Challenges Faced by Staff in Donor Travel Programs

The theme for today’s article is challenges. Why challenges and not solutions?
Based on my experience, every organization’s solutions are unique, but the problems are all quite similar. Just defining the problem in a clear and simple way can help better point us to a solution.

I’ve already addressed the two kinds of donor travel challenges most organizations have: that they don’t have the internal resources to set up a thriving and sustainable donor travel program; or, they have one already that’s not meeting their goals. Let’s take a deeper look into the challenges unique to each group of stakeholders.

Challenges Faced by Executive Directors

Executive directors hold the ultimate responsibility for achieving organizational goals. A lot is resting on their shoulders and they have the difficult task of appeasing multiple stakeholders: the Board, staff, donors, and the people they serve. Executive directors are often expected to know everything, but (depending on the size and structure of the organization) they can be quite removed from the day-to-day happenings of the program or fundraising work.

The challenges executive directors face in donor travel programs are:

  • Difficulty in setting clear and measurable program goals aligned with the Mission, Strategic Plan, and Development Plan
  • Getting bogged down in the minutiae of planning a trip while still maintaining limited oversight (see my article on why executive directors shouldn’t project-manage a trip)
  • Being responsive to the Board and staff while balancing the needs and wishes of donors and the community

Challenges Faced by Program Staff

Program staff are the most intimately connected with the work and beneficiaries. They are highly technical people with program and field expertise, but in some organizations they can be quite removed from the fundraising and general operations of the organization.

The challenges Program Staff face in donor travel programs are:

  • Having insufficient time to coordinate the logistics or itinerary for a fundraising initiative outside their regular scope of work
  • Feeling uncomfortable or unknowledgeable about fundraising and donor interactions
  • Worrying about exploiting the people their programs are serving

Challenges Faced by Development Staff

Development staff are experts at wearing multiple hats and juggling multiple priorities. They work on tight deadlines and face pressure to produce at ever-increasing levels. They are often overworked, under-resourced, and quite removed from programmatic work.

The challenges Development Staff face in donor travel programs are:

  • Being inexperienced with beneficiaries or spending time in the field
  • Hearing about the work second-hand through program staff
  • Lacking capacity to add another fundraising initiative to a full plate of major donor meetings, campaigns, grants, and events

Challenges Faced by Board Members

When your Board plays an active role in fundraising and consists of major donors, effective fundraisers, and connectors, the results can be truly outstanding. However, being one layer removed from the day-to-day operations means they are even further removed from the work in the field. Significant time usually passes between opportunities for them to travel abroad and see the mission firsthand. They might also receive infrequent updates and lack accurate and current program information. It is critical to educate and engage them as much as possible keeping in mind they are volunteers with competing priorities in life.

The challenges board members face in donor travel programs are:

  • Being inexperienced with beneficiaries or time in the field. They may have never seen the program in action.
  • Hearing about the work infrequently and second-hand through program staff at quarterly meetings
  • Balancing Board duties with professional work, family life, hobbies, and other volunteer roles

The solutions to these problems vary by organization, but thankfully there is a pathway to achieving success:

  1. Get clear on the purpose of the donor trip. How does it align with the Mission, Strategic Plan, and Development Plan? What are you trying to accomplish? Decide on your One Thing and put metrics in place to measure the outcomes.
  2. Delegate roles and responsibilities to all involved parties. Make sure you select one person to project manage the trip once the initiative has launched.
  3. Recruit the appropriate participants and adequately prepare them for the trip.
  4. Design an itinerary that balances entertainment with empathy building experiences, rest time, and thoughtful interactions with beneficiaries and the community.
  5. After the trip is over, follow up, follow up again, and follow up even more! Acknowledge the gifts of time and travel that the donor has made, get their feedback on the trip, ask directly for continued support (if you haven’t already done so), and provide them opportunities to leverage their experience through social media, events, and recruiting new participants.


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