Providing Quality Donor Services to Keep Donors Engaged

Keeping donors interested and excited about their philanthropy is a fundamental task for a community foundation. After all, donors are your best source for additional gifts and larger “legacy” gifts in the future.

Community foundations provide donor services to achieve two main goals - to keep donors engaged (giving) and teach them how to give wisely. Beyond that, donor services can accomplish many smaller objectives. Community foundations typically provide the following donor services:

  • Acknowledge and thank donors
  • Help donors’ ongoing support of and involvement in community issues
  • Assist donors in leaving a philanthropic legacy for the community’s future benefit
  • Cultivate long-term relationships
  • Help donors identify and articulate their charitable interests and goals
  • Inform donors about their funds, community needs and opportunities, and alternative ways to invest in the community
  • Direct resources to areas of need

Most donors want to learn…don't they?

Some donors have not seriously considered developing a giving plan or strategy. They may or may not take advantage of the education and services you offer. Other donors may believe they already have the skills to give their money away. They, too, may not take advantage of your offerings.

It’s important to be able to recognize different donor types, and to ask them what types of assistance they would find helpful. Many donors may say they appreciate the services you provide, even though they don’t take advantage of them. It can be disappointing to plan an event in which no one shows up, but you can't force feed donors if they aren’t hungry. When it comes to donor services, sometimes less may be more.

What do donors want to learn?

The community foundation has the opportunity to inform donors about many areas, including current needs in the community, trends, and emerging issues. In general, most of the educational content falls into one of three categories:

  • Why give: motivations behind giving; mission and values statements
  • How to give: grantmaking guidelines, strategies, and opportunities
  • How to get the family involved in giving: succession planning

The most popular programs seem to involve succession and other legacy planning issues. Community foundations offer donors information about philanthropy and passing charitable values on to the next generation. They might offer family meetings or workshops to teach the donor how to involve his children in charitable efforts. Foundation staff might also discuss how to determine philanthropic priorities, monitor the effectiveness of grants, and work together as a family to address community needs.

How do donors want to learn?

What Donors Want

“Our donor survey found that donors wanted efficiency, excellent due diligence, notification of special giving opportunities, and one-on-one meetings, should they request it. They did not want time-consuming, public, and expensive visits and environmentally unsound paper mailings.”—Marin Community Foundation

So you’ve found some donors who seek education. Now it’s time to get planning. Keep these points in mind:

  • Donor education programs must accommodate a variety of learning styles and formats. Program styles can vary widely, including one-on-one consulting, hands-on work with charities, workshops, and seminars
  • Adults often learn best in realistic settings where they can apply what they’ve learned. For philanthropy education, this might involve donors taking part in visits to a nonprofit’s headquarters or programs, volunteering with a nonprofit group, or participating in a grant decision process
  • Some surveys have shown that donors tend to prefer educational settings that encourage interaction with other donors. This might account for the rapid spread of giving circles, in which small groups pool their resources; learn together about philanthropy; and make small grants locally, nationally, or internationally
  • Many community foundations invite donors to their offices for programs. However, you might also consider holding presentations in other places where donors or potential donors live, meet, and socialize—such as country clubs, retirement communities, schools, libraries, professional associations, alumni gatherings, and houses of worship

What activities can we offer to educate and engage donors?

The range of activities to serve donors is broad and varies from foundation to foundation, depending on mission, staff, and budget. Here is a list to spark some ideas:

  • Meet with new donors, giving them a welcome packet of information about the foundation and fund
  • Ask donors to complete a donor intake form, which asks them to identify areas of interest and whether and how they want to be contacted by the foundation
  • Offer donors information about philanthropy and passing charitable values on to the next generation
  • Offer workshops on how to conduct a site visit or how to decide whether to recommend a grant for general operating or program-specific support
  • Inform donors about trends, emerging issues, current needs, and opportunities through a newsletter, bulletin, e-mail, or website
  • Schedule bus tours to grantee organizations
  • Host breakfast or luncheon meetings featuring speakers or panels
  • Hold large symposiums on community issues
  • Formally recognize donors (unless they wish to remain anonymous) to express appreciation for their generosity
  • Sponsor giving circles (also called collaborative donor networks) in which individuals pool resources to support a common interest or cause
  • Invite donors to join an advisory committee, hear presentations by grantees, or participate in a leadership opportunity

Track donor interest over time through a survey or questionnaire. Follow up with donors either in a focus group setting or in one-on-one meetings or calls. You can also track donor interest by frequently reviewing the grants they make from advised funds.

Keep in mind that not all of the activities suggested here will be right for your foundation. You may want to focus on one or two, and save a few others for later. Think quality in the services you offer, not quantity.

What's the minimum service we should offer donors?

If you do nothing else, give new donors an orientation to the foundation and their fund. There are many tools community foundations can use when orienting donors. Some of the most common are:

  • A welcome letter as soon as the fund is established
  • A donor intake form, which helps donors write their mission and values statements
  • A personalized handbook with easy-to-understand information about the fund type, the foundation, the guidelines, and procedures (see below)
  • A “fundamentals of philanthropy” workshop
  • A follow-up call and/or an in-person meeting (depending on the size of the fund) to find out how you can help and what services they’re interested in. Ask them: If we come across opportunities that might interest you, would you like us to let you know? If so, how?

What should a donor handbook include?

Donor handbooks provide donors with information about their funds. Handbooks can be invaluable for new donors who are just getting oriented to the foundation and philanthropy. You might consider including:

  • A personalized welcome note from the president and CEO
  • A brief history of the foundation
  • A list of grantmaking opportunities
  • The foundation’s policies and guidelines. These guidelines give instructions for making grant requests; explain the foundation’s procedures for processing, approving, and distributing those requests; and describe the foundation’s other services

Some community foundations offer a formal, bound version of the donor handbook, designed as a keepsake. Others present more functional handbooks, in folders or loose-leaf binders so that the materials can be updated as needed. 

What are fund statements, and how often should we send them?

Fund statements provide donors with information about the status of their charitable funds. They are also a good way to maintain relations with donors and update them on foundation activities and community needs. To comply with the National Standards, you should send donors at least one fund statement per year. Different community foundations present fund statements in many different ways, such as in a letter or newsletter, as part of the foundation’s annual report, or online.

What services can we provide to involve the "next generation"?

Both the community foundation and the donor have an interest in involving future generations in philanthropy. Here are some ideas for involving the next generation(s):

  • Help donors create a fund mission statement with their family. This will get all the members of the family involved and help to focus their giving
  • Offer to help the family do its grantmaking. You might facilitate meetings with families to help them talk about their values and make decisions about funding, or schedule site visits with families and children
  • Get young people involved in philanthropy. The Community Foundation of Boulder County assembled a team of high school students to distribute $10,000 to local nonprofits
  • Inform donors about your reading and Web resource list, particularly those that educate children about giving and philanthropy. (Check out the Council’s The Giving Family if you haven’t already)
  • Encourage the donor and their family to volunteer their time. Offer them suggestions on how they can do so

Some community foundations permit the donor to name grandchildren or expected future generations as subsequent advisers to a donor advised fund. Other foundations limit donor involvement to two generations.

What services can we provide for donors looking to give smaller amounts?

Some foundations sponsor giving circles (also called collaborative donor networks) in which individuals pool resources to support a common interest or cause. These groups appeal to philanthropic individuals who may want to “test out” the community foundation, who want to learn about philanthropy but are not ready to start their own fund, or who want to work with others on a specific community issue.

Other community foundations offer fund-builders programs (sometimes called acorn funds) in which the donor may start a fund with a modest gift and build the fund over time.

How can we measure the success of our donor services efforts?

This is a tough one. After all, who knows what really makes donors contribute more over time? Here are some ways to gather information:

  • Survey donors on specific services and general feelings about the foundation
  • Track gifts to existing funds. You might use giving data from the last five years to set a goal for the next year
  • Track what dollars from donor-advised funds were influenced by your input—that is, any time you moved a donor to action. This tends to be subjective

According to one of your colleagues, you can really only measure donor services on an individual basis: “Donor services are all about one-on-one relationships. The goal should be that every donor-advised fund has a personal management plan. For the majority of funds, the plan will be: ‘You need to do nothing.’ It all comes down to customized work—making one-on-one contact from the top down, the highest fund down to the lowest.”—Minnesota Community Foundation

Donor Services: Ideas from the Field

Continually update donors on new grant opportunities

Marin Community Foundation’s (MCF) website features a tool for donors called MCF Donor Express that every month spotlights approximately 10 organizations working in a particular issue area. MCF Donor Express outlines each organization’s mission and includes a wish list for funding to a maximum of $10,000. MCF solicits information from the nonprofits and performs due diligence before posting their information. “The program has been popular…It serves to offer the donors, who generally like to remain anonymous, a more private service,” says an MCF staffer.

Hold a variety of donor events

The Boston Foundation established three types of events: 1) Tips and Tools Programs, where the foundation asks top-level donors how to better help them achieve their philanthropic goals; 2) Donor Briefings, held three times a year on a specific grantmaking topic (such as education or homelessness), showing how the foundation is involved with community initiatives that can be supported by foundation donors; and 3) Around the Boardroom Table, at which the community foundation invites donors and other local funders to formal but intimate boardroom-style meetings in hopes of cultivating coinvestment in applicant organizations.

Convene the community

Kalamazoo Community Foundation holds an annual community breakfast meeting that serves as a public platform from which to inform the community about the foundation and its accomplishments. The meeting agenda includes a presentation by the president and CEO of the foundation and a featured keynote speaker who presents model community programs to energize and motivate those in attendance. The meeting is free of charge since it is underwritten by several local sponsors. It usually attracts 500–700 business, community, and nonprofit leaders and interested citizens.


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This article provides ideas to help your community foundation get started in providing quality donor services and to keep donors engaged and active with your foundation.

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