OPINION: Journey’s end – why supporter journeys are a distraction from genuine supporter care

Liz WaldyThe principle behind supporter journeys is fine. But, argues Liz Waldy, in practice they often end up shoehorning donors into a formulaic communications plan that, ironically, neglects the relationship.


A couple of years ago at the National Fundraising Convention, I suggested that supporter journeys should be confined to Room 101, never to be seen again. I was unsuccessful in persuading my fellow fundraisers but I think it’s still worth the challenge.

The theory of supporter journeys is fine, which is why people like them – they make fundraising simpler to understand and report on.

But I have always believed that fundraising is a mix of art and science – and supporter journeys take all the art away. At their core is a belief that supporters are passive entities who will be shoehorned into whatever activity we have decided for them, and when.

‘At the core of the supporter journey concept is a belief that supporters are passive entities who will be shoehorned into whatever activity we have decided for them’

When it comes to recruiting new donors everyone seems to agree that the old ways don’t work anymore: that you can no longer put one response down to one activity, that you need a mix of media, paid and unpaid, and that people will need to see your message several times in different places before responding. Some activities can be easily measured some can’t. And yet we seem to think that as soon as those donors are on the database that stops being the case.

So let me make my case again.


They are all about the trees not the woods

Supporter journeys encourage you to focus on the granular, not the overview. They encourage fundraisers to report on individual activities, response rates, average gifts, RoI etc. But once you start focusing only on those things then you miss out on seeing what supporters are doing outside of that planned activity and how many supporters are excluded from those activities. It’s much easier to report on an individual activity or campaign, but taking a step back to see what supporters are telling you by their behaviour can be valuable.

When we first starting looking at this in ActionAid, we had a very good uplift programme. Through a regular telemarketing campaign we got great response rates, average gifts and a very nice RoI. But we decided look at the issue in a different way, to try to see what was driving an overall increase in supporter value – for all supporters.

So instead of looking at the activity we looked at the people. We looked at all the supporters who had increased their committed giving value over a period of time. Then we took a sample of them so we could look at each one individually to see what was behind the increase. A large number of the supporters who increased their giving did so because of an automatic cost of living increase. As a result we went back to actively promoting that at the point of recruitment.

Of those donors who had actively increased their monthly donation, one third of the increases were directly due to our uplift communications but two thirds were because of something else. They got some feedback or went to an event and then decided to increase their giving of their own free will.

The most significant increases in terms of financial value were because of donors sponsoring a second child – doubling their giving. At the time that wasn’t something that we had actively promoted at all, they just decided to do it themselves – cheek, didn’t they know we have a journey planned out for them!


They are more about you than the donor

Supporters are people not cars – they have lives, probably complicated, and plenty of demands on their time, money, attention. Whatever charity you work in, you can lose perspective, forgetting what it’s like out there in the ‘real world’. I remember a planning meeting where we mapped out the key points during the coming year. People very quickly picked up on the timings of the UK Presidency of the G8, and even the 50th anniversary of the African Union. No-one put in Mother’s Day, Christmas, when the schools go back in September – all things that are more likely to matter to supporters.

‘It’s difficult to get our heads around the very many different types of supporters and the varied motivations that they have. That’s why we try and compartmentalise them, fitting them into our neat little plans.’

And even if you could map out all those key points for supporters, every individual will be motivated by different factors that your supporter journey planning couldn’t hope to predict. I remember listening to a welcome call made to a new sponsor at ActionAid. When asked why he decided to sponsor a child he gave a lengthy answer detailing illness, job loss, home loss – a whole list of things that would easily make a person lose all hope, but he described as something that made him reassess what was important in life.

Once they have started giving to you people carry on doing their own things – they don’t patiently wait to receive our next communication, read it thoroughly, return the lovely form in the envelope provided: we all know about the five-year old appeal envelopes that turn up with a donation in.

I know it’s difficult to get our heads around the very many different types of supporters and the varied motivations that they have, and I think that’s why we try and compartmentalise them, fitting them into our neat little plans. The danger is that when we forget that we begin to stop being curious about why supporters do what they do, and what they want from us.

And while we are on the subject – how do people in your organisation talk about your donors? Respectfully, gratefully, what terminology is used – formally or informally? I’ve heard some shockers – and that is not great. Are supporters visible in your office at all? If you don’t know them then how can you talk to them, and if you don’t even like them then that is going to show.


They are a distraction

Let me be clear, I don’t have anything against well-planned, well-timed, targeted, integrated communications with supporter. But while you are putting most of your effort and budget into defining and delivering complex supporter journeys, there is going to be something more important that you have totally ignored.

People aren’t daft they know when they are being marketed to and if they get the chance to engage with a real person rather than a marketing machine then they’ll remember that. And it doesn’t matter how nice your DM pack is if you’ve spelt their name wrong.

The problem with good supporter care is that you cannot directly measure its impact on income, like you can with a direct mail appeal.

A while ago, walking down the Strand, I was approached by a face-to-face fundraiser for a well-known charity. I politely told him that I was already a supporter and had been for several years, but when I got home I thought I would just check my bank account as I hadn’t heard anything from them for a while. What I discovered was that when I had switched bank accounts six months ago that direct debit hadn’t transferred. I hadn’t noticed but what was worse was that neither had they.

And if, as a fundraiser, you have impressed your leadership team, or board, with your supporter journey presentations and results, you can’t be surprised when they won’t invest in areas like supporter care where you can’t provide those easy answers.


They don’t work

When we first started looking into this, we asked fundraisers from five of the biggest UK charities to meet and share their experiences about trying to be more supporter-focused in their work. Every one of the five had implemented supporter journeys and all agreed that they hadn’t worked, and often had unforeseen impacts on how people supported. Primarily they didn’t work because:

  • In practise they became too complicated, particularly when you tried to explain them to others
  • They made the organisation less supporter-focused, devaluing those activities that cannot be so easily measured
  • They discouraged integration with other non-financial ways of supporting resulting in teams ‘fighting’ over access to donors

So I’d still like to send supporter journeys into Room 101, never to be heard of again and instead let’s look at providing an excellent supporter experience whenever and why ever we talk to supporters – and even when they talk to us. Let’s make sure that we are offering supporters a number of ways to engage with our work – if they want to, let’s invest in excellent supporter care, and make sure that all the basic housekeeping elements of our fundraising activity are in order.

And in terms of the culture of our fundraising departments, let’s make sure supporters are right at the heart of what we do – known and respected, and let’s be prepared to admit that we don’t always know what works and what doesn’t.

    • Liz Waldy is international fundraising director at Mission Without Borders and was previously head of supporter marketing at ActionAid.

Further reading

The hype over ‘donor journeys’ – Sarah Clifton, 101 Fundraising

How are you managing the donor journey? – Tony Elischer, 101 Fundraising

The donor journey – Tom Belford, The Agitator (paywall)


Associate members

5 thoughts on “OPINION: Journey’s end – why supporter journeys are a distraction from genuine supporter care”

  1. Hi Liz. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on donor journeys. Whilst I agree they are not always used correctly, I disagree that means we should abandon the principle behind them.

    Your main example backs this up. Without knowing the full story, it seems very surprising that you didn’t plan or assume that people would sponsor a second child. That would indicate a failure of planning rather than a failure of theory of supporter journeys. Your lack of donor insight meant that you failed to understand donor’s motivations and reasons for giving . As soon as you were aware of this I assume you could start to plan accordingly?

    I agree that donor journeys are not some sort of panacea. Nothing in fundraising is. But I’d argue that they need to be part of a package of tools that fundraisers use to improve the supporter experience and to provide outstanding communications and service.

    It shouldn’t be an either/or argument, but about developing a culture of donor-focussed thinking that uses a range of techniques to give supporters the best experience possible.



    p.s. I completely agree about your point on the language we use. Someone used the following phrase in a meeting recently: ‘How many pieces do you think you’ll want to recruit this year?’. What an awful way to talk about potential supporters!


  2. Hi, Liz. I agree with Craig’s comments: supporter journeys are helpful as a “wire frame” for supporter comms, but they require continual refinement. Because the term “supporter journey” isn’t specifically defined in this piece, it reads as a bit of an attack on a straw man.

    Reading between the lines from what you argue is wrong with supporter journeys, it sounds like you have defined supporter journeys as a system whereby people are sent a series of communications based on how the charity thinks they would like to hear from the charity/what the charity would like the supporter to do without taking into account the way the supporters actually behave. I agree with you that a supporter journey that looks like that is dangerous and unproductive; it is hard to argue against that position.

    However, I am not sure the arguments in this blog actually make a case that “supporter journeys” themselves are bad — in my mind, the blog actually just argues that “bad supporter journeys are bad.” You suggest that we should replace supporter journeys with “excellent supporter experience” — but how does one deliver that experience? I would argue one very effective way is through….well-designed and responsive supporter journeys.

    In your example, you showed that Action Aid had a supporter journey in place as a starting point and they were getting good results. Then they looked at what was driving the results, and they gained an insight that helped them make that journey better — by actively promoting cost of living increases. To me that shows they improved a good supporter journey by making it even better, not that supporter journeys themselves are bad. And the example of the charity that failed to react to the fact that your direct debit ceased seems to me to be an example of a lack of a supporter journey: many charities have a new supporter journey that would be triggered by a lapse in a payment against a direct debit.

    The reality for a large charity with a donor file in the tens of thousands is that it is impossible to have a 100% personalised communications plan for every supporter. You have to make some assumptions about who should get what communications based on what you think the donor is likely to want/respond to based on what you know about the donor. You can’t know everything about the donor in question, but as you learn more (because they tell you something, because they respond/don’t respond to something), you can adjust what they get in the future. You can’t make them perfect, because your information about them is only as complete as what they tell you/what you can infer based on what they do. We aren’t mind readers! But we can and should respond to new information, and we should offer multiple opportunities for supporters to tell us what they’d like to hear/know/be invited to do.

    Hope that makes sense, and thank you for sharing.



  3. I was in the audience when Liz made her original case why supporter journeys should be consigned to Room 101 and was puzzled why anyone should want to bin what seems like such a great idea. I ventured this opinion to the highly-respected fundraising consultant sitting next to me.

    “What I think she’s saying,” he replied, “is that supporter journeys have become ‘productised’. Instead of identifying what supporters want, agencies sell charities a predefined communications package.”

    Which is the point that Liz is making in this blog.

    Although Liz doesn’t define supporter journeys, as Meredith points out, I’ve not yet found any consistent definition of ‘supporter journey’ anywhere. So the contribution this blog makes is to argue that while the concept of supporter journeys is fine and dandy, its professional execution is leaving something to be desired.

    In support of her argument, I present an anecdote of my own. I was a judge on the IoF National Awards this year. One entry said how this charity had:

    “…develop[ed] the donor journey of offline creative donation forms and online donation forms; matching not only for the donor information of name and address; but also to match the offline creative donation asks onto the landing pages the donor was taken to when clicking a link in the email sent to them.”

    Donation forms do not go on a journey!


  4. Hi there

    Apologies I have been on a lovely journey of my own (on holiday!) so only just picked up on these comments.

    Absolutely I agree that well planned, targeted communications that are informed by what you know about supporters are key. But as Ian says its become more about the ‘productisation’ of supporter communications.

    Plus with limited time and money we are always having to prioritise and too often what I see is that the supporter journey communications are the main focus and the actual supporters, and good supporter care is forgotten.

    As you say Craig it shouldn’t be either/or – but we are only human, and we can only focus on so much. Reminds me of the famous ‘Did You Spot The Gorilla’ video clip – which always amazes me.

    Thanks again



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