Devising an Effective Donor Engagement Strategy in the Digital Age

By Robert Clockedile, Senior Digital Strategist, The Rolfson Group, Inc.

“We need a Facebook page.”

Sound familiar? At some point, someone in your organization probably said it. So that person, or someone else who knew how, took the initiative and the next thing you know, your organization has its own Facebook page. It kind of works. You see some engagement and a little growth, but no one is sure what the plan is (or if there is one), how effective it is, or who decides what goes on it and how it’s managed. Eventually, someone else comes along and says, “We need a blog,” and then, “We should be on Instagram.” The next thing you know, you have a digital communications empire, without a digital communications plan. Things may work, but they could be working a lot better. This can be fixed.

By stepping back and devising a strategy to guide your digital efforts, you can make them more efficient, more effective, and more beneficial to your organization.

The First, Big Question

Very few small organizations have the resources to take on all the digital channels they would like, and do so effectively, so the first (and most important question) an organization has to answer before working on their digital strategy is, “How much can we do?” Or, more importantly, “How much can we do well?”

Because of the viral nature of digital (particularly social) content, every piece you put out there has the potential to reach a large number of people, many of whom may never have heard of your organization. Each piece of content may be their first and only encounter with you. If what you are putting out is not your best work and representative of your organization, its quality, and its values, then you may be doing more harm than good.

The person who said, “We need a Facebook page,” was probably right. But that doesn’t mean you’re ready for one. Setting up the page is the beginning of an open-ended commitment of time and resources. It is a content channel that requires feeding. It is a social media presence that requires engagement. It is a communications tool that requires monitoring and assessment. If you are unable to feed and tend to it, a fallow, inactive page can be worse than not having a page at all. The same is true of any other digital channel you choose to implement.

Before starting or adding to your digital portfolio, you need to realistically determine the amount of work that goes into using each outlet effectively—creating and publishing strong content, engaging with your audience, evaluating the impact of your efforts, etc.—and decide if you have resources to allocate to it. Only then should you commit to moving forward.

Once you have determined your organization’s capacity for taking on the requisite work, it’s time to start the strategizing.

The Strategy

In its simplest form, a digital strategy can be boiled down to some version of: “Get the right content in front of the right people via the right channel at the right time to get them to do [X].” (With “X” being one of your organization’s strategic outcomes, e.g., make a gift, sign up for a newsletter, attend an event, simply smile, etc.) Implementing this formula requires answering a few more questions.

  • What is the right content?
    What are the strategic messages that you want to reinforce? What types of content do you have the resources and skills to produce (and produce well)? Blog posts? Photographs? Infographics? Video?
  • Who is your audience?
    We all have multiple audiences, but who are your most important audiences? Why? Which audiences should get which messages?
  • What are the appropriate (and manageable) channels?
    What channels will help you reach your preferred audiences with the types of content you can produce? Can you effectively feed and manage those channels?
  • What are the most effective times?
    When are your audiences online? How often should you publish content to each channel? What is the optimal blend of content types and topics?
  • What do you want your audience to do?
    What actions do you want audiences to take upon seeing your content? Engage on social media (like, comment, share, etc.)? Go to the website and fill out a form? Attend an event? Make a gift? Sometimes, it’s as simple as smile, laugh, or think.

Once you have answered these questions, you are on your way to having the backbone of a digital strategy that you can integrate with the organization’s other communications efforts, its strategies, its brand, and its operations.

While this may sound daunting or discouraging, there is tremendous upside to having a well-thought-out digital strategy to complement your fundraising efforts. Effective use of a website, email lists, and social media outlets can reinforce your brand, amplify your messages, aid in donor engagement and retention, and expose your organization to a broader audience than can traditional communications channels. Whether your organization is already managing a digital presence, or you are just starting to think about it, you can benefit from taking a step back and figuring out how to make the most impact with the resources you have available.

Devising a thoughtful and comprehensive digital engagement strategy will help ensure you get the greatest return from your efforts.


Robert Clockedile (rclockedile@rolfsongroup.com) is the Senior Digital Strategist at the Rolfson Group, Inc. Since 1993, Rob has helped organizations successfully navigate the evolution and integration of the web, social media, multimedia, and other forms of digital communications into their operations. His career has included stints with Boston-area startups, well-established publishing companies, and 13 years at Colby College.

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