FELDMANN: Beware the dreaded donor engagement gap

Derrick Feldmann
February 27, 2010
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Imagine that your favorite TV show breaks for commercial, and you hear:

Do you stutter when donors ask, “How can I get more involved?” Does your blood pressure climb when they say, “I want to be more engaged in your mission.” Do your palms sweat when a donor ends a volunteer experience by saying, “What’s next?”

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you might suffer from engagement gap.

Engagement gap strikes small organizations and big ones, struggling not-for-profits and successful ones, and it threatens to cripple each of its sufferers.

It might sound silly, but engagement gap is no laughing matter. The name for that gaping void between someone who donates to an organization and someone who sits on its board, engagement gap blocks people from opportunities to hear, participate in and contribute to the betterment of the organization.

What causes engagement gap? The lack of graduated offerings that strategically build on interests to move a donor closer to the organization. And, no, it can’t be filled by volunteer opportunities (although they can aid recovery), only by steps that enhance the donor’s ability to effect change within the organization.

If not treated, engagement gap will result in flat giving trends, loss of donor interest and, ultimately, donor attrition. But wait! There is a cure: a shift from a transaction mind-set to an engagement philosophy. Following is the treatment regimen:

• Prescription 1: 500 MG of being open

Many organizations say they’re open and transparent, but all they really mean is they produce annual reports or post Internal Revenue Service 990 forms on their Web sites. That’s just a start. Being open means allowing your donor and volunteer communities to help create new programs and solve problems. It means allowing outsiders to blog on your site, deliver your services and speak on your behalf. It means seeking help from your donor community the next time you say, “We don’t have the staff to do that.” Most important, it means using the power of donors to evangelize about the organization. Directions: Take daily to prevent recurrence.

• Prescription 2: 750 MG of donor design

Create opportunities for donors to experience programs and expose them to real challenges. Then visit with donors and ask for their help crafting solutions. Discuss business needs and design solutions based on donors’ personal and/or professional experiences. Think through business models with them. Note: To be taken on a one-on-one basis or in a group.

• Prescription 3: 800 MG of donor evangelism

Every not-for-profit needs to build a community—a community of donors and stakeholders who support and evangelize about the organization. Create opportunities, resources and calls to action for donors to communicate to other donors. Create peer mechanisms such as e-mail messaging, social-media applications and other tools that can be spread easily. Precautions: Treatment will be most effective if donors communicate freely with their peers.

• Prescription 4: 900 MG of donor motivation

Bring together donors that have peer community connections and offer a speaker who relates to the solution they are crafting, the concept you are trying to embrace or the expertise you offer. Consider these meetings to be “shareholder” visits with your top investors. Let them know their value, and reinforce that value with a shareholder Q and A. Let them know what you’re thinking as a leader, and preview what they’ll hear about in the next quarter. Directions: Pursue treatment quarterly.

• Prescription 5: 925 MG of donor excitement

Create experiences for donors to see the fruits of their labor. Revisit programs, volunteer opportunities or other activities that show donors how their investments beyond financial capital pay off. Celebrate with them and remind them that the excitement can continue with their involvement. Indications: Effectiveness increases when used in concert with other cures.

You might be wondering, isn’t this a lot of medicine? For organizations in the early stages of engagement gap, maybe. But for others, which have suffered from this condition for some time, this is the proper dosage for their engagement gap.

The good news? Field results show that this treatment regimen is effective. Organizations sticking to this treatment program have enjoyed a full recovery, and in fact gone on to be healthier than ever before.•


Feldmann is CEO of Achieve, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm for not-for-profits. He can be reached at dfeldmann@achieveguidance.com.


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