Sophia Shaw, Managing Partner, Acorn Advisors LLC &
Costas T. Christ, Consultant at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG)
Costas T. Christ’s article on donor travel is extremely well-researched, insightful, and offers practical tips for nonprofits working both to fundraise and generate support for their mission. I’m proud to have worked with Costas as his professor in the Kellogg Board Fellows program and honored he included me as his co-author.
Many non-profit organizations wrestle with the question of developing a donor travel program – and for good reason: when well executed, donor trips can strengthen engagement and increase financial support. When executed poorly, they can cloud an organization’s mission and siphon away valuable resources. With more people traveling than ever before (UNWTO Tourism Highlights 2018) and demand for purpose-driven travel experiences intensifying, designing a value-delivering donor travel program can be a powerful strategy for growing an organization and expanding its impact. Boards and executives interested in creating effective donor travel programs can leverage best practices and lessons from successful non-profits by crafting a distinguished product; relationship building and fundraising within the context of donor travel; and designing for the long-term.
Crafting a Distinguished Product
The decision to pursue a donor travel program demands critical thinking from an organization’s board and executive leadership on why to offer it – and importantly – what to offer. While specific content will depend on the organization, a successful travel product should directly underpin the organization’s mission and strategic focus. It should be unique – offering authentic and purpose-driven content that cannot easily be found elsewhere; and, messaging to travelers should be personalized and driven by a compelling story narrative.
- Donor travel should underpin an organization’s mission and directly support its long-term goals. A travel program is not an “added perk” or tangential benefit. It should serve as a foundational building block that supports a non-profit’s core mission. A great example is from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA), which offers donors the opportunity to travel and meet global leaders – to be in the room and part of important dialogues as they unfold in real time. For CCGA, a travel program has directly strengthened donor relationships and affinity with the organization by providing access to exclusive and compelling discourse; but, travel also enabled CCGA to fly its mantle globally. Being visibly engaged in the international community was critical to CCGA’s goal of serving as an influential Chicago-based think-tank. Thus, while travel fueled donor engagement, it also served as a foundational component of the organization’s mission and long-term strategy.
- Unique and exclusive content is critical. As market demand rises for purpose-driven travel (Virtuoso Travel Network 2018 Luxe Report), the global travel industry is responding with an increasing array of unique experiences. Thus, when crafting a program, ask: what does the organization bring to the table, and why would a donor choose it over another provider? To captivate the targeted audience, the offering must be content-rich, exclusive, educational, and unique. For Shedd Aquarium, this meant high-end destination scuba experiences alongside Shedd experts who bring unparalleled knowledge of oceanography. For the Chicago Botanic Garden, it was not about touring public parks; rather, board members reached out to friends and colleagues, and worked with leadership to organize exclusive visits to some of the most unique and spectacular private homes and gardens in the country. The trips not only impressed and inspired donors, but also introduced new potential ambassadors to the organization.
- Rouse travelers with powerful storytelling, and mission-oriented messaging. Just because a non-profit organization is offering a trip does not mean donors will readily sign up; rather, a compelling story narrative that is trip-specific and connected to the organization’s mission is essential to capturing donor interest. Executive leadership should reach out directly to hook travelers with a personalized invitation and tailored communication: Why you? Why this destination? How is your participation critical to advancing our mission, and how can it bring greater meaning to your life? For Chicago-based Heartland Alliance International (HAI) – which fights for justice and healing in marginalized overseas communities – trips can bridge the distance between its US donor base and far-flung operations. But enticing high-profile donors to travel to politically volatile regions is no easy task. Through powerful messaging, HAI engages its donor travelers as mission-driven ambassadors who have an unparalleled opportunity to learn about and help solve some of the world’s toughest humanitarian challenges. HAI’s rousing storytelling invites donors to become central characters in an inspiring story of hope and change.
Relationship Building and Fundraising within the Context of Donor Travel
With a strategically crafted itinerary in hand, the question then becomes how to leverage travel to fuel engagement and grow donations. While some organizations may be inclined to see trips solely as a vehicle for revenue generation, it is important to understand that travel is really about long-term relationship cultivation. It should not be employed as a fundraising vehicle – as even the implicit expectation of an ask can diminish valuable goodwill. While this can make direct financial return difficult to determine, an organization that employs travel as a means to engage donors more closely with its mission will see positive effects. A travel program can be one of the most valuable ways to build lasting relationships with donors.
- Friend-raise, don’t fundraise. The experience of traveling with similarly passionate people can generate tremendous goodwill and transform trip participants into vocal champions for the organization’s cause. However, donor trips should not be used as a direct fundraising platform: the organization should not ask for donations during the trip. The expectation of an ask can hinder built-up trust and organic altruism by making the relationship seem purely transactional. Further, organizations that seek to circumvent a direct ask by pricing-in a moderate donation to the trip’s cost can short-change themselves from a more generous gift in the future, especially if the donor feels like they have already given for the trip. The non-profit WE.org excels at long-term friend-raising by offering volunteering vacations for high net worth individuals – providing hands-on contribution to the organization’s poverty alleviation and youth education work. Participants work alongside local community members and We.org senior staff, and in some instances, the trip is joined by the organization’s co-founders. After each trip, the development team builds on this experience through robust alumni programming. The trips themselves do not serve as a core revenue driver; rather, it’s their focal role in an inspiring engagement platform that has helped build WE.org into one of Canada’s most successful social impact organizations.
- Relationships and knowledge drive long-term revenue gains. Donor travel can offer unparalleled opportunity to strengthen relationships between executive leadership, board members and donors. Through travel, leadership has an opportunity to get to know donors on a more personal level – to understand what they respond to and feel passionate about – oftentimes leading to lasting friendships. One highly successful organization recommends that before every trip, the development team meets with trip leadership to discuss each participant; after returning, the same group debriefs to share insights, creating an institutionalized knowledge base that helps personalize future outreach to donors. An inspiring travel experience can also be a galvanizing point when renewing future annual gifts, or elevating donors to a new membership tier. A board member may reach out to ask, “Because of the incredible work we saw abroad, I am increasing my annual donation this year to $X. Will you join in matching me?”
- Target donors who are already engaged with your organization but have room to grow. When contemplating outreach, consider donors with whom leadership already has established rapport – but who have greater potential for impact and contribution. Travel is effective at taking those who are already involved in the organization and channeling that engagement into full-fledged ambassadorship; however, those relationships must be in place prior to outreach. Even with a compelling trip planned, one organization struggled to fill its roster because its relationships with donors were not warm enough – some donors even reported feeling put off by the enormous step-up in involvement being asked. Donor travel is most successful when it is part of a rich development platform that continually nurtures relationships; alone, it is not an engagement panacea.
Designing for the Long-term
A travel program is a high-value, long-term investment in donor community building. It requires substantial energy, consistent evaluation and iteration, and commitment from the executive level and board to realize the value it can deliver. But when done well, it is a proven vehicle for increasing philanthropic support.
- Commit to a program, not just a trip. A regular cadence of trips, with a recommended minimum of at least one every 12-18 months, provides a predictability that can generate enduring momentum, and excite donors. Announce the upcoming trip soon after one ends – capitalizing on post-trip excitement and giving both participants and potential new travelers something to talk about and look forward to. Executive Director and board involvement on these trips is crucial – as can be the participation of other key individuals. For the Art Institute of Chicago, having exclusive access to renowned curators and art experts, as well as the opportunity to foster deep relationships with board and executive leadership, is critical to the travel program’s value proposition to donors. These trips are high energy and require significant commitment. Thus, in choosing to start a program, the organization’s chief executive must be dedicated to leading every trip so long as they helm the organization. A board should be wary of running a travel program if it feels its president or executive director lacks the gusto to truly champion every trip.
- Continual evaluation of the program is critical to long-term success. Comprehensive post-trip surveys can be used to evaluate whether the trip delivered deep engagement, provided unique and meaningful experiences, and was logistically well organized. While direct ROI may be difficult to ascertain, engagement and ambassadorship metrics can be tracked over time via a participant performance dashboard: did dollars donated change? Did the participant attend more events? Did he or she provide new donor leads or introductions for the organization? Tracking key metrics can enable leadership to continually evaluate the impact donor travel has on its organization, and survey responses can provide insights that drive iteration on the trip’s design and format.
- Execute excellence. Delivery of a consistently top-notch travel experience is crucial. This does not have to mean the most luxurious; rather, as authenticity becomes the new luxury in high end travel, it means executing an extremely well-curated experience that provides compelling and original content, accommodations and activities that reflect the trip’s core mission, and organized, stress-free logistics. Excellence means investing in the appropriate travel partners, suppliers, and in-country personnel to ensure the trip exceeds expectations. It also means addressing any safety and security concerns, including developing a contingency plan should something go awry. Finally, know your travelers, and consider elements such as age, social dynamic, and energy level. Don’t over-index on downtime, but do strategically provide opportunities for decompression and reflection. Remember that ultimately, travelers should be enjoying themselves – with some activities included for the sole purpose of fun and excitement. On the final night of a donor trip to the Ecuadorean Amazon, where participants had spent days building school classrooms in local communities, WE.org flew in an internationally renowned Quito chef to prepare a celebratory farewell dinner – a capstone experience to a distinctly rewarding trip.
Utilizing this framework, a non-profit organization can begin to assess whether donor travel makes strategic and operational sense. While there are many tactical aspects to consider, it is imperative to recognize that at its core, people travel to have meaningful experiences, forge new relationships, as well as spend time with familiar friends. The ability for all participants (both travelers and locals) to truly connect – converse, share stories, and find common ground – is critically important. Thus, providing organic opportunity for interchange – whether through dinners hosted by local professors, employing guides who bring intimate knowledge of the environs, or informal chats with an on-the-ground team – can enable all parties to come away with a deeper sense of connection to the organization and its mission. As one prominent donor explained: “You give to causes, but you really give to people.” The more that travelers can cultivate interesting, touching, and engaging stories – the more they will be excited to share them with friends, family, and colleagues back home. The ripple effect of an inspiring travel experience can be a profound strategy for channeling donor support in the non-profit sector.