Unrequited Love: A study on the early UK university non-alumni donor experience

Three months ago, I started a ‘mystery shopping’ exercise in order to investigate the standard of donor care across fifteen higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK. I did this not to expose individual institutions to criticism, but to make observations about the experience that we are offering non-alumni donors as an industry. Having read Ken Burnett’s Relationship Fundraising with great interest, I was curious to see if HEIs adhered to the principles outlined in this seminal publication, particularly within the context of a fundraising landscape undergoing major changes in response to highly critical stories in the media that followed the death of Olive Cooke in May 2015. I was hoping (with a bit of luck) to find some outstanding examples to showcase.


Mystery Shopping results (online)

To my surprise, not a single one of the universities included in this study adopted a clear relationship fundraising approach. In fact, I found concerning inconsistencies regarding what many in the industry would otherwise consider to be the minimum standards, and in five instances I received little more than an automated acknowledgement. In short, I have to conclude that the standard of donor care among many of the fifteen HEIs included in this study falls short of what I would expect – and, indeed, what most supporters might expect too.

But it’s not all bad news. I did receive some commendable communications in which the attention to detail and personalisation effectively connected me as a donor to my chosen cause, using an appropriate degree of emotion to convey the impact of my gift. I was also impressed with the online donation journey in a number of cases, although strength in this area did not always translate to a quality donor experience in subsequent communications.

I was lucky enough to begin my higher education fundraising career as a donor relations manager and I am grateful for the grounding this has given me not only in what donors are likely to expect and appreciate, but in how difficult it can be to convince others of the importance of this area. Hopefully this paper will be useful to others seeking to understand and improve their own supporter experience and make it a team priority.


4 thoughts on “Unrequited Love: A study on the early UK university non-alumni donor experience

  1. Simon Buttenshaw says:

    We’re planning on reviewing our new donor experience soon and your research will provide much food for food, thank you!
    By the way, recently I rang a donor to thank him and to check I understood his intentions, following receipt of a donation form from him. Was the new regular gift on his form (to cause X) in addition to the one he already has set up (to cause Y), or to replace it? He told me it was to replace it. OK… so he hasn’t upgraded the amount he gives, but at least we have made sure he is giving to the cause he is most motivated by. HOWEVER he rang back after 30 minutes to say he had changed his mind, and actually he wants to support both cause A and cause B, in effect doubling his support after all. Fantastic!
    So – this has got me thinking…what if we took this approach with all donors..?

    • hollypalmerconsulting says:

      I’m pleased it will be useful! Yes, a conversation with a donor to understand their intentions is a powerful thing indeed. It shows you care about them, value their contribution and that you respect their decisions. Great stuff!

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