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How to Create Meaningful Donor Experiences vs. Average Donor Events

Golf outings, 5Ks, fancy galas, campaign kickoffs, recognition dinners, open houses, the list of all-too-common donor events goes on. But how many of us are doing it right? When was the last time an event exceeded your organization’s goals for participants or dollars raised? More importantly, when was the last time your donors walked away from an event feeling truly inspired? Creating meaningful, donor-focused experiences is key to cultivating, stewarding, and engaging our donors. We need to examine if and how our events are making donors feel more connected to our mission, start creating experiences that foster meaningful relationships, and stop focusing so intently on the number of tickets sold and bodies in chairs. But how? Our friends at Bloomerang published a groundbreaking study earlier this year, and folks, it is awesome. Here's why:

  • It’s the first study of its kind that points to key factors that distinguish outstanding events from average ones

  • It examined events using both theoretical and practical approaches

  • Findings come from case studies of organizations that have doubled or tripled their # of attendees and/or the amount of money raised in a ten-year period or less

  • The study is full of success stories, advice, and examples from interviewees

Many interviewees shared that their organization’s focus had shifted from the content of the event to what the supporter would experience as they participated in the event, an idea that those of us at the DRG Group can get behind 110%. The study is long and detailed (it even gets into motives, human needs, and psychology), so I’ve highlighted a few things I found particularly helpful below. Tips for Creating a Donor Experience:

  • Give donors an opportunity to interact with the mission – Is there something they can touch, feel, see, or hear that will result in a unique and meaningful experience?

  • Take them on a journey – What’s the narrative of your event? What do the people who benefit from your organization experience? How do your supporters change or improve that experience for them? Take the donor on a journey and make it deeply personal and immersive.

  • Customize the experience – No one wants to go to the same exact event year after year. How can you individualize the experience for your donors? Even if it’s an annual gala, what can you do to make it a different experience each year?

  • Include these 6 key elements – called “the experience pyramid" – that are essential to creating an experience:

  • Individuality – How can you make the event personal for each donor

  • Authenticity – How can you make the experience genuine? Is it in line with who you are as an organization, and who your donors believe you are?

  • The story – What’s the overall message you want donors to understand? The story is what ties all of the other elements together to create a truly meaningful experience

  • Multi-sensory perception – This one is interesting: What will donors see? Smell? Hear? FEEL? Even taste?

  • Contrast – This is what I would consider the surprise and delight aspect. How can you contrast what an attendee might have been expecting? What makes this experience different or special to them?

  • Interaction – How connected are you making the donor feel to your organization, the mission, and the beneficiaries of their generosity?

Lynne recently worked with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville on a campaign launch event called, Join the Journey. She and her team created an inspiring, immersive experience for donors. Check out the video and photos from the event below.




The Join the Journey kick-off event exemplified what it means to create an experience rather than hosting a typical event. Do you think any of those donors had ever been to an event like that? Doubtful. It was uniquely UT and included all of the key elements necessary to create a memorable evening for donors. How can you take these tips and use them to generate new, authentic, and exciting ideas for your organization? Bloomerang provided some suggestions for that as well. Tips for Identifying New Ideas:

  • Internal sources – Start here. Findings revealed that internal sources tend to yield better ideas when it comes to creating meaningful events. It makes sense. After all, internal stakeholders should know your organization better than anyone. You can generate new ideas internally by:

  • Talking to supporters, employees, and/or volunteers

  • Listening to complaints and use them guide new ideas

  • Conducting a focus group with supporters and other stakeholders

  • Hosting team-based and individual brainstorming sessions

  • Organizing creativity sessions (using tools like SWOT analysis or idea generation templates)

  • Asking for insight from senior managers

  • External sources – It can be a struggle to get internal stakeholders to think outside the box. To get out of the “this is how we’ve always done things” mindset, consider these ideas:

  • Talk to people who are involved in other charities

  • Look at what other charities are doing

  • Attend a conference or convention –The DRG Group is hosting a donor relations conference and events workshop in Dallas November 30 - December 1!

  • Look at professional trade associations (e.g. AFP), fundraising blogs, websites, or magazines

  • Read a fundraising book, like one of these

  • Hire a creative agency, idea consultant, fundraising consultant, or donor relations consultant – we like this one!

  • Look to suppliers for new ideas – Vendors often have access to cutting-edge technology and new products you can implement (or that will at least get the creative juices flowing)

Try using a mixture of both internal and external sources. Look externally for new ideas and then turn to internal resources to help you make it an authentic experience that will resonate with your supporters. Are you currently planning an event? What are you doing to make it a donor-centered and meaningful experience? Do you agree with the findings from this study? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. You can download the full Bloomerang study here: https://bloomerang.co/blog/research-what-makes-for-a-truly-great-fundraising-event/ I hope you enjoyed this post from DRG Group member, Ashley Rowe. Ashley is the Marketing Director for the DRG Group and has extensive experience working in development shops large and small. Cheers, Lynne

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