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Donor Participation Project

Video Marketing for Fundraisers (5/18/2022)

This session has passed. Join the Donor Participation Project to get access to a video recording, upcoming sessions, and other benefits.

If you want to use more video in your fundraising, join David Phu for a brief presentation and conversation on what you should be thinking about.

(Sneak peek: videos that work don’t require a huge production budget!)

About: The Donor Participation Project (DPP) convenes fundraising professionals who are concerned about the nationwide decline in donor participation (20 million US households lost between 2000-2016). 

We believe this can be solved by changing our fundraising practices and want to learn from peers who are moving the participation needle.

Discuss this Topic and Learn with Your Colleagues During our May 18 Lunch Analysis

  • Please connect with David on LinkedIn and review his latest posts so you are familiar with his general philosophy on video for nonprofits.
  • This event will take place over Zoom.
  • The session will be recorded and accessible post-event for DPP members only.
Donor Participation Project Resources

Lessons from the Donor Participation Project

August of 2021 marks the one-year anniversary of launching the Donor Participation Project. From those initial sessions with just a handful of participants to over 1,000 fundraisers today, the amount of learning has been incredible.

What is the Donor Participation Project?

The Donor Participation Project (DPP) convenes fundraising professionals who are concerned about the nationwide decline in donor participation (20 million US households lost between 2000-2016). 

We believe this can be solved by changing our fundraising practices and want to learn from peers who are moving the participation needle.

Lessons Learned from the DPP

All of our sessions are recorded and available in the donor participation project resource library.


Our very first speaker, Angie Thurston presented on the importance of “deep community” for organizations that want to attract and keep millennials.

I believe her findings apply to all age groups. People seek community. Activities that create community have these characteristics:

  • They are recurring and happen with some frequency
  • They are participatory
  • They have a clear purpose. Ideally, that purpose is aligned with your organization’s.
  • And, because you can’t do it all, they often require volunteer leaders

These types of activities are also a great environment to create vulnerability loops, which is the fastest way to create trust. Trust is a requirement for any type of significant giving. So strengthening your nonprofit’s communities makes business sense.

Nonprofit Communications

Dr. Bill Donohue from Michigan State shared how poorly nonprofits are communicating in the new world of social media. Nonprofits should communicate in ways that generate feelings of trust and authenticity. They often achieve the opposite effect.

Here were his recommendations. Nonprofit communications must be:

  • Frequent. As in weekly or even daily depending on the channel. The annual report is a thing of the past.
  • Mission-focused. Every single piece of communication must breathe your nonprofit’s purpose.
  • Authentic. Forget highly produced fluff pieces. Think of something you could record on your camera.
  • Responsive. People will comment and have thoughts. Some of them will be negative! Modern nonprofits will be able to constructively engage with everyone.

Adam Platzer’s presentation on the path that leads from engagement to major gifts also emphasized how important it is that you respond in a timely manner. Timely as in within 24 hours! His motto?

Shock Them with Your Follow-up!

Adam Platzer

Another way to ensure timely communication and stewardship is through marketing automation. We organized a study group to explore this topic over several weeks.

To build trust, your nonprofit must be perceived as:

  • Competent. This is why timely responses are so important. Timeliness signals competency.
  • Honest. Are you telling the truth?
  • Benevolent. Do you have my best interests in mind? Or are you self-serving?
  • Open to feedback. Do you respond well to suggestions for improvement and other ideas?

Case Studies

Part of our group’s mandate is to learn from those who are successfully moving the donor participation needle. We were honored to have a chance to chat and learn from leaders at these institutions:

New Ways of Giving

The DPP also brought leading experts in these emerging areas:

Nicole Stern generously shared her game plan for automatically recurring gifts AKA monthly gifts.

Donors that give this way have much higher retention and give more lifetime. What is not to love?

Well, successfully building a monthly giving program involves reworking your business to make it “monthly giving-first.” It won’t work as a simple add-on to existing giving methods.

Leading with Engagement

Sustainable philanthropic success requires looking holistically at your fundraising operations.

We were fortunate to have a conversation with one of the leading proponents of an integrated, human approach to transformative philanthropy: Live Q&A with Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Design thinking is a discipline that is especially good at helping us reenvision existing problems and find new solutions. In Donor Experience Mapping with Emily Taylor, teenyBIG, we actually got to collaboratively build a donor engagement map for a fictitious organization: teenyBIG University!

Case Study Donor Participation Project

W&M’s Successful Donor Participation Strategy

Video only available to Donor Participation Project members.

This session has passed. DPP members can access a video recording, slides, and other materials shared by the presenter. We also hold a small group discussion the week after every presentation for further discussion and networking! Make sure to sign up here to get access.

Matthew Lambert, CEO, William & Mary Foundation, and Dan Frezza,  Associate Vice President for Strategic Operations & Annual Giving guided a Donor Participation Project session on the details of their successful alumni giving participation strategy during their last campaign.

Some interesting takeaways were:

  • Every donor interaction mentioned the three campaign goals of increasing alumni engagement, increasing alumni giving participation, and reaching the campaign’s dollar goal.
  • They exploded their alumni engagement from about 10,000 touchpoints with alumni per year at the start of the campaign to over 30,000 by the last year of the campaign.
  • They grew their Class Ambassadors program from 200 to over 800 volunteers.
  • Their Giving Day also grew exponentially, and they viewed it as both an engagement and giving participation opportunity.
  • Leadership (President, Board, VP Advancement) must make participation a priority.
  • It is not a matter of either raising given dollar amounts OR achieving a participation goal, it has to be seen as giving AND participation.
  • Success requires a broad-based focus, across campus.
  • Diversification of the donor base is key (i.e. women in philanthropy, underrepresented populations).
  • The main indicators of giving habits are: giving history, consistency, frequency, and gift amount.
  • You must choose one among these three high-level goals: Retention, Reactivation, Acquisition. It will most likely be Retention.
  • With Reactivation, time is not on your side. After 5 years, donors are as likely to come back as a non-donor.
  • In the Acquisition bucket, newly graduated students were an important source of growth.
  • Key drivers of their success were: increased retention (year over year giving), increased gift frequency (within a year), stewardship of good behavior (i.e. consecutive giving society).

Learn more about the Donor Participation Project and sign up here.

Donor Participation Project Resources

Donor Participation Project Kickoff: How We Gather Report

Angie Thurston of Sacred Design joined a group of fundraisers as part of the Donor Participation Project to discuss the implications of the How We Gather report for nonprofit engagement and donor participation.

The document below summarizes the main points discussed:

  • The sector also needs a reliable way to know what is working well in the areas of donor engagement. In the current pandemic environment, especially in the area of digital engagement.
  • Angie shared a great thought:

People come for [the workout/artistic self-expression/having dinner with like-minded individuals/something else] but they stay for the community.

  • Donor participation as it is sometimes defined can become a superficial numbers game. A deeper definition of authentic donor engagement is seen as necessary.
  • It is important that there is wide representation among donor constituencies. The current trend toward fewer donors making larger gifts feels undemocratic.

Q: What are the common threads among the organizations in your report that have been able to grow large communities?

“Community” is a word that is frequently used in an empty way, but we its true that we found a hunger for authentic community. This is different from something like “networking,” which can be valuable in its own right.

Q: Larger, more established nonprofits include a broad variety of interests under their umbrella. How can we connect with and leverage those communities?

In larger nonprofits, like universities, communities develop organically around different issues. Sometimes these communities have a separate identity from the main organization. How do we have those communities embrace the values of the “mothership”?

Angie: This reminds me of There are thousands of communities made possible by this platform but its members identify with each other not with Some suggestions:

Q: How do we message the values of the organization, especially to sub-communities that have their own values?

Angie: Messaging about values depends on the extent to which the “real thing” is happening. Naming “values” is more effective if they match what is already going on. Otherwise, they come across as empty.

People should testify to the values of their community, based on their experience.

This connection between what is really happening and the official “values” can break down as organizations scale and grow. Some organizations are so reliant on the founder for these values that they fall apart when he or she is not there. We’ve all been guilty of this: “Developing Leaders for the 21st Century” sounds empty.

The statement of values is less important than the lived experience.

Among Millenials, there is a noticeable search for community, accountability, and an authentic voice. Communities must engage their constituents to be active, be purposeful, and demonstrate value to their members.

Angie: What we found striking is that lot of people (especially Millenials) are looking for deep community. But they are hesitant to talk about it in those terms (there is still a stigma for “loneliness”). People are wary of hyperbole. What they find appealing is “come play live music for one hour.” In other words, they want to hear the unexagerated reality of what the offering is.

Messaging should come from this lense. What are you actually doing? In real-life terms? Why have you made the decision to do that? Corporate messaging has exploited the word community and other concepts so much that people are hungry for a sense of reality.


Khadija Hill
James Barnard
Hawken Brackett
Franklin Guerrero
Cathy Dodge-Miller
Patrick Powell
Ivan Alekhin
Angel Terol
Joanna Schofield
Sierra Rosen
Tilghman Moyer
Patrick Powell
Michael Spicer
Rebekkah Brown
Louis Diez

Donor Participation Project Resources

How to Grow Giving Participation

I recently shared a list of US higher ed institutions with a high growth rate. Specifically, alumni giving participation growth between 2009 and 2019.

My team and I have been interviewing the top 10 in the nation. This varied list includes Ellon University, Villanova University, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Princeton University. Here is what we’re learning:

Donor growth is (one of) the VPs personal priorities

Growing organizations have the unit in charge of growing this metric (typically “Annual Giving” or “Annual Giving and Alumni Engagement”) reporting directly to them.

They act like “community incubators”

A “community incubator” is a term I created to describe organizations that are constantly generating different engagement opportunities for their donor base. “It’s a volume business,” one of the growing org VPs shared with us.

None of the schools told us that they had just grown and grown their existing engagement opportunities (i.e. reunion program, alumni board) to reach their ambitious growth goals.

Instead, they told us that they were constantly innovating and finding new segments and designing engagement opportunities for these constituencies: primary care physicians, alumni business owner marketplace, athletics-focused groups, the list goes on and on.

They do not shy away from transactional exchanges

All the growing schools embraced the fact that, at times, people will just “give to get.”

What they get can vary from access (“dinner with the president”) to simple incentives and promo items in the public radio-style, or simply satisfaction (“the 100th gift will unlock $10,000 to a specific program!”). Often, this is done to promote first, second, and third gifts.

Intensive use of incentives, challenges, and matches are an integral part of all of these programs.

They make recurring gifts easy and emphasize this way of giving wherever possible

They all have robust offerings and streamlined systems for monthly giving and multi-year pledges that you can make online, on the phone, or by mail.

They experiment and change their org chart based on priorities and team strengths

If they’re convinced that annual giving and engagement are two parts of the same coin, they will put them together in the same department. If they believe that a certain area needs more attention, they will have it report directly to the VP. If they believe that this is no longer the case, they will change the org chart again.

Stagnation and rigidity are not part of the vocabulary at any of these organizations.