Avoid These 3 Mistakes When Working with Program Staff on Your Next Donor Trip

For all those folks in fundraising who are planning your next donor trip with the help from locals on site: this article is for you. Your on-site Program Staff and Local Partners have important roles to play—just not necessarily the ones you think. Support them by allowing them to do their actual jobs. Don’t overburden them by asking them to take on extra work that you didn’t actually hire them to do.

For the purpose of this article, let’s consider “Program Staff and Local Partners” to be all those people on-site in the communities where your organization’s work is happening. They may work directly for your organization, they may work for a local entity, or they may just be volunteers or engaged community members. If you have contracted with them to implement your mission-related work in some capacity, we’ll consider them under the umbrella of “Program Staff and Local Partners”.

First, let’s talk about those tasks you should avoid sending their way. The three tasks I share here are too often unwisely added to Program Staff and Local Partner’s to-do lists.

1. Planning all the logistics in advance

I understand what you may be thinking. Your Program Staff and Local Partners live in the area your donor travels are visiting. They know the place. They know the culture. Doesn’t it make sense to let them oversee all the logistical details?

Sure, they could do this, but that’s not the same as saying they should. Their expertise is better used elsewhere. I have an expression, which is that we need to keep program staff and local partners “focused on the mission, not the meals.” You didn’t hire these experts to tour hotel rooms, or call up restaurants to check if the menu has gluten-free options. Instead, let them do what you did hire them for: impact change at the sites of your critical work.

Dealing in minutiae can really bog people down, especially if such administrative work is outside their skillset and job description. Managing that on top of their primary work for you could easily overwhelm them.

What to do instead: hire a logistical operator or a local expert to plan the journey start to finish. Each donor trip takes roughly 40 hours to plan – do your Program Staff and Local Partners have that kind of time to spare?

2. Being your point of contact for travelers before the trip

Many fundraising staff live some distance away from the areas where program operations occur. You yourself may have only been to the site a handful of times – or even just once! Just because you don’t have all the logistical answers to some of the questions your donors will ask, doesn’t mean you should forward their calls and emails directly to your Program Staff and Local Partners.

The kinds of requests and questions that travelers have in advance of a trip require a very high level of customer service. Responses must come not only with factual information but with a lot of empathy and patience. Program Staff and Local Partners may know the answers and may even be able to deliver them well, but to do so takes a lot of time and energy. No question, even ones about what clothing to pack or brand of bug spray to buy, can be answered without some disruption. And again, being your donor’s point of contact is not what you hired Program Staff and Local Partners to do.

I’m a firm believer that any point of contact with donors should originate in the fundraising office, because these are opportunities for us to deepen our relationships with our supporters who are going on these trips. Use these opportunities to connect with your donors, to put them at ease before the trip, and to nurture those relationships, even if the questions could easily be answered by someone else.

What to do instead: Keep the contact between the donor’s relationship manager or Travel Manager (if you have one). If you’re a small shop, designate one person with fundraising skills (like the Development Coordinator) to be the point of contact for all donor trip questions.

3. Serving as a “Tour Guide” for local attractions

I can’t stress this point enough: just because someone lives in proximity to a place, doesn’t mean they are automatically an expert in the history, geography, or tourist attractions of that place. Guiding is a skill, and trained guides invest significant time in their study and possess a level of knowledge not found in ordinary residents.

Let me put this myth to rest once and for all: I’ve been living in Portland, Oregon, on and off for about ten years. You might assume that after all that time, I could help a tourist out. Yes, I could certainly provide someone with a list of names of attractions: Multnomah Falls in the Gorge, Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood; Voodoo Donuts and Powell’s Books. I could even tell a tourist about those places based on my personal experiences as a visitor myself. But if you want me to lead a guided tour of those locations, that would require me doing a lot of research, planning, and preparation in order to provide deep, rich, nuanced context and anticipate a tourist’s questions. All that knowledge has not entered my brain simply by virtue of my being in proximity to these attractions.

If I can’t give a quality tour of Portland’s tourist attractions just because I’ve lived here a decade, I would not expect any organization’s Program Staff and Local Partners, just because they live near their city’s or country’s sites, to be able to lead a robust tour. That is something for professional guides to do.

What to do instead: Hire trained guides and local experts who possess the knowledge of the attractions you want your donors to see, and the social skills needed to lead a group tour.

Those are three things not to expect of your program staff and local partners. Read on to learn three things you would be wise to ask of them to help ensure your donor trip is a success.