Exploring a New Model of Donor Engagement

Exploring a New Model of Donor Engagement

January 24, 2013 by jga_admin

by Dan Schipp


Is it time for nonprofits to rethink their donor engagement model?

That’s the question raised by Julie Dixon and Denise Keyes of Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact in their excellent article, “The Permanent Disruption of Social Media” (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter, 2013).

For decades nonprofits have employed the ladder or pyramid approach to cultivate donors and build relationships with them.

This traditional model relies on direct mail, phone calls and events to introduce prospective donors and volunteers to an organization.

Then through more and more direct and personal contact (personalized mail, volunteer opportunities, face-to-face meetings, etc.), the supporter advances up the ladder or pyramid and is cultivated and solicited for larger and larger gifts, culminating in an ultimate gift, usually a bequest.

Ms. Dixon and Ms. Keyes argue that this orderly and linear process is no longer sufficient in an Internet and social media world.

They maintain that a new model of donor engagement is needed, “one that is more fluid and continuous, and that better reflects the growing importance that a person’s influence plays in the process.”

What does this new model of donor engagement look like? In their article, Ms. Dixon and Ms. Keyes provide five characteristics:

  • Allows for a donor to be engaged at different entry points and to move easily between them during the life cycle of her engagement
  • Has no fixed end point for a donor’s engagement
  • Allows for the donor-engagement footprint to expand or contract in ways that are unique to and driven by the individual donor
  • Places the donor’s needs – not the organization’s – at the center of the engagement
  • Accounts for the influence of other people on the strength of the donor-organization relationship.

Ms. Dixon and Ms. Keyes propose an intriguing image for their new model – a vortex. The individual is at the center of the vortex.

The depth of the individual’s commitment to the organization (in the traditional model this is conveyed by high up she is on the pyramid) is represented by the size of the continuous field around the center. As the supporter’s commitment deepens, the vortex expands outward.

In this model there are no specific steps upward or downward but rather a continuous flow of communication and engagement that fosters further communication and engagement.

Several of the goals of the vortex model resonate with the findings and recommendations of the Millennials research conducted by our firm and Achieve in 2012 (The Millennial Impact Report 2012):

  • offer supporters a tailored portfolio of involvement in line with their interests and strengths, and,
  • provide a continuous conversation in which various engagement opportunities are presented.

To stimulate your thinking (or re-thinking!) about how best to engage supporters, especially the millennial generation, in this social media age, I recommend reading “The Permanent Disruption of Social Media.”