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Guiding Donors’ Journeys With Your Database System

July 27, 2010 By Robin Fisk

When a donor makes his or her first gift, he or she may not realize it, but you’re hoping it’s the first step of a long journey of support for your cause. It’s your job as a fundraiser to take first-time donors through that journey and present them with opportunities to extend and deepen their support.

You can imagine a supporter’s journey as being marked by milestones, and as a supporter passes each milestone — for example, by passing a certain lifetime donation value or pledging a planned gift of some kind — that confirms that he or she has made it to the next level of support. By coding the donors on your database according to the milestones they have passed, it helps give some shape and definition to your database and enables you to plan activities for those groups of people based on their progress so far.

In reality, it’s more like herding cats than cattle — they don’t move in nice, predictable ways in tidy groups in the same direction. Some insist on skipping a step, while others do it in the wrong order, and there’s always one out there on his own somewhere. So rather than all supporters being somewhere on a journey from A to Z, some may have started at G and gone back to B before progressing to Z.

But what is the next step for a donor who’s just made his or her first gift? Is it the same in every case? How likely is he or she to respond to this? And what is the ultimate relationship you are looking for from each donor? The answers to these questions should be in your donor database, and this is one place where your investment in technology should pay back.

First, you need an understanding of what journeys the supporters have historically taken with your organization. To do this, you need three things: your donor database, a reporting tool such as Excel and some imagination. Your donor database should have a complete giving history over at least the last five years or so for each donor. And for each gift, you need to know the date and value, and whether or not it was part of a recurring commitment. You also need a record of the other significant events in a donor’s history such as a planned gift.

Next, decide what milestones you want to track. In other words, what are the significant moments that represent a deeper level of support for your cause? Typically, these include the first gift, when lifetime gifts have exceeded $1,000 and if the donor has participated in a fundraising event for your cause, among others. As long as you have the data in your database to identify these milestones, you’re on your way.

Then, use your reporting tool (or ask your techie colleague to do it for you) to identify the milestones passed by each donor; this essentially describes the journeys taken by each donor to date. Ask for them to be grouped and counted. This is where you’ll find out that even though you may have a classic supporter journey in your mind’s eye, there are in fact myriad variations on that theme. You will discover that you can’t assume that journeys are linear, but you will identify patterns revealing the journeys most frequently taken by your supporters. And from that, you’ll identify candidates for the next steps and be reasonably confident that they are steps that many will be happy to take.

You may also spot undesirable journeys, such as a pattern of attrition preceded by a single cash gift. This may point to improvements in communication or supporter care policies. Either way, the data in your database can provide genuinely useful information, and with a little imagination and application, it can take the guesswork out of donor-development planning.

Robin Fisk is a senior charity technology specialist at Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit software provider Advanced Solutions International (ASI).


 

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