Fundraising Published Date, 2022

Why Your Organization Should Consider Experiential Philanthropy

Created By: Tisha Hyter
August 1, 2022

At Orr Group, when we talk about the business of philanthropy, we mean adapting successful business practices for nonprofit advancement. One emerging trend in the business world, experiential marketing, has clear implications for fundraising and beyond, but it’s important to deploy this strategy thoughtfully if you want to get a return on your investment.

Before we apply this concept to philanthropy, let’s be sure to understand experiential marketing. There are many definitions, but Limelight offers my favorite: “a uniquely fast and effective way to build brand awareness through face-to-face connections with consumers. It engages all five senses, sparking emotions that form lasting memories which have been shown to drive brand loyalty.”

Writing in Forbes, Steve Olenski observes, “Most people go out of their way to avoid commercials, yet most will also go out of their way for a new experience. That’s why experiential marketing works so well.”

Experiential marketing sometimes ties in with corporate social responsibility objectives. For example, Lululemon’s Proud & Present campaign encouraged employees and ambassadors to reflect on a moment in time for the LGBTQ2IA+ community so that they could capture thoughts and images for a two-week installation at New York’s Hudson River Park.

Consider Limelight’s point above about engaging the five senses and reflect on your development and marketing efforts. Your e-mails, videos, brochures, websites, galas, and tours might be well done, informative, and even moving, but do they qualify as experiences? What is your nonprofit doing to help supporters experience your organization’s mission? Beyond allowing them to read about impact in your e-news or listen to a beneficiary share their story during a gala, is there a way they can actually feel your work? In the words of management guru Peter Drucker, “One of the great movements in my lifetime among educated people is the need to commit themselves to action. Most people are not satisfied with giving money; we also feel we need to work.”

Many of Orr Group’s client partners provide ways to engage their supporters. When KABOOM! builds play spaces in communities affected by disinvestment and inequity, the organization engages with volunteers like Ed Nora—an associate with a corporate supporter who had a personal tie to the project helped to build. “I couldn’t believe the playground hadn’t been remodeled since it was first built 25 years ago," he said. "I was excited to come back and help.” Danielle Turnage, KABOOM! Vice President of Partnership Development said, “We see these kinds of authentic connections with our projects frequently. That’s something I love about our work. For everyone involved, it makes the project and its long-term impact to the community and kids much more meaningful than simply making a donation.”

Just as people learn in different manners (hearing, seeing, reading), a donor’s growth can occur through their hands and heart. That’s “experiential philanthropy”—by literal definition: experiencing or observing love for humankind. One study posits that experiential philanthropy “provides access to a potential supply of new and highly motivated donors.” 

Simply put, every donor interaction can and should have a “mission moment,” where philanthropists, program officers, and others can gain a sense of your work. For example:

  • A corporate sponsor for a school-based program asking several employees to volunteer for the year.
  • Supporters attending a roundtable to brainstorm on how services could be delivered in more efficient ways.
  • A donor and a program beneficiary having lunch together and sharing family photos.

“Direct service organizations often have the ability to present the work they’re doing,” says my colleague, Orr Group Director Amy Hutchinson, acknowledging that the Covid pandemic has made these visits more challenging. “But it’s much harder with advocacy organizations”—where the work might consist of research and reports. She notes that corporate prospects often want to provide in-kind support or day-long volunteer opportunities for their staff, but this expectation can add a burden without always adding value. Indeed, spinning volunteer time into donor dollars requires an organizational culture where the development and the program teams are fully invested in this long-term engagement. This goes double for the sometimes-misused practice of voluntourism, which some say can verge on exploitation. A related trend, service learning, connects higher education and efforts to solve social problems.

Another colleague, Lizzie Honan, Director of Talent at Orr Group, has seen organizations successfully engage donors through walking tours, site visits, virtual meet-and-greets, and more, pointing out that while these experiences do not cost a lot to organize, they can be time intensive for staff. However, she also shared that donors “got a much more tangible, emotional connection to the power of the work.”

Hutchinson adds, “I don’t think experiential philanthropy is all that new. Savvy development officers have long known that bringing donors in to experience the programmatic work happening strengthens donor relationships and ensures continued giving.”

In addition to engaging donors, our work is building the next generation of nonprofit professionals. Although I didn’t know the name for it back then, I was the recipient of philanthropy as a child when I received free breakfasts and a warm coat one winter. The generosity those staff members, donors, and volunteers showed me has never left my heart and fuels me professionally. And while my story was anchored by the kindness of the strangers at that church, it’s also important to share that donor experience should always take a backseat to the respectful treatment of vulnerable children and families.

In the final analysis, mission comes first, but there are always creative ways to bring the vision alive for your supporters. Experiential philanthropy could be just the way to do so.

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