it not out of obligation but because you truly have become a co-partner in achieving a shared vision.

And to the organizations out there, remember that keeping existing donors by building this trust is far more cost-effective than identifying new ones.

As fundraising expert Roger Craver writes in his book Retention Fundraising, “When donors are both functionally satisfied and personally connected to your organization, they recommend you to others, stay with you, and are willing to forgive the occasional mistakes…In short they trust you because your actions have demonstrated you care about their needs.”

This trust elevates the relationship. That is how we truly transform society.


  • Peter Lipsett

    Peter Lipsett is vice president at DonorsTrust. He also leads DonorsTrust’s Novus Society, a network of donors under 40 committed to growing their philanthropic know-how. He has a dual degree in political science and theater from Davidson College and finally got a practical credential with an MBA from George Mason University.

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