The 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.
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)