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The Four Pillars of the Donor Experience

By Lynne Wester

When I sat down to write The 4 Pillars of the Donor Experience a year ago, 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 fundraising 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% and overall donor retention less than 50% we are in danger of losing our donor bases. We see this in the fact that 95% of our gifts come from 5% 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 can you 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 organization. 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. But 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 them 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.

If you're intrigued by the ideas highlighted in this post, I hope you'll grab a copy of The 4 Pillars of the Donor Experience and share it with your friends across the profession. As always, I'm endlessly grateful for your support.



Lynne Wester is the principal and founder of Donor Relations Guru and the DRG Group. She is one of the most sought-after fundraising speakers in the world and has presented at regional, national, and international conferences of over 4,000.

Lynne created the DRG website to be used as a unique industry tool filled with resources, samples and thought leadership on donor relations and fundraising. She is regularly featured in publications such as the Washington Post, Chronicle of Philanthropy, and CASE Currents and has authored three books of her own on a myriad of industry topics - including The 4 Pillars of Donor Relations and The 4 Pillars of the Donor Experience.


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