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The New Donor Engagement Reality: A Shifting Definition in the Era of the Online Experience

"There is a struggle in how donors tell you they want to be engaged, but when approached in that way, they don't want it. For example, a new donor came in to set up a fund. He nodded and agreed with everything that was said about outreach and what is available to donors, but we expect he will just act on his own."

Shifting-Definition-of-Donor-Engagement_Crown-Philanthropic-Solutions-logo.jpgThat's a real quote from a community foundation. And that's a sneak preview of one of the most powerful findings in the 2014 Donor Experience Study. This comment, of course, relates to the shifting definition of donor engagement that is present among community foundations in this new era of leveraging technology to build meaningful relationships.

This statistic from the 2014 Donor Experience Study might surprise you:

Nearly 95 percent of community foundations included in the research identifies donor engagement as a top priority, but only 27 percent of the strategic plans reviewed demonstrate that a foundation has adopted a well-defined metric to measure success.

Donor engagement is often a product of the community in which the foundation resides. A foundation can influence the outreach to its donors regardless of what phase of growth it may be in—operating with a large endowment, leveraging programs, or even just initially growing. But staff is often also responsible for recruiting new donors, maintaining donor relationships, handling administrative tasks for donors, and sometimes managing programs—which limits the quality time spent with donors. Defining donor engagement must be a key part of the strategic plan and a key conversation across the entire organization.

To understand and define donor engagement, a community foundation needs donor intelligence; that is, data and metrics about donor behavior to inform the most effective strategies and use of resources. Data and metrics, of course, are assets that technology can build for your organization, creating a true return on investment on a foundation's online donor engagement systems. But before a foundation's leadership team can determine the role of technology in donor engagement, it must define donor engagement in the first place—which is much more than just donors' activity online.

For example, a common definition of donor engagement is whether a donor is actively making contributions into existing donor-advised funds. And many foundations take a comprehensive approach by including donor activity when a donor "engages" with another fund. For example, what if a donor adds a significant contribution to a nonprofit endowment fund held at your foundation? Should this count? According to emerging best practices, yes. This activity is an example that would be included in a definition of donor engagement.

The next question is whether your system can actually track donor engagement efficiently. Before a foundation can answer that, the management team must address the synergy among donor engagement, technology, and measuring results at a systems-wide level.

Here are two questions for your team to consider and discuss to take your donor engagement game to the next level and to prepare you to create data and metrics through technology.

How Do You Define It?

To get started, check in on the basic question: What are the key elements that define "donor engagement" in your organization? And how have they changed as more and more donors rely on online tools, especially related to their philanthropic pursuits? How has it changed as the donor base gets younger and more mobile?

When it comes to technology, do you view donor engagement as more than just getting donors to go online? Are you considering the quality of the online experience that you are providing, versus merely the existence of one?

Donors want a clear, relevant, accessible, and interactive experience when it comes to online technology so that they can easily find information on their own. Does your foundation provide an online experience that is seamless for donors from the second they land on your website all the way to processing a grant in your online account management system, as demonstrated in the image below? Or does the experience fall short?

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How Will You Measure It?

Next, start thinking a little bit more about measurement. What are your organization's goals for online donor engagement? Are there success metrics included with these goals, metrics that are both quantitative (analytics or numbers) and qualitative (donor or staff feedback)?

Consider these ideas to get you started:

  • Systems Integration: Is your online donor account management system fully integrated with your accounting system so that donors aren't calling with questions about their fund balances?
  • Content Synchronization: Do your online donor account management system and your website work together to synch content automatically, so that the information on your website can be viewed when donors log on, as demonstrated in the image below?
  • Web Traffic Tracking: Are you able to track, through web analytics, the activity on your website and online donor account management system? Are you benchmarking the activity on your site with other foundations of your size to see where you match up?
  • Objective Review: Do your digital assets accurately reflect your brand as an organization? If you were a first-time visitor to your website, would you feel that the content and usability of the site and donor account system were forward thinking and user friendly?
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Donor engagement. How do you define it, and how will you measure it? Those are two questions you might ask to begin to re-energize your donor engagement strategy—starting with the definition and then setting goals. After you've laid the groundwork, you and your colleagues can get the right systems in place to truly engage donors, and tackle the shifting definition of donor engagement and what it means for your organization. In turn, with the systems up and running, you'll get a robust batch of data, or "donor intelligence," that in turn creates value for your organization and drives return on investment.

The new donor engagement reality. Are you ready?

Learn more about the new donor engagement reality or download the Donor Experience Study

© 2014, Crown Philanthropic Solutions

Crown Philanthropic Solutions creates a powerful donor engagement platform that empowers clients with the ability to create passionate donors by managing their donors' experiences.

Topics: Fundraising