Building an effective supporter services function

For far too long, supporter services teams were considered to be a mere “back office” function, perhaps an extension of the individual giving department, and consigned to processing and administration.

But a major transformation of that outdated image has been under way, as organisations prioritise supporter engagement and adopt a greater supporter-centric approach. Increasingly, supporter services teams are positioned at the very centre of the organisation, serving all fundraising disciplines, and are recognised as the true guardians of stewardship with a critical role to play in supporter engagement, development and retention.

THINK’s recent benchmarking survey of 19 members of the Supporter Services Forum reveals some fascinating statistics about today’s supporter services teams (also illustrated in this infographic):

  • The average supporter services team processes £90 million of voluntary income and provides support and stewardship to 1.2 million active supporters.
  • The average supporter services team has 21 members of staff, with a staff turnover rate of 12-17%.
  • There is a ratio of 59,000 supporters to each member of supporter services staff.
  • From every 100 active supporters there will be five enquiries per year, 47% by email, 41% by phone and 12% by post.
  • 51% of new donors Gift Aid their donation, and Gift Aid represents an average of 5% of reported voluntary income.
  • Supporter services teams respond to 1,100 complaints per year from supporters, and approximately 10% of these directly relate to supporter services activity.
  • For every 1,000 active supporters there will be two complaints per year.
  • 66% of charities have a dedicated specialist compliance manager.

Top tips for building an effective supporter services function

Recruit the right people

It’s all about attitude. Recruiting staff who have a positive, “can-do” attitude will have a hugely beneficial impact on the team’s effectiveness. Skills and experience can be developed — but attitude, like culture, is hard to change. Charities now use a range of recruitment tools such as telephone interviews, assessment centres and online psychometric testing to make sure they recruit people with the right attitude, and use schemes such as apprenticeships and internships to observe and develop potential candidates. Once on board, good employee engagement practices will help to ensure that your team remains focused and motivated.

Build a culture of stewardship

Supporter services are now an integral part of the holistic supporter journey and therefore must lead by example and continually deliver excellent standards of service, both internally and externally. Do your supporter services staff relish keeping their promises and strive to do what they say they are going to do? If not, what are the barriers that are preventing them from doing so? How empowered and equipped is your team to deliver first-touch resolution and bespoke stewardship within a centralised model with uniform processes? Charities need to ensure that their commitment to customer care really lives and breathes, which means designing a strong stewardship process, ensuring that supporters can take control of their own journey with the charity and that feedback and insights from the supporter services team are incorporated into the ongoing development of the supporter experience.

Raise the profile of supporter services internally

Take every opportunity to shout about what you do in supporter services. Never tire of demonstrating the impact of the team’s work and use financial and non-financial key performance indicators to illustrate how supporter services is delivering the charity’s vision and mission. Using a network of champions to promote understanding about what the supporter services team does, and communicate supporter services’ successes through a variety of methods, language and tone is a good way to raise their profile across the organisation. Individual, bespoke communication with key stakeholders is invaluable to promote what you want to achieve and to get them on your side. For each team that you work with, think about what their drivers are and what impacts on their performance so that you can tailor messages accordingly.

Use technology to compliment excellent supporter care

Charities are building their use of commercial customer service technology, such as Live Chat and personalised SMS to improve and enhance their real-time supporter engagement, give deeper and more enriched feedback and insights into supporter experience, and make their response more immediate, using technology that is part of the supporters’ everyday lives. Technology can support remote working, which can make extended opening hours possible, and a range of software, such as telephone call recording, can monitor quality and drive up standards of service through on-the-job training and continual process improvement.

Be clear on compliance

As charities prepare for the introduction of the Fundraising Preference Service in 2017 and new data protection legislation in May 2018, supporter services teams need to be empowered and supported to review these changes and advise of their impact on the charity, before implementing them and ensuring compliance with data protection rules. The role of supporter services in recording and implementing supporter preferences will have an increasing focus, and accurate data entry and recording will be ever more critical. They may also promote and champion the “Fundraising Promise” recommended by the Institute of Fundraising, as well as manage complaints holistically across the organisation. Supporter services teams could also play a key role in educating and training staff about compliance, across the organisation. Sixty-six percent of charities already have a dedicate specialist compliance manager and whilst this number looks set to rise, undoubtedly these roles will work closely with supporter services teams.

Make the right supplier decisions

Most supporter services teams continue to use a mix of in-house activity and outsourcing to deliver the necessary range of functions. However, charities increasingly consider the value added and qualitative dimension to any assessment of what delivery model is best for them and, as a consequence, purely cost based decisions are becoming rarer. Advice for first-time users of logistics services such as contact centres or fulfilment houses is to complete a detailed due diligence on each provider considered. You can never be too careful to check out the claims of the company and seek out references in order to make sure that it is an operation that shares your values. It’s very similar to trying to choose the best employee — taking extra time up front to make sure the best decision is made will pay dividends in the long run and avoid any potential pitfalls by having to switch providers or bring the entire process back in-house. And regular training of your suppliers about your organisation’s value, aims and objectives and tone of voice is imperative to enable them to operate an effective extension of your service.

The role of supporter services has shifted dramatically over the last five years and the function has moved from being considered a back office, processing function, focused primarily on individual giving, to a central and front line, supporter facing operation, spanning all of fundraising. It’s an exciting time to be involved in supporter services, to be acknowledged as playing an integral part of the holistic supporter journey, providing excellent customer care to engage and retain supporters.