5 Donor Travel Myths Busted

I‘ve been consulting on donor trips for a while now, and have come across a fair share of assumptions and ill-informed beliefs. In this article, I spell out the most common myths and misconceptions I have encountered…and saved the very best for last.

1. Donor trips have low retention.

Like any event, donor trips attract both those who may be good prospects for our organizations and those who may not. Consider, for example, when a major donor wants to fill a trip with their friends and family. They may not be thinking about whether those people would be motivated to give to your organization—they are thinking about the people they like to hang out with the most!

That doesn’t mean that donor trips are inherently bad at retaining donors to give in the years following the trip. That means we have to work hard to select the right folks for our trips and follow up and steward them appropriately. My article “8 Qualities of a Trip Participant” is an oldie but still a goodie.

2. We can’t talk about our program too much because people are here for vacation.

Donors absolutely want to have fun on these trips, and that’s exactly why we always balance programmatic work with fun and educational experiences that provide a reprieve and additional context about the location they are visiting. But donors know this is no ordinary vacation – or at least they should – if we have prepared them appropriately.

Yes, we do need to make sure to include fun, enjoyable things in the itinerary. We do need to temper the more difficult subject matter with lighthearted activities and time for reflection and debrief. But we must provide meaningful opportunities for donors to learn more about the important work we are doing and the impact of their support. Failing to do so leaves me wondering, what, then, is the point of the trip? See my article, “The One Thing about Donor Trips.”

Every once in a while, I encounter a nonprofit caught up in an identity crisis when a donor demands all-inclusive getaways for them and their friends to one destination or another. If you find donors are leaning too much on your organization to be their personal travel concierge and to arrange trips for them with minimal programmatic elements and absolutely no coherent fundraising strategy, then refer them to a travel agent (any one of which will likely be very grateful for the business right now!).

3. The work speaks for itself.

Nothing speaks for itself—all of it has to be interpreted and runs the risk of being misunderstood. (Even people who do speak for themselves can be misunderstood!) There’s that adage “seeing is believing.” But really, it’s more like “we see what we already believe.”

If no interpretation was necessary, there would be no markers at hiking trails, no plaques and signs in art museums, no names appearing below busts and statues. The truth is, we know very little about the world around us, and it is up to other people to explain it to us.

If your organization is tackling an urgent, complex, and systemic public need, then no amount of gazing out the window of a tour bus will provide enough context and clarity to understand what is going on and what a better future would look like. This is why it’s not as effective to allow your donors to travel to the sites on their own—they need a trusted source there to interpret for them. 

4. If travelers could just see the work, their gifts will come automatically.

This is an interesting myth because in no other revenue stream is “sit back and see what happens” a viable action. We directly solicit and explain matters to donors though mail, social media, events, and campaigns. Yet when it comes to trips? There, we just assume our donors know what to do. How does that align with the rest of our fundraising strategies?

The problems that plague our sector—restricted giving, low donor retention, obsession with overhead—are not known at all to those outside our sector. Our donors have no idea these are issues. Until we tell them we need money, and why, they assume we are doing just fine.

If you’ve run a donor trip and no gifts came in, start by reading my seminal article on follow-up here.

And my final favorite myth of all…

5. People should donate $5,000 instead of spending it on traveling.

I usually hear this response from board members, who, upon learning that the $5,000 trip fee literally only covers hard costs (meals, lodging, in-country transportation) and is not an actual donation to the organization, feel it a waste to see so much good money pass through the organization’s budget and into the bank accounts of the operators, hotels, restaurants, guides, etc. They feel an urge to scrap the whole idea of a trip and believe that we would somehow still be able to just keep the $5,000 for our organization.

It’s a very ill-informed misconception that I will dispel on a few levels:

First, people with financial resources absolutely have separate budgets for travel and for philanthropy. If we’re asking them to forfeit an experience on a particular trip, they’re more likely to spend that money on another travel experience than to just donate the exact amount in the form of philanthropy. Think about all the trips that you plan to take in the future and imagine if I asked you to cancel all those trips and take the money that you were going to spend on travel and donate it to charity instead. Does that sound like a reasonable ask?  The fact is: our donors are capable of making charitable gifts and spending money on travel.

If your board member feels this way, you can tell them that at other organizations, successful donor trips have resulted in travelers making 5-, 6-, and 7-figure charitable gifts as the result of a well-designed experience, and diligent trip cultivation, and stewardship on the part of the organization’s staff.

Second, there are intrinsic benefits of a travel experience that can’t be achieved through philanthropy alone: relationship building and connection; having a respite from our daily lives and from work; learning something new about another place, another environment, another culture.

For donors, there is an even more powerful benefit: the opportunity to see the impact of their support. There is transformative potential in seeing one’s philanthropy at work, in coming face-to-face with some of the world’s most challenging problems and helping to be part of the solution.

Travel can leave the donor with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the problems and the complexity of the work. This understanding will help them be better advocates and champions for your organization—and that is a gift that money can’t buy.