OPINION: The Commission on the Donor Experience – a good thing in itself, but philosophically confused

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The Commission on the Donor Experience has received an overwhelmingly positive reception. But Ian MacQuillin argues philosophical flaws at its heart mean many of its recommendations are not supported by evidence.

I look at the 28 outputs from the Commission for Donor Experience (CDE) with no little degree of envy. Rogare and the CDE are not dissimilar enterprises in terms of how we operate. We each have a programme of work and have assembled a roster of volunteers to help deliver that work. I know just how time consuming and resource intensive it is to make things like this happen.

So to have got 28 separate projects completed and published is some triumph. And not only am I envious of the Commission’s logistical achievement, I would dearly have loved to have published some of their outputs under a Rogare badge.

The reception to the CDE’s projects so far has been almost universally positive – there have just been a couple of critical blogs by David Ainsworth at Civil Society and Clare Wilkins at New Philanthropy Capital.

Over at The Agitator, Roger Craver and Tom Belford describe the overview of the project ­– titled: The 6Ps: a blueprint for transforming fundraising. For goodas a ‘REALLY BIG deal!’ (upper case letters and exclamation mark in original), and urge readers to “download it, read, absorb and share it widely”. The Agitator article unreservedly praises the CDE’s recommendations, which it says are “backed by a cornucopia of practical tips and recommended actions that lead to better experiences for donors”.

But at no point do Roger and Tom recommend a critical reading of the overarching blueprint and the 28 projects to evaluate whether this “cornucopia of practical tips” and the theory on which they are based will actually deliver what they claim to. They simply take for granted that what the CDE has said is correct.

And that’s a problem, because the Commission for the Donor Experience is flawed in places, and while I said that I would have loved to have done some of their projects at Rogare, there are others that Rogare would not have published at all, frankly, because the quality of the research isn’t up to standard.

So I am going to present a critique of the Commission on the Donor Experience, for a couple of reasons. First, because a critique is needed. And second, because I’ve actually been asked to do so, by Giles Pegram and Richard Spencer at the CDE itself.

My critique of the CDE falls under two headings:

  1. It was philosophically and methodologically flawed – it had decided on its main conclusions at the outset, and then set out to collect evidence that supported those, rather than genuinely investigating the issue with an open agenda. It even decided that some of its ideas don’t require any supporting evidence.
  2. It didn’t address (or even ask) some of the most fundamental questions – particularly the reasons why donorcentric fundraising ideas had not been implemented widely, and what the ‘donor experience’ actually is.

But before I get into that, let’s clarify one thing at the start. This critique is not in any way meant to suggest that what the Commission on the Donor Experience has set out to do isn’t a good thing. Giving people a good experience and making them feel good about themselves is always a good thing do in and of itself. As a fundraiser, why wouldn’t you want to give your donors a good experience, perhaps even the best experience you can?

The issues come in whether the ways that you are told will improve the experience will actually work, and whether there are better – or just different – routes to that experience you could take that you haven’t been told about. It is also an issue – as it is with anything in life – if you are told to accept something as an article of faith, without evidence to support it, and not question it yourself.

1) Philosophical and methodological flaws

It identified its overarching conclusions before it even started

‘Commissions’ are generally set up when something has gone wrong or when it is anticipated something might go wrong. Their role is to impartially and objectively investigate the issue at hand, taking evidence from all interested and relevant stakeholders, and form a view on what caused the issue and what can be done to fix it, or prevent it from happening (again). We’ll all be familiar with government commissions of inquiry. Here’s a PDF that provides guidance for establishing commissions of inquiry in New Zealand.

This isn’t how the Commission on the Donor Experience operated. The CDE went into this space already having decided what the problem was: that fundraisers had failed to implement sound relationship fundraising principles, and this resulted in volumes of ‘transactional’ fundraising that led to diminished donor experiences.

Or in other words, the problem had been caused because fundraisers had not applied the ideas first outlined in Ken Burnett’s 1992 book Relationship Fundraising. So the solution was to make them employ those ideas.

That’s not me hyperbolizing; that’s actually what Giles Pegram said in a blog on 101Fundraising last year:

“Many months before Olive Cooke, Etherington, Rob Wilson, the Daily Mail, et al, Ken Burnett and I felt that something should be done. We worked to make the ideas in Ken’s book, Relationship Fundraising a reality. Despite being published some twenty-five years ago, read by almost every fundraiser, the ideas have rarely been effectively implemented. We wanted to give people an easy-to-read handbook of what should be done differently; a compendium of the ideas generated through a Commission of twelve, with hundreds of inputs from donors, fundraisers and others with influence. So that we all know what we have to do to help our donors to experience the joy of giving. Thus the Commission on the Donor Experience was born.”

As Giles Pegram quite clearly states, the rationale for the Commission on the Donor Experience was to ensure fundraisers used the principles contained in Relationship Fundraising. He then basically says the rationale of the CDE is to provide fundraisers with that information in a new form.

That’s not how commissions ought to work. The CDE has in effect ‘begged the question’ that improving the donor experience is the right thing to do and then sought evidence to justify that, rather than approach the problem with an open agenda. David Ainsworth complains directly of this approach, describing how some of the conclusions he arrived at for the project he worked on (Project 20 – Fundraising Investment) were removed because, as he says, “they were wildly out of step with the direction of travel of the rest of the project”. In other words, the CDE had already decided what it wanted to conclude and was actively ignoring argument to the contrary.

Self-evidence and lack of evidence

The biggest concern I have with the Commission on the Donor Experience is the lack of store it puts on evidencing its claims, to the extent that it says that evidence is not even required to justify some of its fundamental principles.

The ‘blueprint’ – the overarching exposition of the CDE’s ideas, and therefore what I suspect most fundraisers will read rather than each report – outlines seven principles, which I’ll let you explore yourself.

Supporting these seven principles are several statements, three of which I’ve reproduced below:

  1. The donor-centred approach will lead not to reduced resources but to increased net income for good causes, at least in the medium to long-term
  2. Rather than persuasive asking, effective fundraising is more about inspiration and shared conviction
  3. Donors generally will prize passionate belief in the cause ahead of technical abilities, particularly in sales and marketing, which donors often see as inappropriate.

I’ve chosen to reproduce these three because each is caveated with this statement:

Though there are some pointers from existing research, lack of time and financial resources have not allowed the Commission to fully research and test empirically…[these]…assumptions. But we hold that they are self-evidently true.

I cannot over-state how alarming I find this statement. The Commission is saying because it believes these statements to be true, evidence is not needed to prove them: they are just ‘self-evident’, i.e. bleedin’ obvious.

Yet very little in life is truly ‘self-evident’.

Take a look at this very short article on Simply Philosophy and then consider whether the statement – ‘Rather than persuasive asking, effective fundraising is more about inspiration and shared conviction’ – really is ‘self-evident’.

Phrases such as ‘very likely’, ‘bound to be true’, ‘seems pretty plausible to me’ and ‘I can’t see any alternative’ – i.e. your own subjective beliefs – are not synonyms for ‘self-evident’. If you want to explore the concept of evidence in more depth, check out this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Yet since the CDE does not consider evidence to be necessary, many of the 526 recommendations contained in its 28 reports are backed minimal evidence, and some by no evidence whatsoever.

One of the recommendations included in the blueprint is that:

“Fundraisers should exemplify both passionate commitment to their cause and appropriate professional standards, passion is usually more valued by donors than technique or slick professionalism.”

While a recommendation from the project on major donors (Project 9), is:

“Organisations should recruit fundraisers with the right characteristics – those who are passionate about the cause and genuinely curious about what makes people tick.”

These are both normative claims about how fundraising ought to be – fundraisers ‘ought’ to exhibit passion for the cause, therefore a fundraiser is in error if she doesn’t exhibit passion for the cause. Yet I can find hardly any evidence (just a tangential Canadian case study and a quote from an American philanthropist) in any of the 28 projects to justify these conclusions. What would have supported these claims would have been, for example, research that demonstrated that fundraisers who were passionate about the cause delivered a significantly better donor experience and raised more money that those who were not. Yet no really robust evidence to that effect is provided to support the CDE’s conclusion that charities ought to recruit fundraisers who are ‘passionate’ (how do we define this, by the way?) about a cause.

That’s not to say this claim might not be true in the light of evidence, just that it is not self-evidently true, since it is conceivable that professional passion and pride might compensate for diminished passion for the cause: I once did a great job editing a magazine in a subject area I didn’t care about because I had professional pride in doing a good job, and if journalists can do that, I can’t see any reason why fundraisers shouldn’t be able to do the same.

I can’t help but conclude that a deciding reason why the CDE came out with this recommendation was that it was already something it had gone in with.

The CDE has a selective relationship with evidence. It has commissioned market research from YouGov on donors’ perceptions of their experience of giving (which incidentally is not in complete alignment with research about donor trust and satisfaction conducted by the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy and About Loyalty), which it uses to support its overall rationale. Yet when evidence is not available, or there is not enough resource to collate what evidence exists or collect new evidence, the CDE simply says these things are ‘self-evident’.

But a belief that something is true does not actually mean that it is true and, as with most things in life, evidence is required.


The philosophical flaw with the Commission from the Donor Experience is that it begged the question that improving the donor experience was the right thing to do. Because of this, the CDE did not seek evidence for many of its claims, considering evidence not to be required because they were ‘self-evident’, and dismissing arguments that contradicted its pre-established general conclusions.

This philosophical flaw leads to a methodological flaw. Some CDE research looks suspiciously like it was constructed in order to arrive at particular outcomes, rather than to genuinely test an hypothesis, thus leaving open the possibility that the hypothesis (i.e. the pre-established conclusion) could be falsified.

2) It didn’t address (or even ask) some fundamental questions

The CDE’s key philosophical flaw – that the reasons it was doing what it was doing were ‘self-evident’ and didn’t need to be argued for – meant that it failed to ask, and thus seek answers to, some very fundamental questions.

Why was no-one doing relationship fundraising?

If the fundamental problem was – as Giles Pegram has said – that “despite being…read by almost every fundraiser, the ideas [contained in Relationship Fundraising] have rarely been effectively implemented”, this raises an interesting and highly relevant question, and one that the CDE never asked:

  • Why have they rarely been effectively implemented?

Three possible answers to that question immediately present themselves.

Relationship fundraising ideas have rarely been effectively implemented because:

  1. They are not widely known at all, and few people have actually read the book, and certainly not “almost every fundraiser”.
  2. Fundraisers cannot get the buy-in, support and funding from boards and senior colleagues to implement them.
  3. They don’t work.

None can be dismissed a priori. Yet the CDE did not entertain the possibility that the third of these might hold water.

Now, I’m not of the opinion that donorcentric fundraising doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean that it can simply be assumed that it does. Evidence has to be provided that it works. Because if you start from the assumption not just that it works, but also that it is the ‘right thing to do’TM, then you won’t even look for (or at worse, actually dismiss) evidence regarding situations or contexts where it doesn’t work, or works less well than it could. This, as we have seen, was one of the commission’s philosophical flaws.

There has been very little development at all of relationship fundraising ideas since Ken Burnett’s book was published in 1992 (which was one of the reasons why Rogare carried out our theoretical review of RF). So the reason that RF ideas have rarely been implemented seems less likely to be that ‘they don’t work’, and more they haven’t been sufficiently developed, improved and refined to the point that they are backed by evidence and so universally replicable. But the CDE discounted this possibility, and so didn’t investigate it.

That leaves us with two other possibilities why relationship fundraising techniques have rarely been effectively implemented.

The CDE doesn’t look at whether fundraisers do actually know about these ideas, and if they don’t, what the barriers to their knowing about them might be. This would have been an invaluable piece of research on which to build.

Lack of support from senior management and boards was identified as a barrier to implementing relationship fundraising in the qualitative research phase of Rogare’s review of relationship fundraising (see Volume 3). And while the CDE has presented an alternative model that views funding of fundraising as an investment (Project 20), this short (five-page) report simply describes this model and tells trustees they ‘should’ accept it, without exploring what the barriers to their accepting it might be, and how to persuade them why they should accept it. I would contend that one key part of the toolkit to persuade them to invest in donorcentric fundraising would be evidence that it works. Trustees don’t seem to buy into the idea that it is ‘self-evident’ that donor-centred fundraising “will lead not to reduced resources but to increased net income for good causes, at least in the medium to long-term”.

This then, is the key issue. You can have all these great ideas for the betterment of the donor experience, but if institutional structural barriers mean you never get to implement them, the donor experience is unlikely to improve.

What is the ‘donor experience’?

There’s an even more fundamental question the CDE didn’t ask: what is the ‘donor experience’? The CDE doesn’t define it, the very thing is has produced 28 project reports about. And it is far from obvious what the ‘donor experience’ actually is.

There is a lot of research and theory from marketing and consumer behaviour on defining the ‘customer experience’. One team of Italian researchers defines the customer experience as (see p397):

“The Customer Experience originates from a set of interactions between a customer and a product, a company, or part of its organization, which provoke a reaction. This experience is strictly personal and implies the customer’s involvement at different levels (rational, emotional, sensorial, physical and spiritual). Its evaluation depends on the comparison between a customer’s expectations and the stimuli coming from the interaction with the company and its offering in correspondence of the different moments of contact or touch-points.”

It is an open question whether this definition of ‘customer experience’ (or others like it) is directly transferable to the context of donating to charity, and so whether substituting ‘donor’ for ‘customer’ in the definition captures the experience of donating to charity.

This might not be the case if it is considered that customers and donors are involved in substantially different activities. Customers buy goods and services for their own use, whereas donors give money to an organisation so that it may provide goods and services for an entirely separate group – the charity’s beneficiaries.

It is therefore conceivable that any definition of ‘donor experience’ needs to incorporate some reference to a connection to the beneficiary group and how supporting this group makes donors feel. Or maybe it doesn’t. But it seems sensible that one of the things we need to do as a sector is actually to define the concept of ‘donor experience’.

Yet none of this is explicitly considered by the Commission on the Donor Experience (though many of the project reports imply or assume it), I suspect because they considered it to be ‘self evident’.

How should fundraisers read the CDE reports?

Just a couple weeks ago, Rogare published a Theory of Change for fundraising that argues we will advance our professional knowledge development by continually asking more and better questions about the evidence and theory we currently have. This helps us arrive at better theory and better evidence. And then we start again, asking even more and even better questions in an ongoing, iterative process.

This is something we never did with relationship fundraising. We never really tried to improve the original concept. Because we were happy to accept it as self-evidently true. That’s not a mistake we can make this time around.

These 28 projects from the Commission on the Donor Experience are only the start of the process of improving the donor experience. Not all are the finished article. Some are a long way from it.

It is now the responsibility of fundraisers to read these reports critically (and all of them, certainly not just the blueprint), to identify the questions we need to ask about what evidence either proves or falsifies the CDE’s claims, how we can improve on them, and what we need to know next and do next. And there is much here to build on.

This takes on extra importance and significance because the Institute of Fundraising is taking over the ongoing development of the CDE project and will appoint someone to represent the donor experience on its standards committee, which is a route for potentially unevidenced CDE recommendations to be incorporated into the Fundraising Regulator’s Code of Fundraising Practice.

Whatever you do, don’t accept the CDE’s recommendations as true because someone has told you they are ‘self-evident’.

  • Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank.

2 thoughts on “OPINION: The Commission on the Donor Experience – a good thing in itself, but philosophically confused”

  1. Hi Ian

    I’m a long-standing relationship fundraising evangelist. And when applied well, the approach most definitely works.

    If you read my section on emotion in the the CDE ( http://sofii.org/article/cde-project-6-section-5-1-a-communications-practitioners-view ), I take a historical perspective, and examine some of the reasons why we have negative growth in the sector. You need to read the whole piece, but I identify the desire for direct debits as a key driver in the growth of transaction versus relationship fundraising. Once fundraisers had to build a relationship to obtain a monthly gift, but with the industrial fundraising techniques developed in the late 20th and early 21st century following the introduction of the paperless direct debit, engagement was no longer necessary. Organisations found that they could recruit straight to direct debit – particularly with low value gifts. But the fact is, though charities had increasing numbers of donors, the people they recruited were not necessarily committed to the causes they supported. Many of these new donors perhaps didn’t mind giving, but they had little resolve. Others simply signed up to a regular gift because they struggled to say no to someone face to face or on the phone. Massive attrition became the norm and was factored in to budgets.

    As for organisations not implementing relationship fundraising, you’ll see that I feature two case studies. One from ActionAid on their mid-value programme and the other from Bristol University.

    Both are excellent examples of relationship fundraising in practice. They focus on identifying people who care about an issue or organisation, they give them an opportunity to give and then engage them for the long-term. But there are others. Parkinson’s UK, for example, has achieved tremendous growth without engaging in large-scale recruitment campaigns because they focus on building relationships with people and families who have experience of the disease. I featured their work in a presentation I gave with Rosie Dale from The More Partnership at the recent IOF conference. We spent most of our time looking at organisations that truly do focus on relationships rather than transactions – universities.

    Why is it that universities do so well in generating funds at major and mid-levels? They take the lions share of bigger gifts even though they make up a tiny share of all fundraising requests. One reason is down to the fact that universities have a restricted pool of prospects. They therefore focus on building relationships rather than using ’fire and forget’ techniques so commonly used today to gather as many donors as possible. They simply cannot afford to alienate their alumni because there are few other places to turn to. The fact of the matter is relationship fundraising is happening every single day with huge success, but because universities are not part of the traditional fundraising community they are often overlooked as examples of best practice. I think that is a huge mistake.

    I haven’t read all the reports in the CDE yet and I imagine I will disagree with some of what I see. I wholeheartedly support your drive for evidence, but I would suggest that the flat lining of charitable giving over the last decade might be evidence enough that we have hit the buffers on transaction based fundraising. Relationship Fundraising most definitely offers us an alternative that in absence of any other approach is perhaps the best hope we have.

    I know relationship fundraising works and believe in it. I would welcome independent evidence to prove the matter once and for all and then, more importantly, identify the process that fundraisers should adopt in implementing the best elements of the technique.

    The fact is, we have the opportunity to pull people towards the sector as a whole if we get the second iteration of relationship fundraising right. And that should be our goal. Anything that Rogare can do to help make that vision a reality would be something I would wholeheartedly support.




  2. Hi Ian,

    Many thanks for your post. Many thanks too for your copious and generous compliments of the Commission.

    It may surprise your readers (but not you), to know that I agree with pretty much all your statements.

    Where we differ is that I don’t regard them in any way as valid, negative, criticism of the Commission.

    You focus particularly on SELF-EVIDENCE AND LACK OF EVIDENCE

    May I focus on each in turn?


    We have said that if you give a donor a great experience, she/he will give more and for longer, at least in the medium to long term. We have indeed said that is self-evident. We can’t prove it; we have little research (that you would find valid) to back it up. For any-one who does not believe this is self-evident, the Commission’s reports are not for you.


    There are two definitions of ‘evidence’, an academic one and an every-day one. The Commissions outputs are not based on an academic interpretation of ‘evidence’. There is no rigorous research to back up what we say. Even though YouGov and Qualtrics did a lot of research amongst donors to inform our work, it would by no means meet your criteria. We have never suggested otherwise

    In his introduction to the Commission’s report, Sir Martyn Lewis writes:

    “Our report is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.”

    This ‘evidence’ based on best practice runs through our report like a stick of rock, with about 250 case studies.


    If we had attempted the academic rigour you are seeking, it would have resulted in a far less useful report. Less money would be raised, and fewer beneficiaries helped.

    In my opinion

    Giles Pegram CBE


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