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Using Donor Panels to Boost Authentic Engagement

By Chad Taylor, PRC

PAC managers often think they can’t afford recognition programs – a sentiment felt even more prominently in a year where everyone is second-guessing superfluous costs. However, you don’t have to break the bank to make an impact. There are several affordable ways to acknowledge your donors, create authentic involvement and start an effective conversation, including one key resource: donor panels.

Donor panels are an inexpensive tool to help you improve your services or programs, particularly in the area of recognition. It will also help plant a “culture of service” within your organization by keeping the voice of the donor in front of organizational leadership.

Reading written feedback from donors in a formal survey is helpful, but actually hearing and seeing feedback directly from the source through a donor panel is a powerful advantage. Body language, voice inflection and intonation are all important factors in understanding key emotions from your participants.

Luckily, it's a simple solution. Follow the step-by-step guide below to conduct your own donor panel.


Figure out what it is you want to get out of the exercise. Donor panels can be used for several purposes:

1. Determining how well your donors’ expectations are being met.

2. Determining your donors’ opinions of the level of recognition they are currently receiving.

3. Determining acceptance of current programs, ideas for future programs and other PAC-related issues you might want to know.

4. Using the information from the participants to improve service levels.


The ideal donor panel is usually about an hour in length and should have 10 to 12 participants. Organizational stakeholders, key team members and executive leadership may also attend and observe, but they should not actively participate unless asked a direct question by one of the participants.

1. Develop a list of donors you would like to participate. Choose a cross section of some who are extremely important to you, some that may have had problems or those who you feel will not be shy in sharing their opinions. To get to 10 to 12 participants, you’ll likely need to invite at least twice that many people. Call key targets to tell them what you're doing and solicit feedback from them on the best time and date to meet.

2. Once you’ve determined a day and time for the discussion, find an appropriate space in which to conduct the discussion. It is important to note this can also be done virtually! If you’re conducting these in person, don’t forget meaningful details like refreshments, small thank-you gifts, name placards for seating and any presentation equipment you might need.

3. Send confirmation outreach to participants with relevant details. Be sure to include details about what you will be asking them to do. Two days before the event, call each panel member (do not email) to reconfirm. This is a critical step. You need to confirm twice; otherwise, at the last minute, people may forget or decide not to come.

Once the participants arrive, use the introductory agenda below.

1. Introduce yourself. Provide your title and length of time with the organization.

2. Explain the purpose of the panel and what you will be asking them to do. For example, "We are here this afternoon to get your ideas on what you like and don't like about our political action committee," or "We'd like your ideas on what you expect when you make a contribution to the PAC."

3. Explain the process. They should be given expectations on how you will go about collecting their ideas.

4. Explain your role as the facilitator. Let them know that you are there to organize and move the discussion along, but you will not be offering your own opinions.


1. Introduce the "task statement." This is a succinct statement of what information you want from the panelists. For instance, "What are we doing well," "What needs to be changed about our PAC," and "What motivated you to give" are good places to start. Prior to the arrival of the participants, write the task statement(s) on a large piece of paper; paste the statement(s) on the wall during the entire process. If conducting the panel virtually, utilize a program like PowerPoint to keep track of the discussion and share your screen.

2. Have participants generate one idea per piece of paper that addresses each task statement. Give each participant a stack of 8x11 brightly colored paper and a marking pen. Encourage them to be specific. Don't let them say, "I like your recognition program," for instance. What exactly do they like about your recognition program? Is the recognition appropriate to the giving level? Are they made to feel special? What attracts them to give? Encourage them to write legibly and tell them complete sentences aren't necessary — just have them capture the main points.

3. Don't rush them. Give them about 10 minutes to generate as many ideas as possible relating to each question. As they generate the ideas, tape them to the walls and encourage participants to read the comments from other panel members. The posted comments offer participants ideas that they might feel compelled to add to. It is helpful to have an assistant on hand to help you collect and post the ideas.

4. Group like ideas together. As you are doing this, ask questions about anything that is not clear and jot any additional information on the flip chart or directly on the original piece of paper. The staff/leadership who are observing the session should also be taking notes. However, remember that the observers are there to observe, not to make contributions to the conversation. If a panel member asks them a direct question, they can respond, but the idea is to bring out the donors’ ideas without any explanation or prompts from the observers.

5. Once the session has been completed, thank everyone for their time, give them their gifts and let them go. Some participants may want to linger and speak to the staff/leadership. Encourage direct conversation, as this is another valuable opportunity to interact with your audience and deal firsthand with any potential detractors. After the event, send a thank-you letter to all participants.

6. Document the results and discuss with staff and leadership. Gather relevant parties to discuss results and next steps. Use the positive remarks to praise and recognize staff and leadership for their good work. Use the negative feedback to take action. If appropriate, follow up with panelists to let them know what is being done as a result of their comments.

Lastly, plan for more donor panels. These panels offer the best results when you get feedback from various segments of your donor base, such as those in major donor clubs versus donors who give the minimum amount each year.

We recommend implementing donor panels annually to ensure you’re listening to and learning from your greatest resource: the people already supporting your program.

Start planning your donor panel today. Need help making it happen? We can help! Contact our team today at 866-521-0900 or

Chad Taylor is a certified market research professional and is the Head of Strategy and Planning for Sagac Public Affairs. He has over 10 years of experience in primary research, strategic consulting and data analytics. During his career, Chad has helped enterprises across an array of industries to derive meaningful, actionable insight from market research and data.

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