3 Steps to Mastering Your Donor Journey

James Martin
Published on | 
February 15, 2021
3 Steps to Mastering Your Donor Journey

What Is the Donor's Journey, and Why Is It Important?

If you've ever planned a vacation, then you are already familiar with the idea of a journey. It means much more than simply moving from Point A to Point B. It's about creating new and meaningful experiences and enjoying the trip, ideally with the people you love.

To understand it easily, a donor journey is a process of getting someone's attention and activating them to participate with your mission or cause.

The ultimate goal is to clearly understand who your donors are, how they think, and what they feel, and then to help them understand who you are, how you think, and what you feel so you can move them to act with your nonprofit organization.

Mapping a donor's path and understanding their journey, as dynamic as it is, is really about moving people in such a way that you can do it again and again at scale. A clear, repeatable process. Think that's possible? I believe it is but first, let's address the obvious.

The Challenge of the Information Age

Raising awareness and mapping the path someone might take to get to you is a real challenge in this always-on digital age. It is not as linear as we'd like to think. And for our donors, separating the signal from the noise is nearly impossible. In short, it is tough to get and keep meaningful attention.

Today, attention spans are short and only getting shorter. Studies suggest that an average adult attention span is 10-15 minutes short term as low as 8 seconds. As if that weren't enough of a challenge, the average person sees about 5,000 ads a day. That’s a lot of requests for their time and money.

The bottom line is people will respond to messaging in different ways and at different times. They will get on and off a "path," so to speak. Let's think about it, they have no shortage of information or access to more information, and they can take multiple paths to just about any online destination. The challenge for us is understanding what to measure and making sense of it in this digital landscape.

Chances are you have no shortage of analytics and data yourself. It is interpreting and "doing something" with this information that is the real opportunity for organizations, especially as they create a repeatable process for activating donors.

Therefore, we need to put thought into the steps someone will take to discover and engage. This is called Mapping the Donor Journey. We create the experience and opportunity to get a message in front of someone, so they take action and make a donation.

A Typical Donor Journey

A typical donor journey might look like this:



In this stage, we are raising awareness of our cause and seeking to rise above the noise. Often we'll use blogs, articles, social media, or even paid ads to get our message out front.

The more effective we are at understanding our audience and how they think, feel, and behave, the more successful we will be. It is hard to get a message to land if you are not even sure who you are talking to. The more clarity you have here, the better.  We'll go into that in more detail when we discuss personas.

The goal is to inspire someone and move them to the next step.


We'll use stories and information in easy to digest formats like infographics and video in this stage. Brene Brown said it best when she said, "story is simply data with a soul."  The better we are at telling stories about the people impacted by our work, the better we'll be at igniting this alignment. If our listeners align with our story, either personally or because of a shared experience with others, they are more likely to act. More on this when we talk about aligning head, heart, and hands.

"Story is simply data with a soul." - Brene Brown

Again, the goal is to move people to the next step. This is done through alignment.


Once a potential donor is in alignment, in agreement, and in a position relative to ours, we can push for a decision. Something they have to do to make the next step. That could be signing up for a newsletter, attending an event, or making a pledge, but it should eventually lead to a donation.

Often I see people struggle here because the ask can be uncomfortable, so it is easy to think too small or stay in a place of scarcity. The truth is, the more aligned people are to our mission, the more we can ask of them. Of course, the burden of getting this alignment always falls on us as the leaders championing our cause. Just remember that story is by far the best way to do this since it allows others to enter into that story and be part of it themselves.

The goal here is to expand. We may start with small actions to further build our story and align them with it, but ultimately we must move people to a more significant level of participation.


When you are excited about a particular purchase or experience, you are much more likely to tell others about it. As consumers, it is what we do. Donors are no different. When they have a great experience with a nonprofit, they tell others. If we've done the other steps right, we should have no problem asking for more. Giving our donors a chance to share their story or even their involvement in our story is key here. If you have a place for volunteers, have them share their involvement and experience with others. Chances are, the donors you activate run in circles and have relationships with prospective donors who are just like them. As people, we love our tribes. Having them share their experience with a friend or their family is a great way to create advocates for your charity.

Make it easy for them to connect others to your nonprofit and share their experiences.

Master Your Donor Journey

1. Understand Identity

This is an important step that is often overlooked. At the heart of every good persona is identity. The truth is, getting to how a person sees themselves and what motivates them is powerful. The basics are this, the more you understand your donors, the more clarity you'll have on how to reach them. If, for example, you find that men in their late 40s who own Harleys are more likely to donate $2,000 or more, the better your chances of finding more donors like them (you could sponsor an event with the local dealership, for example).

The key here is to use whatever characteristics and attributes you can to get to their actual motivation (identity). We can get hung up on male, '40s, or even Harley motorcycles. The gold is the layer beneath where we begin to unpack people's motivations. Maybe we'll discover (most likely talking to them) that they love our cause because they love the open road. That expands our audience in a big way.

Make up a story about where they live, where they shop, how they think, what they feel. As best you can paint a clear picture of who they are and how they behave. If I were naming our prospective donor who loves the open road, I might call him Henry the Harley rider. Have fun with it.

Giving them context and meaning helps you better refine your marketing and segment your potential donors so that you can send the right message to the right people.

2. Align Head, Heart, and Hands

Donors are people, just like you. I know this is obvious, but often we forget it. As people, we have heads (we think), we have hearts (we feel), and we have hands (we do). To move people to act, we can get them thinking for sure, but if we can also get them to feel, well, that's the difference between heart-felt wants (emotional) and needs (logical). Bringing heart and heart into alignment with the purpose and people impacted by our cause is where the magic happens. This is best done through storytelling.

As nonprofit leaders, we start by asking ourselves what motivates our donors and then working backward to make sure we give them the data they need to think like us and spark the feelings we have so they can act as we do. The goal here is to create a great donor experience and to activate them later as ambassadors for our cause.

The best way to do this is through video. A 2020 study showed that people would watch an average of 100 minutes a day of video. It might explain why 92% of marketers say that video is an important part of their marketing strategy, with 88% saying it provides a positive ROI.

There is no doubt storytelling is the best way to move hearts and minds. We all love a great story, and video is the best way to get a nonprofit's story across.

3. Reduce the Friction to Capture Donations

To move people to action and activate donors, we need to do everything in our power to overcome any barriers. As we pointed out earlier, there is so much noise it is hard to get our message across. With attention spans being so short, we risk losing potential donors if we make it too difficult to donate.

For example, recent studies show that over 53% of website visitors are on their mobile device, and 9 in 10 would prefer to engage with an organization over text so long as they stay in control and messages are both relevant and personalized. Fact is, we ourselves are more likely to communicate with the people we love over a text message.

When a potential donor on social media sees our ad, post, or video, we should have multiple ways to engage with us and afford them the option to select which communication method they prefer. Simply placing a number to text or a QR code, or even a swipe up to learn more are great ways to make it easy for a potential donor to activate and participate in our fundraising campaign.

We can then deploy light automation, provided it is highly targeted and personalized, so that donor communications match our donor personas. For example, if a nonprofit's cause is to fight sex trafficking, providing real-time updates on community engagement and ways to get involved will resonate with highly motivated people, especially if the updates include short video stories about its impact through its fundraising efforts.

As a general rule, we should meet people where they are and help them donate with minimal effort.

More Donor Journey Insights

There's always more to the process, and here are a few more marketing insights to keep in mind as you plan your nonprofit donor journey:

Recruit Advocates

Advocacy within the donor journey refers to the pivotal stage where donors transition into active ambassadors who passionately endorse and promote your organization's cause. This phase, akin to evangelization, involves donors proactively spreading awareness about your mission and persuading others to contribute toward it. One effective strategy to integrate into your donor journey roadmap is the implementation of a peer-to-peer (P2P) campaign. Through P2P campaigns, donors are empowered to serve as ambassadors, sparking conversations and garnering support for your nonprofit within their own circles and communities.

One way to boost advocacy is by offering benefits to donors who bring in friends to donate. By rewarding donors for their efforts in promoting the cause, you’re not only encouraging them to continue their advocacy but also demonstrating appreciation for their support. These strengthened relationships can have a lasting impact on the organization, as loyal and engaged donors are more likely to continue contributing and supporting the nonprofit in the long term. 

Show appreciation to your donors publicly, as this not only makes them feel valued but also showcases to others that their support is making a difference. Offering tangible items such as branded t-shirts, hats, or shopping bags can further incentivize donors to advocate for your cause, as these items serve as visible representations of their support. Instead of traditional items like mugs or pens, consider providing donors with wearable or usable items that can help raise awareness of your organization when used in public. Encouraging donors to bring in more supporters by offering benefits for referrals is another effective strategy to boost advocacy. Overall, being inventive and thinking outside the box when it comes to engaging donors in advocacy can lead to more successful fundraising and heightened visibility for your nonprofit organization.

To effectively engage donors in advocacy, it's crucial to create shareable content that resonates with them. One technique is to craft emails containing compelling stories and images that donors can easily share with their own networks. Additionally, consider creating engaging social media posts that prompt donors to share and spread the word about your organization. 

More Touchpoints

The donor journey includes multiple touchpoints. These are moments when you connect with a potential donor. Touchpoints play a crucial role because it takes a lot to connect. 

The standard marketing theory is it takes seven touchpoints with a customer before they’ll respond. That’s seven times they see an email, ad, social media post, article, etc. before they’re ready to buy. And seven is the minimum! Sometimes it takes many more.

Each touchpoint is an opportunity to engage. 

Create multiple touchpoints at each stage in the donor journey to make those connections more effective. Pay attention to what motivates donors at various stages. All of this helps foster long-term relationships with donors. 

Ultimately, well-placed touchpoints throughout the donor journey map can increase donor engagement, encourage donations, and nurture lasting connections with supporters.

Donor Retention

Nonprofit organizations often encounter challenges when it comes to retaining donors effectively. One primary obstacle is the struggle to maintain a strong and lasting connection with supporters after they have initially shown interest or made a donation. Many nonprofits face the issue of donors becoming disengaged or losing interest over time, resulting in a lack of continued support. 

To overcome these challenges, nonprofits can implement various strategies to improve donor retention rates. Firstly, expressing genuine appreciation for donors by continuously thanking them for their contributions, whether in the form of time, skills, or financial donations, can go a long way in fostering a sense of recognition and value. Personalized communication is another key aspect that can help maintain a strong relationship with donors. Providing regular updates on the organization's progress, sharing impactful stories, and highlighting the significance of their support can help donors feel connected and engaged. 

Furthermore, offering diverse opportunities for donor engagement beyond monetary donations, such as volunteering or participating in events, can enhance the donor experience and deepen their involvement with the cause. Recognizing donors' contributions through small gestures like exclusive event invitations, branded merchandise, or personalized updates on how their donations are making a difference can also play a significant role in retaining their support. 

The key to overcoming retention challenges lies in prioritizing personalized and meaningful interactions with donors, making them feel valued and appreciated for their continuous support. By understanding the importance of nurturing strong donor relationships and incorporating tailored strategies into their donor journey maps, nonprofits can effectively address these challenges and ensure long-term donor commitment and engagement.

Get the Donor Journey Blueprint

When it comes to Donor Journey Mapping, your success comes down to strategy and implementation over tools and tactics. As you consider this, think about what might work for you, and then reach out to one of our team members or join a free Rally Strategy Session with your peers. We'll go beyond tools and tactics and explore ways to drive real donor engagement and develop a donor journey map specific to your needs.

We are here to help you engage donors in a meaningful way on the medium they prefer. Click the link below to learn more.

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