Nick Pride: We know supporter engagement is important, but we need to think about what that means

What's required is a working model of engagement and to understand how that connects to existing models of commitment

Nick Pride
Nick Pride

As a sector we have been given irrefutable evidence of the need to change and plenty of great guidance on how to go about it. Some of our biggest charities, such as the Children’s Society, the RNLI and Oxfam, are stepping bravely into new versions of themselves, committing to value-driven behaviours and supporter-centric structures. 

We are changing, and that’s good. We’ve started to accept that there’s no such thing as a committed gift, but there can be such a thing as a committed supporter. We recognise that supporters can no longer be defined solely by whether or not they have given money.

We know that supporter engagement is important. It’s the future. On a rough count today, one third of fundraising jobs being advertised publicly have the word "engagement" in them, and some of those are at leadership team level.

But I think there’s a problem. 

We’ve understood what it is that we need to leave behind. We’ve seen visions of what the new world of fundraising can be. But we haven’t explained to ourselves how it’s actually going to work. And the key question we need to ask ourselves is what "engagement" really means.

There is convincing and practical research available to help us understand the role of trust in building commitment to a charity, and how commitment in turn can drive loyalty. What we need now is a working model of engagement. We need to understand what to measure and what to change in order to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with our supporters; and then we need to understand how this connects to the existing models of commitment. In particular, these tools and metrics must also cater for a world in which we place explicit value on all types of support, whether or not they are financial.

Without such a model, there’s a real risk that we’re just going to change everyone’s job title and then wonder what else to do – or, worse, believe we had made all the change that was needed to move away from the bad old days.

Note that I say a working model, because it’s going to take us time, diligence, testing and a lot of expert analysis to find a proven version. Meanwhile, we need a starting hypothesis, so here goes.

Our approach needs to be much closer to that which we have long accepted as appropriate for a major donor: we need to understand them, and build enough of a relationship so that, when we ask for something, we know we’re asking the right question. This reframes and focuses our challenge: how do we build relationships at scale and cost-effectively?

We’ve known for a long time that personal connections, shared values and trust are crucial ingredients in the decision to support a charity in the first place. We know they are even more important in the decision-making around legacies. Now there is a pressing need to understand these drivers at an individual level, and the sooner the better.

We wouldn’t dream of embarking on a journey with a prospective major donor without finding out "why might you/do you support us?" and "what aspects of our work are you interested in?" Now we just need to work out how to capture, store and work with the answers for a much bigger number of supporters.

We know we can learn from the considerable research around "customer engagement" in the commercial world. Not all of it will translate to charities, but especially in an environment where brands-with-purpose are already invading our space there are promising starting points for our own testing.

Hats off to those intrepid charities that have set off on the difficult journey of changing their whole organisation to put their audiences at the heart of what they do. There’s lots to be done, and it won’t necessarily be straightforward. I look forward to all of us sharing our successes and lessons learned as we start to understand the real meaning of supporter engagement.

Nick Pride is fundraising strategy director at the creative agency WPN Chameleon

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