Bridging the Gap: Connecting Community Foundation Donors and Community Needs

The Rhode Island Foundation was pleased to partner with the Center for Effective Philanthropy on a Donor Perception Report in both 2010 and 2013. (As the first-ever customer of the Grantee Perception Report in 2002, we recognize the importance of direct customer feedback.) Our first DPR in 2010 provided invaluable information about how donors viewed the Foundation and what they expected from us. Based on our 2013 DPR results, we made progress in several key areas and can see more clearly the biggest opportunities for increased donor engagement.

Community foundations are unique, in that our success is ultimately dependent upon multiple stakeholders. Our mission is twofold: to help generous donors reach their philanthropic goals and to meet Rhode Island’s needs. We make every effort to focus on the ways in which these two goals overlap and, when possible, to bring them together. One of the most important roles we play in the community is that of a bridge between generous Rhode Islanders who want to give and the community organizations tackling important issues.

For this model to work, donor satisfaction is indeed vital. The philanthropists who created the more than 1,300 funds at the Foundation since our founding in 1916 are our lifeblood. Our board and staff consider it a great privilege that they have entrusted their legacy and philanthropy with us. Without our donors, our impact and growth potential are limited. In my experience, donors who are comfortable with and confident in their partners will surprise you with their creativity and generosity.

Donor stewardship means much more than responding to requests, and fundraising requires much more than executing gift transactions. Development is a continuous process of educating, inspiring, and engaging. Since 2010, we have focused on two areas that I believe have made a particular difference in our donor engagement results. First, our development team is charged with providing high-level, high-quality, proactive, and personalized service. We have targeted more regular check-ins, invited donors more strategically to programming, and increased the frequency and relevance of communications. We have made more consistent our front-end approach to understanding each donor’s wishes and expectations. Of course, we follow this excellent stewardship, when appropriate, with requests for continued support.

Second, we heard loud and clear in our first DPR results the need to communicate clearly our direction, strategy, and goals. Donors’ ratings on the clarity of our goals and strategy are strongly correlated with their perceptions of our leadership and impact on the community and, ultimately, their satisfaction. Over the past four years, we have intentionally taken more proactive leadership roles in the community and raised our profile. Like many other community foundations, we have focused our discretionary grantmaking, attempting to target the highest priority community issues in order to have greater impact. This has opened up new opportunities (and a few challenges) for our work with donors, and we continuously strive to strike the right balance. Our donors largely validated this direction in the 2013 DPR. Our DPR results show that donors who are more engaged with us also rate more positively their overall satisfaction with the Foundation, the clarity of our goals and strategy, and our leadership in the community. More engaged donors also report that we have enhanced their knowledge and increased their ability to make an impact on issues they care about.

For sure, there are several areas that we need to continue to work on, and the DPR helped us understand which opportunities are key levers for overall donor satisfaction. In particular, our team is targeting the following goals:

  • Talk to more donors more regularly about their charitable goals. It is incumbent upon us to be sure that we truly understand each donor’s wishes and plans. All donors should have regular opportunities to express their charitable goals to the Foundation. When we do this well, we are often able to surface opportunities to add value to the donor’s experience.
  • Diversify our donor base. We must continue to find opportunities to connect with broader segments of the community. In 2012, we launched our first Civic Leadership Fund campaign, which has proven helpful in connecting with younger donors and corporations.
  • Consider what roles current donors can play as advocates for our leadership in the community. Those who know us best seem eager to spread the word and be our ambassadors if we are able to provide meaningful, efficient opportunities to do so.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy has been a tremendous partner in helping us understand our donors’ perceptions and ways we might better serve them. We remain more committed than ever to helping Rhode Island philanthropists achieve their goals and meet the needs of our community.

Neil Steinberg became president & CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2008. Before joining the foundation, Mr. Steinberg served from 2004 to 2008 as vice president of development and campaign director at Brown University.

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