At some point in the course of your fundraising work, it is very likely that you invite donors in to see your organization in action. Whether you hold open days, or show donors around individually, tours can be a great way of having your donors get up close and personal with what your organization does and the impact that it has.
However, when developing your tours, how strategic are you with how you go about it? Do you think about how the tour is constructed, the messaging that you want to get across, the feeling that you want to leave the donor with and most importantly, the action you want the donor to take?
How you plan and develop a tour can make all the difference to the donor experience. In fact, it’s not unlike a visual representation of your Case for Support. Like your Case for Support, the tour should take your donor on a journey towards an ask of some kind (even if the ask is not for money at this stage, it should still lead the donor to take an action of some kind, even if it is just an agreement to meet again).
I love fundraising tours. I’ve used them throughout my fundraising career. I’ve conducted tours of schools, hospices, hospitals and even empty office blocks. In every case, they have been an excellent way to engage donors and help them to understand the value of the organization’s work. But it’s easy to get them wrong.
I’m going to tell you the story of three, very different, fundraising tours, and how they did, and didn’t work, to engage donors.
The empty office block
The first time I ran a fundraising tour I was at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (now Freedom from Torture), which provided therapy and support to people who had experienced torture and organized violence. We regularly ran open days, where donors could come and hear about the work, meet staff, ask questions and learn more about what we did.
The open days were always on a weekend when there were no clients present and essentially, people were being shown around an empty building with a lot of rooms. When I was told that I would be taking groups of people to see empty offices and rooms, I was baffled. What could I show people? There was nothing to see, aside from rooms with a desk and a couple of chairs!
I quickly learned that with strong storytelling, you can portray what you want to without the need for props. What was important was to help people to visualise what would take place in those rooms. This was where people would talk about their experiences and they would receive expert professional support, at a very difficult time, and where they could begin to start the healing process. Through storytelling, donors were able to build a picture in their minds of what took place and how important this work was.
Ultimately, the open days were a huge success and we were at full capacity every time. They became one of the most important aspects of our stewardship strategy.
“We’re doing fine, thanks for asking!”
A few years ago, I was invited, along with ten other prospective donors, to attend a tour of a specialist medical facility that provided treatment and care for people who were living with a life-threatening condition.
Things were going very well. We were taken through a series of rooms, each of which had its own story and a medical professional talking through what happened there, and they gave real examples of patients that had or were receiving treatment. The work was very powerful and the staff were fantastic storytellers. People were clearly moved, so much so that one potential donor said: “You clearly do amazing work. But what are the issues? Where do you need make some improvements?”.
To me this presented a perfect time to explain to the group what their funding needs were, how they do so much, but resources were very limited, so they need support to increase capacity. Or how additional support could mean that they could bring in new state of the art medical equipment. The possibilities were endless. He’d opened a door to a great conversation about the need for funding.
What the doctor heard, however, was that the donor was questioning the quality of what they were doing, and that if she wasn’t careful, she could inadvertently indicate that as an organization, they weren’t coping and that the standard of their services was suffering. So the slightly flustered doctor responded by saying “We are doing great, but thanks for asking”.
As a fundraiser, I was horrified. The donor never spoke again and the tone and feel of the tour changed. We had all been brought to a point where we could see ourselves making a difference and that opportunity was taken away from us, since the doctor was in effect saying that our help wasn’t needed.
The Children’s Hospice
This was probably one of the most powerful tours I had ever been on. I had never felt so compelled to donate, and this wasn’t even a fundraising tour, just a visit of a friend’s workplace.
There are few things as emotive as visiting a facility that was there to support a child in their final days, but what really grabbed my attention was the clear journey that I was being taken on, from what a child experienced when they arrive, to the support that is given to a parent when the child has passed on.
On arrival I learned a little about their vision, mission and what they were set up to do. I then learned about the children that they worked with, what their experiences were, why they were there and what support they needed. I was then taken to the different service areas that they offered, and discovered how important they were to make the children’s lives more comfortable.
I met several of the staff, all of whom were true experts in their field, which showed me that they put the children’s needs at the forefront of all their planning. I also learned about their strategic plan and future direction – what they wanted to do next, why they needed to do it, and how their ambition was to reach more children and reduce the considerable waiting lists that they had.
It was what I wanted to hear. I wanted to know that they were going to be doing more, for more children. And I wanted to be there on that journey with them. The only thing missing, was the ask. I was ready. I was waiting. But the ask didn’t come. I was simply thanked for my visit, and sent on my merry way.
While I wasn’t there, technically, as a donor, this was a missed opportunity. They had done their job so well, up until this point. As a fundraiser, I was frustrated. As a potential donor, I was disappointed. I could only feel that they didn’t want my money and that they didn’t see that I had a part to play.
So what can we learn from these experiences?
Understand your goals. The tour is not about showing people where you work. It’s about demonstrating the need for financial support, so think carefully about your goals from the start. What do you want your donor to find out, understand and most importantly, what do you want them to do as a result of visiting you?
Take your donor on a journey. Like your Case for Support, the tour takes people on a journey which leads them to understand the role that they can play. Think about your tour construction, and how you can create that journey that builds up towards a call to action that they are expecting and that they want to answer.
Bring the rooms to life with powerful stories. You don’t need elaborate premises to make this work. As with the office block scenario, through strong storytelling, you can build a picture in donors’ minds of what you do, and take them on that journey with you.
Build in the need into each room. Use each room to demonstrate what your funding needs are. Then pay attention to where your donors seem to be showing particular interest. These are the clues as to how you can make your approach later on and what donors might be most excited to support.
Make sure all your staff are on the same page. If the doctor at the medical facility had been trained in the Case for Support, and given the right messaging, then she would have had the right answer to the donor’s question. Ensuring that all your staff fully understand what you are looking to achieve, and what their role is in doing this, can make all the difference to their effective engagement with donors.
Ask! Of course, at the children’s hospice, I could have offered my help. However, I, like many donors, like to be asked. We like to be clear on what the options are for providing support and that my support is needed. We all like to feel valued, and being asked to partner in this journey is one way to do this.
Fundraising tours can add to the donor’s experience considerably. So think about how you can use them to create a fulfilling donor experience that not only connects them to your cause and need, but also contributes towards building stronger relationships.