How to Give Donors Hands-On Experiences That Inspire Loyalty

By Maria Di Mento

When wealthy donors tour your facilities, observe your work in action, learn from one of your organization’s subject-matter experts, or hear a story from a beneficiary firsthand, odds are they will feel more connected to your mission.

Creating experiences for major donors to interact with your organization requires thought and planning, but it is something even small charities can do, and it’s worth the effort, say experts.

Such experiences lay the groundwork for additional gift giving over time and can turn the philanthropist into an ambassador of sorts, someone who will want to get the word out about the great work your nonprofit is doing.

"Bringing a donor in, they can see what you’re doing and they can see there’s much more that needs to be done," says Tammy Zonker, chief fundraiser for the Children’s Center of Wayne County, in Detroit. "Once they get a taste of that, they want to do more and bring in their friends and colleagues."

Figuring out which type of interaction you should offer a high-net-worth donor depends on the donor’s personality, interests, and giving goals. Nonprofits used to focus on a rich donor’s motives and designed experiences to address them, says Adrian Sargeant, a former professor at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, who has studied donor retention. But today it is more important for fundraisers to focus on how an immersive experience will make a donor feel and how interactions with a nonprofit contribute to a donor’s satisfaction, he says.

"You have to think carefully about what you’re trying to connect them with so they experience that sense of well-being," says Sargeant. "If they experience well-being, they give a lot more and stay around a lot longer."

Consider Your Nonprofit’s Mission

For some nonprofits, the benefits of creating a special experience for a wealthy donor are obvious. A behind-the-scenes visit to a zoo, an invitation to attend rehearsals of a performing-arts group, or a private viewing of a special museum exhibit can allow the donor to experience the organization in an intimate setting.

But for other types of nonprofits — charities that serve those in need, for example — an on-site visit or interaction with beneficiaries must be handled with discretion and care.

Because Zonker’s group helps children struggling with mental and behavioral health challenges and kids who have experienced abuse, neglect, and other trauma, she and her team must adhere to privacy laws and avoid inadvertently exploiting the negative experiences many of the group’s children and youths are trying to overcome.

Instead of parading major donors through the charity’s facilities to see the kids it serves, Zonker invites donors to join her, and sometimes a trustee, for an event, such as a birthday party for one of the youths. Some of her group’s beneficiaries have behavioral problems that can cause such events to seem noisy and chaotic, so beforehand Zonker talks donors through potential scenarios they might encounter.

Preparing donors ahead of time gives them a chance to ask questions about how to interact with the children and staff, Zonker says. After the event, she schedules time to talk with donors to find out how they felt about the visit.

This kind of experience can change how rich philanthropists think about and interact with an organization they have supported. But not all donor experiences require a high level of preparation and care, says Zonker, who founded Fundraising Transformed, a consultancy that coaches nonprofit leaders and fundraisers.

For charities with fewer resources, an immersion tour of some kind can be a viable alternative. For example, Zonker has worked with small animal-welfare groups that invite donors to help out on pet-adoption days. And she’s worked with meal-delivery charities that include donors in a ride- along to hand-deliver meals.

"You can take a look at what your group is already doing and develop a way to include donors," she says.

Derrick Feldmann, a consultant who founded the Millennial Impact Project, a multiyear study of how "next generation" supporters and consumers engage with causes, says he thinks a tiered approach works best. Start with bite-size or half-day experiences, then build up to something bigger and with greater depth, he advises.

"I know organizations that bring donors to Iceland to see the effects of climate change, but they didn’t start out that way," says Feldmann.

Getting Started

Here are some tips from Zonker, Sargeant, and Feldmann to follow when devising a tour or other donor experience:

Ask yourself what you want the donor to know, feel, or do before arranging an in-person interaction.

Start with small activities or other experiences and then build them up and modify them as needed.

Get to now donors over time so you can understand who they are and what type of experience they prefer.

Do not start out with a slide show or video presentation about the organization’s history and founding. Figure out how to share the story of those you serve in a more personal way.

View the experience through the donor’s eyes and make sure it is immersive. There is no one- size-fits-all approach. If a donor is a hands-on type, he or she might like a site visit. But if a donor is not keen on that level of interaction, a discussion with an expert on the charity’s work may be preferable.

Give donors a day or two to process their experience and then follow up and get their feedback.

Creating experiences in which donors can interact with your charity gives them tangible evidence that their money is being put to good use and that they are making a difference in the world, says Sargeant.

"Modern major-gifts fundraising is at the end of the red-carpet, white-glove donor experience," says Zonker. "The future is about the immersive, human-to-human experiences."

Correction: A previous version of this article identiied Adrian Sargeant as a professor at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University instead of as a former professor there.

Derrick Feldmann