Customer Service Expectations from the Horse’s Mouth – A guest blog by Jolene Retallick!


I’m sure you’d agree that it would be unoriginal if I wrote about the importance of customer service in fundraising. Lots of great bloggers have already done that very convincingly; there’s no need for me to go there too.

But the question that interests me is what exactly is good customer service?

To delight a donor is wonderful, and in fact is one of my favourite things to do, but I firmly believe that the day-to-day interactions are important too. How soon do people expect a thank you letter? How soon should we reply to e-mails and return phone calls? What makes an interaction with a supporter a good one?

Without knowing what the expectations are it’s impossible to know if they are being met. And when you are part of a very small supporter care team (at the charity I work for it’s just me and about 50% of our Fundraising Assistant) and have to juggle your time to include both short-term customer service needs and longer-term planning, more questions arise:

  • Should I spend a few hours concentrating on developing a new way to engage our donors or interrupt myself to check our enquiries inbox?
  • Should I spend time making an e-mail personal and friendly or save time by setting up templates?

And so on…

Naturally, everyone has different expectations. What one person says is an acceptable queue, another walks away from in disgust. If I was a major donor fundraiser I would get to know the expectations of everyone individually but as I’m not, using an average seems like the best way forward.

Realising that I shouldn’t rely on my judgment alone and that I needed data instead, I turned to our ‘Opinion Team’. Each month this group of supporters answers a short questionnaire from a different part of the charity and in July I took the opportunity to ask about customer service.

99 people replied to tell us about their customer service expectations; here’s what I found out…

(For the sake of brevity, I’ve chosen just four questions to write about. All the results come first and you’ll find my thoughts below)


  • Only 4% of supporters expect a thank you letter to be sent ‘The day we receive your donation’ or ‘the day after we receive your donation’.
  • The most popular answer, at 36%, was ‘within a week of receiving your donation’.

This surprised me because there’s research that says that donors who receive a thank you letter within 48 hours of their donation are more likely to donate again. Could the 48 hour stats show that people are more likely to donate again if their expectations are exceeded rather than just met? If so, that’s a huge opportunity!

(I’d love to also write about the 33% of people who chose ‘I wouldn’t want a thank you letter at all’ but that will have to wait until another time)

If you sent an e-mail about these topics, how quickly would you expect a response?  
Answer Options Within an hour or two Within a day Within two days Within a week Longer than a week Don’t know Median
You’re having a problem making a donation 26% 37% 25% 11% 0% 0% Within a day
You would like info about fundraising 2% 24% 35% 36% 2% 1% Within two days
You would like more info about our projects 0% 19% 29% 46% 5% 1% Within a week
You’ve changed your address 5% 27% 21% 37% 8% 2% Within two days

  • When an e-mail is about a donation problem, on average people want a reply ‘within a day’ but a significant number (26%) said ‘within an hour or two’.
  • For other types of enquiries a longer wait is acceptable.

chart 2

  • 14% would expect a response by midday of the following day.
  • Another 50% would expect a response by the end of the following day

How important are the following to you in a response to an enquiry?  
Answer Options Very important Quite important Neither important or unimportant Unimportant Not at all important Don’t know Median
A prompt response 24% 70% 6% 0% 1% 0% Quite
A helpful /effective response 83% 16% 1% 0% 0% 0% Very
A friendly response 54% 38% 8% 0% 0% 0% Very
A personal response 30% 43% 19% 4% 4% 0% Quite
Receiving extra info 10% 49% 35% 3% 3% 0% Quite
  • From most to least important:
    • A helpful response
    • A friendly response
    • A prompt response
    • A personal response
    • Receiving extra information

If you’re still with me after that flurry of graphs, what did you think?

Of all the research out there, it’s not the most enthralling (don’t worry – I get that!) but I did find answers to the questions I asked at the beginning of this blog and discovered that while we do lots to meet our supporter’s expectations (we’re pretty good at answering e-mails within a day), there’s things that we’re not yet getting right (we’re letting down the 26% of supporters who want help with a donation problem within 1 – 2 hours)

This is good! Now I know what gaps I have to fill. And while it might be difficult, knowing that I’m making changes based on data rather than assumptions will make it easier.

What stood out to you? Have you identified any gaps in your customer service?

I also asked questions about prioritisation. How should I balance different tasks and use my limited time in the most effective way?

Using the data above, those delicate decisions are easier to make.

  • Should I spend a few hours concentrating on developing a new way to engage our donors or interrupt myself to check our enquiries inbox?

Here I have to give myself an answer that I don’t really want. To meet the expectations of 26% of our supporters, I have to make sure we check regularly for new enquiries. But there’s a distinction to make – only the ones related to donation problems need an immediate response, the rest can be left for later. Multi-tasking isn’t always advisable but in this case it looks necessary.

  • Should I spend time making an e-mail personal or can I save time by setting up templates?

As a personal response is ranked fourth out of five but is still ‘important’ or ‘quite important’ to 73% of supporters, I’ll keep doing that for now. But I’ll bear in mind that it’s more important for it to be helpful, friendly and prompt.

Obviously, there’s far more that can be deduced from these results but the observations I’ve made, if a little mundane on the surface, feel like the most important to me right now. I’ll leave you to take a look and answer the questions that are important to you. What are your prioritisation dilemmas? Does this data help you find the answers?

In my opinion, if you know that you’re usually pretty good at customer service, it’s easy to take it for granted. By conducting this questionnaire I’ve discovered what supporters really expect and learnt that I don’t always get it right. In the coming weeks and months, I will improve our customer service armed with data rather than assumption. And despite the difficulty of prioritisation, I will definitely give it a go. Having asked supporters for their opinions I won’t dismiss them now as too demanding. I will just have to engage my brain, tweak some processes and find new ways to ensure we meet and exceed our supporters’ expectations.

What do you think?

Would your supporters feel the same as ours? I would love to hear from anyone who has any thoughts about customer service or the challenges faced by a small donor care team.

P.S. You might have noticed that I forgot to ask the obvious ‘when’ question: ‘If you contact us via Facebook or Twitter, how soon would you expect a reply?’ Sorry about that. Luckily, The Social Habit didn’t forget:


About Jolene 


Jolene Retallick is a Supporter Relations Manager and loves to make donors happy. She can be found lurking on Twitter @JoleneRetallick

Stop talking about retention and start doing it!

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As fundraisers, we often talk about how to retain our donors/members/supporters and the majority of us recognise how important retaining our donors is. For one, it is much cheaper to keep current donors than to continuously go out and try and find new ones!

We also know that once someone gives a second gift, the likelihood of them giving again increases. Great news! However, we can all be guilty of talking about knowing that it’s important to keep donors engaged, but in the same breath saying things like ‘We don’t need to thank people who give less than £x’!

My advice here is; stop talking about retaining your donors and start doing it! Treat ALL donors like they matter and are important because THEY ARE! Every single gift that comes to your organisation is a conscious decision made by someone to support you, therefore that decision should be celebrated so that that donor feels great about it. If they feel great about it, they are far more likely to give again. If you ignore them, they are far more likely NOT to give again.

Saying you want to retain donors and then categorising those who give less than a certain amount basically puts them into a box titled ‘un-needed’. If your organisation is doing so well that you don’t need any extra support or funding fine, continue not thanking all of your donors. However, if you (like most charitable organisations) do need more funding and do need to increase income, start thanking everyone.  If someone who gives under £10 is not worthy of an acknowledgement, then your organisation is not worthy of another donation from them. All donors start somewhere on the giving scale, do not exclude an entire segment of potential long-term supporters because their gift isn’t big enough; you never know what their second gift may be!

Treat all donors like they matter and see your retention rates rise!

For tips on ways to thank donors, check out my favourite ways here and for examples of reasons to send your donors a card (that isn’t Christmas!) check out Rory Green’s list here!

The power of storytelling – A guest blog by Russell Benson!

Everyone has a story

Here is a story about Esther.

When I worked for a homeless charity, I was invited, alongside five other charities, to give a talk at a £4.5k per year private primary girls school to their final year students – 10 & 11 year olds. The teacher informed me that the children were going to select three charities to support for their summer fete.  In full competition mode, I decided that it might help our chances if I took Esther, a female client whom I had known since she spoke at our carol concert.

We arrived on a warm day and I began speaking about the charity. The girls were politely fidgeting, but when I introduced Esther to tell her story, they were totally engrossed. After she spoke, I asked if there were any questions. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t asked about our CEO pay or how much we spent on admin costs; all of the questions were for Esther and after ten minutes, hands were still raised!

A few days later I got a package from the teacher with many letters addressed to Esther. There was also a note from the teacher telling me that the children had unanimously voted for us and that our charity was the only one that had brought a beneficiary to the school. The children had written letters to Esther without being asked, writing how they had changed their opinion of homelessness and wishing her well.  We received £1,000 from the fete and in the five years since that talk, the school has given over £20,000. I’m certain that without Esther, we wouldn’t have been selected as one of the three, never mind having that long term support!

Esther was overjoyed that she was able to help the charity in this way and it’s humbling for me when she gives that same story as one of the reasons she was able to recover from the issues she had. This was my eureka moment in fundraising! I learnt many lessons from that day that will stay with me throughout my career.

Storytelling is a powerful tool. Science tells us this. When we listen to, or read, a character driven story, our brains flood with Oxytocin, which is the love hormone. I think it’s safe to say our generosity is definitely up when we are feeling love.

I know, as fundraisers, we instinctively understand this, but do we try hard enough to get our beneficiaries to speak directly to our supporters?  Are we satisfied with simply putting a case study on our materials? Is that enough?  Do we write these case studies in the third person and the only voice our beneficiary might get are some quotes in speech marks?

To begin, we need to find the stories.  They are there to be found and of course we can seek them and ask our beneficiaries. But stories can also come to us… if we know where to look!

  • Stephen Sutton blogged about his life with cancer and the support he was getting from the teenage cancer trust and raised £5.5m for the charity.
  • Zoella is a vlogger with millions of followers. She vlogged about her mental health issues. She is now a digital ambassador for Mind reaching new audiences.
  • And who can forget Aylan Kurdi, the refugee child who was photographed on the beaches of Europe. His story changed perceptions of refugees and stimulated support for many charities working with refugees

It’s not only beneficiaries who can speak on our behalf!

  • We have our Staff – I subscribe to Medicin Sans Frontier’s whatsapp service and most of their messages are links to blogs written by the doctors on the frontline and are the stories I am most engaged with.
  • Our army of Volunteers – during volunteer week, I read many stories about why volunteers are committed to our causes. But volunteer stories are for all year, not just for volunteer week!
  • And we have our fundraisers, in fact we especially have our fundraisers, who have great stories. In my role, I see many JustGiving pages that have incredible emotive and engaging content. These fundraisers are asking others to give and as all online platforms tell you, the personal story is key to a successful page.

As the old adage goes, ‘people give to people’ and never has this been more clearly demonstrated than recent viral campaigns. The Ice Bucket Challenge raised nearly £7m for the Motor Neurone Disease in three days and £8m was raised in six days for Cancer Research UK with their ‘no make-up selfie’. But vitally, these campaigns were not driven by the charities, they just took advantage of the stories being shared and allowed people to take action.

  • We also have our personal stories. Why do we work for the charity we do? Why do we work for charities at all? I used to talk to rotary clubs and because of the audience, I often spoke about my own prejudices against homelessness before I volunteered at Christmas and ended up working at a homeless charity.

I talk about beneficiaries, staff, volunteers and fundraisers as different categories, but there are many overlaps amongst these and it’s important to recognise this and take advantage where possible.  At the homeless charity, around 10% of service staff are ex homeless themselves and their stories become even more powerful as they vividly highlight the success of the charity.

We’ve chosen our stories, so how to communicate them?

  • Public talks in schools and other groups are preferable for the best impact, but it’s not always possible for charities to do this.
  • Social media & other digital channels is an obvious option. And why not? It’s easy, cheap, can be interactive, shareable and gives the largest potential exposure. Options include live Q&A/webcasts, blog posts & other case study material (in first person!)
  • As much as possible, use video and/or picture content. Let’s use videos to bring the story to life. If pictures tell a thousand words, videos must tell a million!
  • Let’s do this in as much of our stewardship journeys as possible. Do beneficiaries ever say thank you to fundraisers?  Of course, if you’re from an organisation that has traditionally had a sponsor a child or animal model, you’ve been doing this for years, but we now have technology to do this even better, more cost effectively and with a bigger reach.

We have the story and the channels, so what’s the message?

This is where it can become complicated as we balance authenticity of the voice against controlling the message and having that charity ‘tone of voice’. Of course, there are times we have to control the message to an extent, especially for big campaigns or adverts. But where we can, we should let the authentic voice shine. Remember, people give to people, or the cause, not the charity. We should not think of donors as giving or raising money for the charity to then spend on making the world better.  Let’s remember that donors give money to make the world better – we just enable that to happen by connecting those who want to change the world  with those that can. Just this simple language change can connect the donor more to the cause. And if we can get this through beneficiaries talking directly to our donors, it’s an even better connection.

Language is important.  Once, when I spoke alongside a homeless client, he listened to me and as always, I asked for feedback. He told me everything was fine, but could we stop saying ‘homeless people’ and instead say ‘people who are homeless’ as he rightly wanted to be seen primarily as a person and homeless second.

Our beneficiaries are often faced by prejudices, stigma and stereotypes in society. By giving them a voice, they can breakdown these barriers.  Just last week, Julia Unwin, the CEO of Joseph Rowntree Foundation said we must… ‘enable the voice on those who live in poverty and to ensure that those voices are heard, and listened to. Not met with the oscillating insults of pity and scorn.’

And we need to do this now. We live in a new world in many ways and we know  trust in charities has been dented in the past 18 months. We also know that many people don’t trust experts anymore. But our beneficiaries are the authentic experts that people will listen to, so let’s get them heard.

We have the most incredible stories in our organisations that we can use to sell our cause. They rarely exist in any other type of organisations and if we can give our beneficiaries a true voice we can not only help ourselves to get income, but help our beneficiaries feel valued and play our part in helping the wider public understand these issues we care so passionately about too.

It’s our job to go out there and find our own Esther and give them a platform to be heard.

About Russell

5D5-2SYIRussell Benson is a Community and Events Manager at MS Society and previously worked at St Mungo’s. Connect with him on twitter @russellbenson.

  • I don’t have any connection to them, but If you need support, training or inspiration, SoundDelivery is a great organisation that focus on storytelling for charities and their events are awesome.

So you want to be a fundraiser? Top tips!

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So, you want to be a fundraiser! Congratulations you have picked the best occupation in the world 😉

As with many career paths, experience will get you in the door. But, what if you have just left school, college or university and don’t have any experience? What if you are about to leave and are worried about not getting interviews? What if you are going into fundraising from a completely different career path? Here is a list of a few things you can do to help you on your journey!

  1. Volunteer

I can’t emphasise how important this is! Volunteering is the number one thing you can do to get into a fundraising role. It shows initiative, drive and passion for a cause and it also will provide you with key experience and understanding of the sector. Volunteering also provides a wide range of options for getting into fundraising. There are usually volunteer positions in multiple departments, for example; events, social media, campaigning, grant applications, street fundraising, thank-a-thons etc. Pick an area you want to develop in and find related volunteering opportunities. Then, when you go for an interview, you will be able to demonstrate your experience. It also gives you a chance to work out what you do and don’t like!

  1. Host a fundraising event

This may seem daunting, but a key area of fundraising for many organisations is through events and even if you just have a basic knowledge of what goes into organising an event, you will stand out during an interview. Organise a quiz night, sponsored walk, bake sale, world record attempt, fancy dress party or anything else you can think of! By going through the process of choosing an event, finding a venue, inviting people to attend and running the event, you will gain so much invaluable experience!

  1. Attend someone else’s fundraiser

By being supportive of other fundraising ventures, you will come to appreciate how much hard work goes into raising money for charities. It also demonstrates to potential employers your empathy for charitable causes and an understanding of why fundraising is important. Attend/volunteer at someone else’s fundraiser and you will see what makes an event great!

  1. Pick a cause you love!

If you aren’t 100% committed to the cause that you fundraise for, it will be much harder for you to raise money for that cause. If you hate cats, don’t apply for a job at a cat sanctuary. Ultimately, your disengagement will come across to potential donors which will put donors off giving to your organisation. Go for a cause that really rings true to your beliefs and passions. Many interviewers will ask why you have chosen their organisation, so be prepared with your personal story!

  1. Get involved at university

If you are at university, get involved with your Student Union and their RAG (Raise and Give) society. They usually choose a few charities to support each year and will as a group organise fundraisers. It will give you lots of experience in ways to fundraise, but will also be less pressure than running all of the events yourself.

  1. Meet other fundraisers

Fundraisers as a group are very giving and happy to share advice and experiences. Find a fundraiser you admire and ask them to meet for a coffee to talk about how to get into fundraising. Finding a fundraising mentor is so valuable and really will help you on your way to being the best fundraiser you can be!

Have you got any other advice for those wanting to get involved in fundraising? Let me know in the comments!