The 4 Pillars of the Donor Experience

Your nonprofit organization has a serious problem. While you are expending enormous energy to attract, retain, and upgrade donors, things aren’t working out as well as they could. As a sector, charities are doing a horrible job of hanging on to supporters.

Let’s be clear. The low retention rate among donors is not their fault. Instead, the fault rests with charities that do not ensure a donor experience that inspires long-term commitment.

Fortunately, there’s something you can do about this. You can enhance the experience of your donors and thereby increase your chance of retaining them and upgrading their support. A new book by Lynne Wester, The 4 Pillars of the Donor Experience, will show you the way.  Lynne is the principal and founder of Donor Relations Guru  and the DRG Group. In addition to her books and workshops, she created the Donor Relations Guru website to be used as a unique industry tool filled with resources, samples and thought leadership on donor relations and fundraising.

I first encountered Lynne several years ago at an Association of Fundraising Professionals International Conference. She was leading a mini-seminar in the exhibit hall hosted by AFP. As I was walking past, her talk stopped me in my tracks. She was entertaining while talking about a subject that seldom is properly addressed at fundraising conferences. And her thoughts about donor relations resonated with me. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Lynne’s latest book, which is graphically beautiful and accessible, breaks down the philosophy of donor engagement while providing concrete strategies, tangible examples, and a whole slew of images and samples from organizations across the nation who are doing great work. The book is interspersed with offset pages that really drive home the theories outlined and provide specific examples that nonprofit professionals constantly crave and request. You’ll find key metrics, team activities, survey questions, and so much more. If you want to improve your organization’s donor retention rate, get Lynne’s book and improve the donor experience.

I thank Lynne for her willingness to share some book highlights with us:


When I sat down to write The 4 Pillars of the Donor Experience, I wanted it to be a continuation of our thought work in The 4 Pillars of Donor Relations. But honestly, I wanted it to be a book that was read beyond donor-relations circles and practitioners and instead shared across departments and read widely by the nonprofit community.

Why? Because we have a huge problem facing our sustainability in nonprofits and that is donor retention. With first-time donor retention rates hovering below 30 percent, and overall donor retention less than 50 percent, we are in danger of losing our donor bases. We see this in the fact that 95 percent of our gifts come from five percent of our donors and, in higher education, the alumni giving rate is falling each and every year. My belief is that most of these declines can be attributed to our behavior and our insistence on ignoring the donor experience.

The donor experience is everyone’s responsibility and it requires much more than a thank you letter and an endowment report. It is a mindset. The four pillars—knowledge, strategy, culture, and emotion—can be applied in a wide variety of areas.

Knowledge is essential because it lays the foundation for all of our actions with donors. Far too often, we make dangerous assumptions that affect the donor experience. Getting to know your donors is essential. Look beyond the basic points of information and dig into a donor’s behavior and also communication preferences. Gathering passive intelligence is inextricable from the practice of crafting the donor experience. Seeking active intelligence is essential. What information are you gathering through surveys, questions, and intelligence gathering? Intentional feedback can help you prove your case for additional human and financial resources, new programs or initiatives, and gives you new content and activity to test.

In addition, consider how you can use this information to enhance the donor experience for all donors, regardless of level. Curiosity and tenacity are encouraged in this space. Being intentional is a mindset, a new way of operating and data drives all that we do. It’s your responsibility to gather as much data as possible to help build the strategic case for your donors and their experience.

Strategy is often overlooked in favor of tasks and output at our organizations. As you focus on the strategy behind the donor experience, a few things become crystal clear. If knowledge is power, strategy is the catalyst that allows for dynamic change within the donor experience. In this section of the book, I outline four of many strategies to help move your donor experience forward. From focusing on retention as your most important metric for success to understanding that donor behavior should dictate our communications behavior, not the amount of the donor’s last gift, and that the amount of their last gift is just one piece of information we know about them in order to target their communications.

The more you know about the donor, the more you can strategize about meaningful engagement opportunities they will actually enjoy. Far too often, our work is reactive and loses its true meaning. When we strategize and are proactive on behalf of the donor, our work carries far more impact.

Culture focuses on empowerment, excellence, and gratitude to help define your organization’s interactions with donors. An expectation of excellence is a behavior and application of a set of standards. Not settling for good enough while balancing perfectionist tendencies is essential. Excellence takes determination and commitment; it needs to become a habit of your work. Empowerment is hard to define, but when it is not present in an organization, it shines brightly. Empowered professionals are more engaged, work harder, and produce better work.

Keep in mind that it takes anywhere from 18 to 36 months to change a culture and, if we think about the change resistant nature of nonprofit organizations, this could be even longer. However, celebrating generosity using gratitude becomes habitual and ingrained in our personas. In order to transform the donor experience, we should begin with gratitude. How we talk about our donors can change how we see and perceive their generosity.

Lead with your heart in fundraising and your donors will do the same. Noting the importance of emotion in our profession cannot be overstated. I’ve been in rooms where donors have told stories of why they give and what it means to them to support the organization and the hair on my arms stood straight up—I was responding to their emotion. When we allow people to connect deeply to our organizations, we become a cause they can care about. When we tell people how wonderful we are, they don’t believe we need their help. The institution itself isn’t the solution. The generous souls that support us are.

We need to inspire donors as individuals; hierarchy and bureaucracy aren’t inspirational. If you want to build a funnel into future giving, enhance the donor experience by giving gratitude and creating a community of supporters who believe in your cause and are inspired by actions that they have made possible.

The overall point here is that building an optimum donor experience takes time and sometimes more patience than we allow ourselves. It is a step-by-step process, and it is an adventure in changing culture. But regardless of how difficult it might be to change the donor experience at your organization, it is worth it. It benefits the donor, that generous soul we often take for granted and, in the end, it will also benefit your organization. Having a donor-focused culture with an amazing donor experience should be one of our highest aims.


That’s what Lynne Wester and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

2 Comments to “The 4 Pillars of the Donor Experience”

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