During my tenure leading charitable organizations, there is one thing that I quickly noticed. It was happening in my organizations and when I looked around, I saw it happening in other mission focused organizations as well. The “it” I’m referring to is that we sometimes treated our donors like they were ATM machines. When we needed cash, we’d hit them up and then dutifully give them a receipt and then the next interaction we had with them was when we wanted money again and we would hit them up again – expecting that they would reliably spit out cash and then we would respond again with a beautifully written tax donation receipt.

In fairness, I can’t take credit for the analogy, I borrowed it from my Chief Development Officer, but I have continued to use it over the years in countless staff meetings in several organizations where I would emphasize the need for creating a customer experience. Our donors are, in fact, consumers. They are consumers of our missions and they contribute to help support that mission, and unfortunately, all too often only hear from us through our financial appeals.

I firmly believe that today’s donors want to have an “experience” with us. They want to know what they’re investing in and that requires us to communicate the impact that we are having as organizations. It means we need to do better story-telling and we need to use new technology to connect and engage with our donors. But at the end of the day, I assert that equally, and perhaps more importantly, what matters is how we make our donors feel in the process. In the words of Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

And that’s why I believe mission based organizations need to focus on the “experience” a donor has with us. And that experience encompasses everything from the way we answer our phones, how quickly we send those donation receipts, the content of our appeals, how we thank them, how much control we give them in how frequently we communicate with them, and understanding why they give to celebrating their gift.

I’ve seen it work and have a profound impact on donors. In one organization I had the opportunity to lead, we launched an organization wide program around the donor “experience”. One of our new values was “Value Every Donor” and we launched brand training on what this looked like to the donor. Our internal call center was renovated to be bright and filled with imagery of our mission. We implemented new technology and processes for tracking donor issues and responses to them. We re-named our internal call center and it became the Global Experience Center. We put pictures and stories of long term donors in our hallways and interviewed them on why they supported us. We communicated to everyone on the staff how their role supported the “experience” — from our fundraising staff, to our event teams, to our finance department to our mail room. Yes, even the mail room – because our data indicated the faster we got the donation receipt out to door to our donors, the higher likelihood the donor would give again in the next few months. You see, everyone in an organization plays a role in the “experience”.

And while I would like to tell you, we did the “experience” right every time, we didn’t, but we tried to learn from our mistakes and when we did make them, we used the “recovery” opportunity to show our donors how much we valued them.

In the end, it was worth it — in more ways than I had imagined. Our donor retention rates improved. Our annual gift value improved. Our recurring monthly gifts increased. And internally, our morale improved because everyone knew how they supported the donor experience. And those committed staff members working in the Global Experience Center, who were our front lines of communications and interactions with our donors got new titles….they became CEOs, Customer Experience Owners.