When is it OK to Surprise Your Donors?

Different surprises can produce radically different outcomes. So, before I address my headline question, let’s look at two stories from outside the fundraising world that can provide some insight.

Dame Jane Goodall, PhD, the world’s foremost authority on chimpanzees and founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, was invited to speak at an international conference. To welcome Goodall to her hotel room and to provide her with something to snack on, conference planners arranged for a salmon, complete with tasty accessories, to be delivered to her room.

The salmon might have been a nice, delicious surprise for a weary traveler except for one important thing: Goodall is a vegan. Rather than being pleased with the surprise, Goodall was offended and disgusted by it. She was definitely not happy.

Conference planners could easily have averted the problem with the Goodall-surprise if they had first done a bit of research.

Red Robin burgerBy contrast, the Red Robin gourmet-hamburger restaurant chain has developed a culture that encourages its employees to provide “Unbridled Acts.” Red Robin defines this as “random acts of kindness [employees] bestow upon restaurant Guests and other Team Members.” The acts focus on the target individual and what will make that person happy.

For example, ABCNews.com reported that a Red Robin manager in North Carolina surprised Amie and Jason Sivon. During a visit to their local Red Robin, with their two-year-old son, the Sivons chatted briefly with the manager. The manager joked that the meal might be a very pregnant Amie’s last before giving birth to her second child.

When the Sivons got their check, they saw that the restaurant had removed the cost of Amie’s $11.50 meal from the bill. A note was entered on to the check: “MOM 2 BEE GOOD LUC.”

“The manager said nothing to us about it,” Jason told ABCNews.com. “We were already happy with the service so that action really blew us away. I looked at my wife and told her that I guessed we would be coming here more often.”

Kevin Caulfield, a Red Robin spokesperson, explained the company’s corporate culture to ABCNews.com, “These kinds of random acts of kindness in our restaurants are part of our culture. Our team members, day in and day out, will bestow these random acts. They’re empowered to do special things for our guests to make the experience a great one for our guests.”

Red Robin takes Unbridled Acts so seriously that the company even devotes a section on its website to tell the stories customers share in letters, emails, and phone calls. Some stories involve comping a customer. Another story involves staff cheerfully searching through the garbage to find a customer’s lost key card. The stories are varied, but they all involve doing something special and unexpected for someone else. Some are particularly touching.

Red Robin knows how to surprise folks in small but wonderful ways.

So, when is it OK to surprise your donors and prospective donors?

It’s good to surprise people when you know enough about their wants or needs to be able to deliver something that they will appreciate.

When thinking about surprising your supporters and potential supporters, remember these six lessons we can learn from the two stories I just shared:

Lesson 1: Not all surprises are good. Minimize the bad surprises.

Lesson 2: Make sure, if you’re going to surprise someone, that your surprise will be well received.

Lesson 3: In order for your surprise to be well received, you need to know your audience. So, do your homework before surprising someone.

Lesson 4: A well-executed surprise can enhance relationships and get you a customer or donor for life.

Lesson 5: Create an organizational culture that encourages staff to surprise others in positive, appropriate ways.

Lesson 6: Yes, it’s OK to surprise donors and prospective donors. Actually, it’s more than just OK; it’s a good idea. Just make sure to pay attention to Lessons 1-5.

Positive surprises can help you cultivate strong relationships with donors and prospective donors. While this will lead to longer-term support and higher average gifts, don’t surprise folks just for those reasons alone. Surprise them because it’s also simply a nice thing to do. For all those reasons, it will leave you feeling good, too.

Over the years, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the organizations I’ve been involved with. My alma mater surprised me once with a pair of football tickets in the President’s Box. OK, it’s not as if I had attended Alabama — I attended Temple University — but it was still a very nice gesture. I appreciated it. It revitalized my relationship with the University.

The Luna Theater Company invited donors, patrons, and community members to a free open-house to see the site of its future home. You can read about it in my post “Overcome Challenges thru Collaboration.” The event featured the reading of a play, a short dance performance, soft-drinks, wine, and hors d’oeuvres. Being invited to such a high-value, free event happily surprised me. I already had a positive feeling about Luna. Now, I’m an active booster.

At times, I’ve also been the recipient of unpleasant surprises from the nonprofit organizations I support. You’ll find one such story at: “10 Tips to Save You from Becoming a Horrible Warning.

The key for any organization is to minimize the instances of unpleasant surprises, and maximize the happy ones. It’s a matter of being thoughtful, not extravagant. But, it’s not a matter of just doing something special. It’s about making Unbridled Acts part of your organization’s culture. It’s about making random acts of kindness routine.

When being thoughtful, remember that it’s about the other person, not you. So, you can’t rely on following the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” Instead, follow the Platinum Rule of Tony Alessandra, PhD, CSP, CPAE: “Treat others the way they want to be treated. 

I’d like to hear about some of the ways you pleasantly surprise your donors and prospective donors. What are some of things you’ve done that folks weren’t expecting, but that made their day? What do you do to cultivate a donor-centered culture in your organization? Please share your thoughts below so that we can all benefit from an exchange of creative, surprising ideas.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

11 Responses to “When is it OK to Surprise Your Donors?”

  1. A very cool story, and some good ideas. I can see this working really well for major gift officers in my non-profit, but I wonder if there’s a way to implement this from my position, as the direct mail manager. I can’t just pick and choose a few random recipients to stick in a free gift of some sort… or could I? I suppose that may be possible, but other than that, can you think of any ways to implement this idea in my position?

    As always, thanks for a great article.

    • SilentFury, thanks for your kind comment. Because I don’t have any information about your nonprofit organization, I can only respond to your question in a general way. But, I’ll do my best.

      So, what can you, as a direct-mail manager, do to surprise donors? I would suggest that, at your next staff meeting, you raise the idea of creating an Unbridled Acts culture at your organization. I know that getting buy-in could take time, if you’re able to get it at all. So, let’s look at what you can do on your own. Depending on what your nonprofit does, you can enclose something special in your direct mail appeals or thank-you letters that relates to the organization’s mission. For example, if you work for a healthcare organization or disaster relief charity, you could include a free first-aid leaflet. If you have corporate donors who are particularly generous, you might talk with them about providing coupons or discount offers that you could pass along to donors. For larger donors, you can surprise folks by simply adding a personal, handwritten message to the thank-you letter. Or, in addition to the regular gift acknowledgement, you could send larger donors a personal, handwritten thank-you note; start with your largest donor and work your way down the list until you get writer’s cramp. In thank-you letters, you can provide folks with a URL to see a video of your organization providing service.

      You don’t have to spend a lot of money. You’re only limited by your own creativity. I suggest that you set aside some quiet time to do some personal brainstorming. Jot down as many ideas as you can think of in a five minute period. Do not evaluate any of the ideas until you’re done with your list. Be sure to write down any idea that pops into your head, no matter how silly it might seem at first. Once you’ve put together your list, take another five minutes to jot down as many ideas that would never work or that you never could implement. Then, review your first list and pick the three or so best ideas. Look at your second list and see if any of the “terrible” ideas might really be worth considering; if so, add them to your first list. After you have your list of possible, good ideas, think them through: How much would it cost? How much time would it take? Would people appreciate receiving it?

      Good luck! If you do decide to implement something, you might want to track the impact. For donors you surprise, you can enter a code into your database. Then, you can compare the future performance of those donors compared with similar donors who did not receive the special treatment. That way, you’ll be able to determine if the special treatment has any impact on donor renewal rate and average gift size or upgrade rate. Let me know what you decide to do.

  2. Might I suggest that an organization develop a formal donor recognition strategy. No matter the budget, the type, or the size of the organization, a donor recognition program can be developed and used strategically to “surprise” donors at all levels. From a simple handwritten thank you note on acknowledgement letters, to the board chair picking up the phone to thank a major donor, you simply can’t go wrong with gratitude. Note: some donors will say they don’t expect or need special attention, but I have found that most, if not all donors, appreciate it 🙂

    • Fran, thank you for your suggestion. I completely agree with you. Nonprofit organizations should definitely have a donor-recognition plan. And, that plan should include “surprises” for donors. I should have been more clear in my post. It’s the organization’s donors and prospective donors that should be surprised, not the development professional. 🙂

      Donors will often say that they do not want any special recognition because that’s the socially acceptable thing to say. However, most donors will nevertheless appreciate the special attention. Penelope Burk, in her book Donor Centered Fundraising, proves this with solid research. I will just point out that, while donors appreciate special recognition, they do not want the organization to be extravagant in the process. Little, no-cost or low-cost surprises will go a very long way.

      • Thank you both. Just to give a little more background, we are a large university, so we have a very fluid stewardship department, and thanking donors doesn’t ever seem to stop. That said, I sometimes wonder if it’s become “expected” by donors, making it seem less special. Which is why I am thinking something a little outside the box might be beneficial. But don’t worry, I’m working on it. 🙂

      • SilentFury, thanks for the additional information. One of the challenges with stewardship is that what is special today, can become expected tomorrow. This means we have to remain creative. Interestingly, other nonprofits and for-profits are helping to set those expectations. No organization manages expectations in a vacuum. Companies like Red Robin are training the public to expect special treatment from time-to-time. It’s up to us to think of creative, strategic, low-cost or no-cost ways to happily surprise folks. The side benefit of doing this is that it will help keep us from getting bored. 🙂

  3. Really interesting stories, Michael! I’ve read them with interest. Surprises could be useful – and relevant for both the parts involved – if aimed to revitalize a relationship, or to welcome someone into an organization, or to demonstrate someone a special appreciation. I worked for the Alumni Association of an Italian University, and we used to give a small-but-special gift to the Alumni who reached a certain number of years from their graduation. It included people about 80 years old, and the “congratulation diploma” that the Rector gave them was one of the most moving moments in my professional life!

    Of course, we previously analised our database to search for information about their professional life, in order to customized the diploma and the pin, just two symbols to thank them for their support as Alumni.

    I found your story about Red Robin really nice: their Unbridled Acts seem a nice idea to enhance loyalty towards the company. I’ll read their website to read histories!

    • Simona, thank you for your kind feedback. I’m glad you liked my post and the stories it contained. Your story about the Italian university was very interesting. I like the idea of recognizing people for their long-term relationship with the organization.


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