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:

What is needed is a sustainable engine/sustainable model to drive us in the future. There is a lot of slicing and dicing of our donor base. Specific techniques work as one-offs but are we really retaining donors and building donor participation?
Can community-building be this 'sustainable engine' for donor engagement and participation?x
  • 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.
    Admittedly, donor participation is an imperfect proxy for... community buy-in? donor engagement? something bigger?x
  • 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?

Angie: We found common threads such as providing a sense of personal transformation, purpose finding, and experience of community.
What common threads did you find among the orgs in the case study?x

“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:

Engage with the leaders of each of the communities. Your goal will be to learn about the communities and bring them in, but it has to be done in a spirit of kinship, collaboration, and unity.

The value to the leaders of these communities of being connected to each other is very high. Leading these communities is an isolating and thankless job.

Your umbrella organization (university, large nonprofit, hospital, museum) can offer to connect them to each other and support them.
This struck me as highly actionable advice and an easy win. Start a Leaders Forum for your sub-community leaders and provide them support and guidance. Could you see this happening at your institution?x

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

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Louis Diez
2 months ago
What is needed is a <strong>sustainable engine</strong>/<strong>sustainable model</strong> to drive us in the future. There is a lot of slicing…" Read more »

We discussed different approaches nonprofits are taking: increased personalization and systematization, more/better data profiles, days of giving, better stewardship, but these do not seem to be yielding that sustainable engine the sector is looking for.

Louis Diez
2 months ago
A deeper definition of authentic donor engagement is seen as more valuable." Read more »

Whatever this ‘it’ is, it is a requirement for organizations that want to grow and be more resilient to external shocks. Would love to hear more from orgs that are increasing their participation on how it has changed them.

Louis Diez
2 months ago
Angie: We found common threads such as providing a sense of personal transformation, purpose finding, and experience of community." Read more »

As I looked at the websites for the sample organizations, I was struck by how they dripped purpose. All the messaging is focused around that. That feels like something larger organizations could learn from.