Customer Engagement for Charities


Charities need to engage and retain customers to encourage repeat donations. Discover examples of best practice in customer engagement for charities.


For brands and businesses, creating an audience of engaged customers is a highly effective way to build brand awareness and loyalty, and to ensure a steady stream of repeat customers. But what about organisations that don’t sell products? In charitable organisations, marketing teams are in the position of having to create campaigns that engage potential donors strongly enough that they’re willing to donate without the expectation of receiving anything in return. The transaction is one-way, which means charity marketing teams must look to somewhat different strategies to engage the public.

What Makes Charities Different

This core difference between charities and profit-making organisations has meant that charities have long been employing a strategy that many businesses still don’t use, much less understand: story-telling. The product that charities sell isn’t a physical product at all, which makes the act of selling a real challenge, as noted by CharityComms director Vicky Browne, speaking to online publication EuropeanCEO:

“They’re offering something much less tangible: hope for a better world, expectation of change, solutions to some of society’s most intractable problems. It’s easier to ask people to give their money for something tangible they will receive in return, a basket of supermarket goods for example, than it is to raise money to help change the world for the better.”

Communication—and story-telling—are of paramount importance, therefore, because for the most part, stories are all that charities have to offer in exchange for donations.

Show People how Their Donations are Helping

One of the very best ways to keep people engaged is to show them how their donations are used to improve whatever cause they’re donating to. Whether it’s people in need or animal welfare, donors love knowing that what they donate is doing some good.

Little Sprouts, a New Zealand-based charity that provides essential baby supplies to new parents, does a fantastic job with this. The charity has created a highly engaging Facebook presence, posting multiple times a day with stories about how donor generosity is changing the lives of parents and babies in need. Formerly based only in Wellington, the charity now has a presence in several other New Zealand cities, and is helping people in need all over the country.

The charity uses the page to solicit donations, too, and uses this function to tell even more effective stories. Often the charity will ask for donations for a mum and her new baby, receive and distribute those donations, and provide updates on the family, all on the same day—proving to its Facebook audience that their donations are doing real good for real people, and changing their lives for the better.

Make Telling Stories a Reciprocal Relationship

For any brand, telling stories is an integral part of good marketing. It’s a strategy that works for virtually any brand, if the right story can be told in an interesting and engaging way. And as noted it works well for charities, especially when story-telling is used to show people how their donations are being used. But some are taking it even further, and making story-telling a reciprocal process where the charities themselves aren’t the only ones telling the story.

With the rise of social media, another trend has developed where charities encourage donors to tell their own stories, too. The most famous example, of course, being the 2014 version of ice-bucket challenge, which went viral in a very big way, raising money all over the world for ALS research. Part of the reason why this charitable effort was so successful was the social media aspect that allowed so many people to take part, and do so publicly—in effect, people telling their own stories.

Naysayers are quick to point out that the majority of people who did the challenge did not donate to charities. Even given this fact, every participant did help to raise awareness of the charitable cause. And the net result was a very large amount of money raised for ALS research: over $100 million to the ALS association in the US, $26 million to the ALS Society of Canada, and £7 million to the Motor Neurone Disease Association in the UK. The ice bucket challenge was so successful that a number of charities subsequently made it an annual event, continuing the narrative and continuing to tell those engaging stories.


Provide multiple customer journeys

MacMillan Cancer Support offers people multiple opportunities, it’s not just about money.

  • Tell your story and encourage others to donate
  • Volunteer time
  • Join campaigns and support other people
  • Participate in an activity – like Go Sober for October
  • Fundraise – many options from climbing mountains to hosting coffee mornings

They’ve adopted an inclusive approach regardless of the customers ages and abilities – literally something for everything. Their website facilitates multiple customer journeys. Based on the preferred option. This ensures they engage with audiences at all levels.


Making Charitable Giving Active Makes it Truly Engaging

For the most part, charitable giving is a passive act, where people give money or donations of goods to a charity. And for the most part, the charity and the giving is forgotten after the act of giving is completed. Some organisations are turning this idea completely on its head by making charitable giving a much more active process—and in some cases not just active, but fun.

This is one of the biggest factors behind the success of GISH, an organisation founded by actor Mischa Collins. A long-time star of Supernatural, a highly popular US TV programme, Collins founded GISH (formerly GISHWHES)—The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt The World Has Ever Seen—in 2010. The now-annual event originally started as a way for Collins to encourage fans to vote in a People’s Choice Award, but in 2011 and subsequent years the event morphed into something much greater, as the actor instead began to encourage fans to “do good in the world” with random acts of kindness and charity.

GISH started in 2010 with around 6,000 participants, but since then has grown by more than ten times, with 55,000 recorded participants in 2016. As of 2018, GISH has created plenty of impact, as thousands of participants have collectively saved more than 40,000 acres of rainforest, have helped Syrian and Lebanese refugees find safe housing and much needed medical care, raised money to help war veterans in need, and raised funds to benefit children orphaned after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

After the 2017 event was complete, the GISH organisation ran a feedback survey in preparation for relaunching a new-look GISH in 2018, complete with an app and other improvements. To Mischa Collins, the most important takeaway from the survey was simple but powerful: “people want to connect, do good, and have fun.” And this is the core reason why GISH has been so successful—it allows people to do all three of those things at once.