Donor Travel: Is It about Acquisition, Qualification, Cultivation, Solicitation, or Recognition?

I’ve written a lot about having one clear goal for your donor trip.
But what should that goal be?
Are donor trips about acquiring new donors, cultivating existing donors, or recognizing recent donors?
The answer is…all of the above.
But it is helpful to distinguish your approach based on where a donor sits in the donor cycle.

In fundraising, there are roughly five stages in the donor cycle:

Graphic credit from here
  • Acquisition Stage (also called Identification Stage): You are trying to meet or recently met a prospective donor.
  • Qualification Stage: You are trying to learn more about a prospective donor to determine if their interests match your mission and if they have the capacity to support your organization.
  • Cultivation Stage: You are working to build a relationship with the donor—get to know them, have them get to know the organization—before making an ask.
  • Solicitation Stage: You plan to make a specific ask for funding from the donor.
  • Recognition Stage: You want to thank the donor for making a gift, share the impact of their support, and build an ongoing relationship with them.

It can be effective to invite a donor at any stage in the donor cycle on a donor trip. But you need to know the individual you are targeting and the pros and cons of engaging at each of these stages.

Donor Travel as Acquisition

  • Purpose: To draw new people into the fold of your organization
  • Who it is for: Friends and family members of your current donors; employees of companies who are already your well-established partners
  • Who it is not for: Random strangers from the general public. If you are a small shop (or an under-resourced department) and trying to get brand-new donors, this is not the right strategy. It is way too expensive. Try direct mail instead. (I’m not joking – donor trips are a lot of work and you want to be a good steward of your time and your organization’s resources).
  • Why: Donor trips can be a great way of widening your circle through the network of folks who have already demonstrated interest in and partnership with your organization.
  • How: As with all donor acquisition strategies, there is a chance that the folks invited by your donors are not philanthropically minded or not a good fit for your mission. There is a risk that they only joined the trip to spend time with their friend or relative, not because of any interest in your organization. Make sure that the mission is front and center on the itinerary and that you have taken time to get to know these folks on the trip.

Donor Travel as Qualification

  • Purpose: To excite and engage prospective donors
  • Who it is for: Small to midsize donors who are not (yet) in a portfolio or on a board or committee; certain non-donors who have already had some interaction with your organization via an introduction from an existing donor or board member
  • Why: These donors are the underwriters of the trip, so try to learn as much as you can about them to determine if they are a good fit to join a board or committee or would welcome the attention of a gift officer if they were in a portfolio.
  • How: If there are more than fifteen people on the trip, it can be hard to get to know everyone well enough to “qualify” them for future stewardship. Invite these folks on smaller trips or have multiple staff present on the trip who can really focus on learning more about your guests. 

Donor Travel as Cultivation

  • Purpose: To build relationships and steward strategically
  • Who it is for: Major donors in portfolios; board members
  • Why: This is their opportunity to really see the impact of their philanthropy. This can be an incredibly powerful experience, particularly if they have been giving to your organization for a long time.
  • How: Have a stewardship plan for each, build the itinerary details around their interests, and work with your major gift team to discuss how the trip plays into their stewardship plan.

Donor Travel as Solicitation

  • Purpose: To present “a living proposal”
  • Who: Major donors and board members who are expecting to receive an ask for their next investment
  • Why: This is your organization’s opportunity to demonstrate why their support is needed and what can be achieved by it. One of my clients had a great phrase for this: “View the trip like a living proposal.”
  • How: Make sure that the itinerary clearly shows the need for investment and paints a promising picture of what could be achieved with that investment. Also, if the time is right, there’s nothing wrong with making the ask on the trip, and here’s how.

Donor Travel as Recognition

  • Purpose: To thank and show the impact of a donor’s support
  • Who: Major donors who have made transformational gifts or multiyear pledges; committee or board members who have gone above and beyond in their support
  • Why: View the trip as a customer impact report in the form of an experience.
  • How: Consider a private trip with just the donor and their family. If this trip is honoring an entire board or committee, make it private for just that group. The itinerary will be heavily focused on your mission, so they can truly experience the impact of their support, but recreational experiences are a great note to end on.

Finally, you may wonder, well…. what if we have a trip with multiple donors who are all at different stages?

Read on to my next article—“Making the Most of Mixed Groups with 5 Tips”—to find out what to do.