Lesson from VW – TLC for Donors If You MUST Drop A Charity Program

Lesson from VW – TLC for Donors If You MUST Drop A Charity Program

If one of the organizations listed in my Will were to suddenly drop one of the programs I believe in, I might have to re-think my choices.

There’s a lesson or two for fundraisers in how Volkswagen communicated with customers when they stopped production of the Westfalia (Kombi) camper van after more than 30 years.

How would your long-time donors feel if your organization suddenly dropped one of the programs they’ve supported over the years? And what steps would you take to ensure their continued support?

If you’re not a Westy owner yourself, you may not know that owners have a very personal attachment to the VW Bus. We even identify with other owners, waving at eachother when we pass on the highway. Life is good when you own a Westy. And as Westy owners we each have our own positive association with our vans. I even spent a week of my honeymoon in the mountains camping in our Westy!

The Volkswagen company understands this attachment. And when they ceased production of the Westfalia camper van, they did something very special. They sought out loyal and longtime owners. They found out what mattered to each of them and how they identified with their vans. And they created customer experiences and gifts for each of them – mementos, photographs, memories. And then they made a touching video of it all and shared it with Westy fans.

Like Westy owners, your donors also have a personal link to the work that your organization does.

Many of your long-time donors likely have a very personal reason why they are “touched” enough to support the difference your organization makes in the world. And if your organization is about to make major changes in the way in which a program is actioned, or (horror of horrors) is about to cut a program entirely, you’d be wise to have an action plan in place to communicate the change and continue to nurture past donors.

The VW Westy video was recorded in the Westy’s own (female) “voice”.

Click here to see the 4:18 minute video “The Volkswagen Kombi’s Last Wishes”.


1. When the Westy knew production would cease, she realized she “couldn’t just leave all of a sudden”. She made a Will. And she had one last wish – to see the son of her maker. A dying program needs a plan to remember and celebrate the donors who’ve supported that program over the years.

2. The Westy remembered some very special people in her Will – the loyal and longtime Westy owners.  A program needs to remember each donor in a way that is most relevant to that donor. Practically speaking, you could do something unique for each of the major donors who’ve contributed to the program over the years and something more generic for larger groups of program donors.

3. Volkswagen placed ads with the headline “Unintroducing the Volkswagen Bus. Soon at no dealership near you.” And they got lots of positive media coverage about the end of an era for the beloved Westy. Volkswagen recognized that the Westy was one of their flagship products. It was how many people thought of VW – even if they drove a different brand. Don’t forget to communicate with the public and donors who perhaps haven’t specifically donated to the program, but who will judge your charity based on the decision your organization makes to change or kill the program.

4. Volkswagen’s touching video recognized that every customer has a story, and those stories must be told.  Because they’re emotional stories full of relevance to other customers. Successful companies (and charities) recognize that stories are memorable. Stories evoke emotion. And emotion results in action – be it a referral, a purchase, or a donation. Why oh why is it so hard for so many charities to tell stories about the difference they make in the world and the wonderful donors who make it all possible. As John Lepp says, in characteristic frustration, the story you tell matters.


So what steps would you take? Have you ever had to handle the fall out with donors as a result of your charity ending or changing a program or the way in which the charity delivers services? Please submit a comment below and share your experience here. Thank you.