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Four Donor Experiences We’re Loving Right Now…and Why!

Photo of donors with glow accessories on at a donor event. Purple overlay with blog title: Four Donor Experiences We're Loving Right Now...and Why!

You’ve heard it before, and we’ll say it again: experiencing the impact of generosity is at the heart of the donor experience—and a key influencer on a donor’s motivation to give again.

The decision to give is approximately 80-95% emotional, and moving donors to emotion through meaningful experiences is a critical step in the process of nonprofits strengthening these relationships. 

While finding inspiration to fuel those experiences may seem daunting at times, it doesn’t have to be such a challenge—sometimes the best ideas are right in front of us. As many of us wrap up a busy events season and start planning for another round, here are four inspiring donor experiences to get your creative juices flowing again!

1. Getting Their Hands Dirty: A Day at the Arboretum Teaching Nursery and Garden

UC Davis recently treated their esteemed Leadership Giving Society (LGS) members to an exclusive day at the Arboretum Teaching Nursery and Garden, showcasing a commitment to sustainability and botanical education.

The day began with a captivating tour of the gardens, immersing members in the diverse ecosystem, and educating them on ways to support pollinators and biodiversity. The highlight of the experience was a hands-on planting session with student enthusiasts, who shared their inspiring journeys into fields centered around the arboretum and sustainability. Each guest had an opportunity to plant various arboretum-inspired flora, fostering a deeper connection with both nature and the university's mission.

Following the planting activity, guests indulged in an extensive plant shopping spree, taking home a piece of the arboretum's beauty before the semi-annual public sale. It was a delightful opportunity to support the arboretum's initiatives while adding greenery to their own spaces.

What We Love:  Structured adult play! Donors like to have fun, too, and not everything needs to be a cocktail party. This event provided donors with an inside look at a donor-funded program area, connected them with numerous beneficiaries, and offered a hands-on educational experience. Win-win-win!

2. Just for You (Tube): Storytelling Made To-Go

When creating a custom donor experience, typically we recommend thinking “outside the box,” but sometimes a moment calls for creating an experience that is literally inside the box—the video box, that is. 

A custom designed video box is an ideal option for bringing impact to those donors who may not be able to easily access the impact of their giving. Immersive video boxes are available online and allow your organization to not only customize the box itself, but also easily upload an impact tour or video created specifically with the donor in mind. It’s a great way to showcase projects from remote locations, reach donors who are unable to travel, or add a special moment to a planned celebration (think large family gathering or milestone event). 

We recommend videos no longer than 2.5 to 3 minutes in length, and they should tell the impact of the donor’s giving across your organization. Depending on the occasion and resources available, the video can be professionally produced or simply filmed and edited from a student’s or beneficiary's perspective. Don’t let budget be an obstacle—sometimes the most heartfelt moments are best captured on a handheld smartphone! 

Be sure to order enough video boxes to share with your donor and other meaningful members of their community (think family, business associates, private foundation staff, etc). These are unique, beautiful custom touches that, whether hand delivered or wrapped in a bow and shipped, provide your donor with an experience they can relive for years to come.

What We Love: 

It’s NOT an event! Meaningful donor engagement comes in various forms, and this one offers organizations an opportunity to highly customize an experience. It’s also manageable with few resources, environmentally friendly, and utilizes one of the most powerful forms of storytelling: video. Bonus tip: you can even repurpose video content created for other uses and personalize it to craft a made-for-you moment.

3. Flocked Together: Immersive Live Events

We love the perks of an engaging online experience, but there’s something about in-person events that can’t be replaced—especially when it shines a spotlight on the uniqueness of your organization.

Immersing donors in your work brings it to life and provides inspiration that donors seek. And we’ll say it again for those in the back: get out of the stale ballroom, put the rubber chicken away, and experiment with experiences that transport donors to a different reality. 

The Denver Zoo did just that with their annual fundraising event: the Flock Party–a self-guided immersive experience that took over the entire property. After check-in, the fun started with a flamingo-themed photo station and a signature beverage station before the big walk around the zoo.

Donors were provided a QR code to access a map of open exhibits, conservation education demonstrations, music, food stations, and even the silent auction items. Now, we are definitely not silent auction enthusiasts as they’re usually filled with stuff nobody wants or things they can go buy themselves (not to mention the drain on valuable volunteer and staff time); however, The Flock Party auction took a different approach and featured mostly art made by the animals–how brilliantly on-theme and unexpected! The evening ended with a mainstage band playing while guests partied with glow sticks and ate fruit filled empanadas. After a fabulously fun time, donors walked away feeling engaged, inspired, and full of new information about the zoo and its animals. 

To top it off, the follow up was spot-on, featuring a video and stats about the event, and the silent auction animal art arrived a few months later with a lovely thank you note from the development team.

What We Love: 

The immersive environment allows donors to explore the event on their own—and they are literally walking through the spaces and among the beneficiaries their gifts support. It’s an inclusive, donor-centered experience where every element speaks to the mission and brings it to life. We don’t all have a zoo to work with, but we CAN create inspiring environments that facilitate a direct connection to the mission without forced interactions at seated rounds and way-too-long speeches from the stage. 

4. Impact On Demand: The Giving Machine

Here’s one that still has us talking: a vending machine…but for charity. Generosity is not a new concept and vending machines are not a new concept. But generosity via vending machines? Now THAT’s something new. 

That is exactly what caught our attention about Light the World’s Giving Machines over the holiday season. 

Here are the deets: Rather than housing Takis and Twinkies (yum), each slot of these unique vending machines contained a card with an image of a specific item needed along with a corresponding dollar amount. Donors could purchase shoes, meals, bedding, books, livestock, and more. Gift options ranged from $10-249.

And according to all the research we could find, 100% of the contributions made via these vending machines were directed to small and large reputable nonprofits both locally and worldwide.

Ok, cool. But does it work? YES! And here are 3 science-backed principles as to why:

  • Social Proof: Donors don’t walk away with the card representing what they donated. Instead, cards pile up at the bottom of the machine, each one representing a transaction. The build-up of these cards motivates bystanders to join in. 

  • Novelty (Von Restorff) Effect: This is how behavior scientists say, “surprise and delight.” Positioned uniquely in often busy public spaces, the Giving Machine draws attention due to its distinctive appearance and purpose.

  • Concreteness: Selecting specific items to donate transforms abstract contributions into concrete support, making giving tangible and personal. It’s point-of-giving impact at its best. It’s also especially effective at making the impact of giving accessible to audiences who may have less exposure to the work of many nonprofits (think young children and random everyday shoppers).

The truth is that we are all wired to be dopamine chasers. Props to Giving Machine creators for finding a way to channel that for good.

Now, before you start hauling the break room vending machine to the middle of Town Square, there are other creative ways to replicate this experience.

Consider setting up a digital kiosk in a high-traffic area where donors can fund distinct aspects of your project, such as a school computer or garden tools for a community project. Alternatively, consider a themed interactive wall at an event where attendees place pins or stickers on specific projects they wish to fund. 

What We Love: 

It’s hard not to admire the novelty and gamification of the giving machine experience, but the real power of this approach lies in the ability to harness behavioral insights to increase engagement and donations. Whether using sophisticated technology or setting up your own interactive wall with simple Post-It notes, giving donors the opportunity to tell us what matters to them–and tracking it–not only makes for an engaging donor experience, it’s also good fundraising practice. 

Speaking of tracking: whatever unique experience you choose to design for donors, be sure to build in mechanisms for tracking performance and soliciting input from the audience. Knowing what resonated with your donors—and what didn’t—will help inform your next steps. You might even find the next great idea right in front of you.

As fun as these four examples are, we know there are many more out there. What’s the best donor experience you’ve seen lately? Let us know and don’t be shy to toot your own horn–—tell us about your own efforts—we’d love to hear it! 

Written by Melissa Carrera, Matthew Helmer, Madelyn Jones, Holly Kizer, and Christine McGuire


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