4 Disney Lessons to Transform Your Donor Retention

Adventure Mickey for Donor Retention postI'm just finishing up another family trip to Walt Disney World. Every time I'm here, I study the culture, habits, and design of the parks and resorts. I'm fascinated by their attention to detail, their ability to create brand new merchandising opportunities, and their ability to engage guests of all levels. I've written about lessons on giving donors a behind the scenes experience and three things Disney can teach you about fundraising celebrations. Today, I'll share some tips gleaned from the Disney Institute book Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service. (I picked it up in Disney's Hollywood Studios and I'm writing this post at the Saratoga Springs Resort!)

4 Lessons from Walt Disney World that can transform your fundraising

The Disney experience is often summed up in the word, "magic." In Be Our Guest, Theodore Kinni says that a good magic show is one thing to guests and another to the magician. To the guests watching the show onstage, it's an amazing experience of seeing the impossible happen. For the magician backstage, the show is a detailed process of well coordinated events and perfectly timed details.

Here are four backstage things to monitor to help donors feel a "magical" experience with your nonprofit:

  1. Make the giving experience ridiculously easy

    Disney makes it really easy to spend money. Whether it's upgrading from a theme park ticket to a "park hopper" or trading pins or getting bling for the new "Magic Bands," the opportunities to give money are smooth and relatively easy. Is giving to your nonprofit that easy? Test it out for yourself and identify the sticking points that make giving hard. I'm not suggesting you add lots of upsells or merchandise. Just that you make it "ridiculously easy" for donors to give you money. (Yesterday, I shared a detailed Disney inspired review of your online giving process to my Fundraising Kick coaching email subscribers. Ask the subscriber in your nonprofit to share that 6 question checklist with you.)

  2. Make the donor feel special

    One of the keys to Walt Disney World's high return customer rate, is the concerted effort to make the guests feel honored. Whether it's a character stopping by a table for a picture, or the Mayor and his wife stopping to chat on Main Street, cast members are generally very good about making you feel special when you're here. One of the reasons they can be so consistently good at this is that they are constantly studying their guests. They call it "guestology." They study both demographics and psychographics. For you, the demographics are facts about your donors: how old they are, where they are from, how much money they give. The psychographics involve what they want and need. What do your donors tend to want from giving? What kind of feeling do they need to have to keep coming back? Knowing these will help you tailor your communications to them. You'll likely communicate differently to a retired Baby Boomer than to a starting-their-career Millenial. But studying this also helps you see who you're missing. Perhaps you can make a small tweak in your communications to reach out to an entirely new group of donor prospects!

  3. Listen to your cast members

    One thing that's impressed me on this trip to Walt Disney World is the number of cast members walking through the parks. They're in polos and khakis, not costumes, so they look managerial. They appear to be observing how guests are interacting with the rides, the shops, and each other. There are also cast members throughout the parks taking quick surveys to monitor guest satisfaction. Are you asking your staff for their feedback about improving donor experience? Whether it's a formal survey of donors or gleaning your staff's observations, especially front-line staff like those answering the phones, you can glean some amazing nuggets to help donors have a better experience. And best of all, the nuggets are often inexpensive and easy. In Be Our Guest, Kinni tells a story of cast members constantly seeing guests not remembering where they parked after a long day in the park. They could remember what time they got to the park, just not where they left the car. The cast members were able to come up with a simple system of tram operators noting what section they were taking guests from at different times of the day. These notes were compiled and made it much easier for guests to find their cars. Ask your staff what questions or complaints are they're regularly getting from donors. Then ask them how they might suggest fixing it. You'll often be delighted with the ideas.

  4. Make sure your standards are backed by processes

    It's amazing to watch the lifeguards here. They have a system of checking zones created by swinging their hands from various points on the pool. They do this every time they "bump" or take over a portion of a pool from another lifeguard. This helps them see the pool and the swimmers in a fresh light. This attention to detail also makes the swimmers feel secure and taken care of. Systems like this abound at Walt Disney World. What about in your nonprofit? Take for instance donor communications. Just think about how a typo can create a glitch in the donor experience. A donor may think, "If they don't pay attention here, do they lack attention to my money too?" Do you have branding standards that are backed up by systems? Is there one person or a system of people that need to proof the communication before it goes out? Or do you personally have a system of scanning your communications before sending them to make sure they represent you and your nonprofit? Systems can seem confining and tedious. Especially when you're learning the systems. But they become second hand and improve the quality of your donors' experience.

Keep them coming back

We all would love our donors to keep coming back, to give year after year. Following these four ideas will help you develop a deeper, more personal, more "magical" relationship with them. Adding value to their lives while also stabilizing your nonprofit's funding!

What about you? What would you add? Tell us in the comments!

About Marc A. Pitman

Marc A. Pitman is the CEO of The Concord Leadership Group, the author of Ask Without Fear! and director of The Nonprofit Academy. A coach to leaders around the world, Marc's expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences and has caught the attention of media organizations as diverse as Al Jazeera and Fox News. Marc’s experience also includes pastoring a Vineyard church, managing a gubernatorial campaign, and teaching internet marketing and fundraising at colleges and universities. He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing 80’s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family! You can connect with him on Google+, on Twitter @marcapitman, and like "Ask Without Fear!" on Facebook.
To get his free ebook on 21 ways to get board members engaged with fundraising, go to https://fundraisingcoach.com/21-ways/


  1. Marc, I appreciate your enthusiasm for Disney but even they occasionally get it wrong! During my most recent Disney experience this past February, after 20 years, I experienced the early stages of the “magic band” implementation. Despite Disney’s awesome people skills, technology may not be their strong suit. The whole time we were there the “band” intermittently worked. Several times I resorted to a credit card because no one’s band worked. Other times we would have to try all three before finding the “magic” band, or the one that actually worked. Perhaps the most frustrating experience was the final evening, when after dinner I walked in the rain all the way over to the ice cream shop to get a cone for desert. Well needless to say neither my, nor my wife’s band worked. Without any cash, which is what having the band encourages, I was unable to buy a $4 ice cream cone. To my surprise the shop attendant did not offer to do something to make our purchase possible. Nor did he offer a free cone, which would have been outstanding customer service. After all it was not my fault that their band did not work and that I had no cash. It was Disney’s. Instead he said oh well sorry, I guess you can’t get any ice cream this evening without the band or cash! I think someone dropped the ball on the band technology and the park staff were not instructed on how to help guests who experienced a problem with the product or process. This was a new product and process so not enough development, training etc. went into it. And to top it all off no one ever requested feedback on our experience with the new “magic band”, which you would have thought they would do with every guest. So this is the first time I am telling anyone about our experience. Maybe you want to share it with Disney as a learning experience for them. As an owner of a donor management software company, StratusLIVE, I guess from a donor management standpoint the lesson is when you introduce new technology or process to your constituents, make sure it is working. If/when it doesn’t make sure that everyone in the organization that might be exposed to new the product or process knows how to address and remedy any issues that might occur on the spot. If not then the best new ideas can seem like a failure, despite the organization’s original best intentions.

    • Mike, that is frustrating!

      Fortunately, we had great success both with the MagicBands and with their MyDisneyExperience app.

      I have been wondering how to do a blog post, or give them feedback, about the incredibly frustrating (to me) check-in procedures at the resort. I just want to get my family to our room. I don't want to pull up a chair and make a friend! 🙂

  2. Hey Marc,

    Welcome to FL, hope you and your family have had a wonderful time at the Mouse. We live an hour and 15 minutes away and get to enjoy regularly.

    I have long been a Disney fan, took my entire fundraising team to The Disney Institute in 2001, there were no conferences on donor retention and quite frankly no one knew customer retention like Disney at that time.

    I learned a great lesson on that trip, Disney isn't great because of the things they do, Disney is great because of who they are. If nonprofits look to significantly improve retention rates by what they do, well it will rarely happen or be significant. Just look at the last 10 years of donor centered fundraising and all the "things to do" around that. Retention is and will always be a direct reflection of the culture of the organization. Just like Disney.

    I feel bad that Mike had such an experience, however occasionally getting it wrong is quite different than occasionally getting it right, which is fairly apparent looking at our currently renewal rates.

    Have a great summer!

    • Jay, I thought of you while writing this post. I didn't realize you were so close!

      The book talks about "wowing" guests. When I think about Wow, I think about you. 🙂

  3. Marc,

    What a great article. Had a subscriber share it with me and now I'm hooked.

    I'm sorry that Mike (above) had a challenging experience. I just returned from WDW a few weeks ago, and I had a completely different experience altogether.

    It's true they rolled out the new technology back in January & February, and they did have some bumps in the road. Regardless, the principles you share above still apply. They still drove the innovation.

    I have seen Disney bounce back from their technology hiccups in spite of some negative experiences of guests (again, another example to follow).

    So do we stop innovating because we have some hiccups in technology or process...or dare I say it: We fail? Absolutely NOT! We continue to innovate & improve our processes for the very sake of retaining & acquiring more donors. Failure isn't something to be avoided, instead it's an opportunity to learn & get better.

    Jim Rohn asked, "Who can get better? Anybody."

    No one really likes being a guinea pig, but how else can we get better unless we step out on that limb & try something new? Your article is valuable and timely, and the principles that drive Disney are worthy of all of us to take notice.

    Thanks so much! Have a magical weekend!

What would you add?