Donor Retention’s Low-Hanging Fruit: What to Fix First (And Why)

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Credit: Photo by Judith Black on Unsplash

Meet the fleeing donor. Research tells us over half of donors, on average, won’t be actively giving this time next year. Truth be told, that average – for many organizations – is generous. But that doesn’t have to be your donors, does it? Let’s look at a few fast and easy things you can fix, for more donors, happier donors, and progress pronto. Starting now…

First the why.

Years ago I wrote an article for what was then Fundraising Success Magazine (now NonProfit Pro), on the sorry state of post-acquisition donor communications.

I’d gone “mystery shopping” (twenty test donations to twenty charities). In return for my generosity, the majority of said charities treated me to silence and indifference, post-gift.

No thank you. No nothing. Crickets.

Aghast, I cited the Chronicle of Philanthropy and an eye-popping statistic from Dr. Adrian Sargeant (no relation)…

“Boosting repeat donor ranks by just 10 percent can improve your returns up to 200 percent.”

That’s just one additional donor out of every ten.

Fast forward a bunch of years, and I receive results from another fundraising colleague’s test donation experiment.

… Hooray! thought I. Maybe it’s good news and things are improving!

I’ll leave that for you to decide. Of my colleague’s test donation experiment:

  • 63% of nonprofits sent a thank-you letter (fastest turnaround: 14 days)
  • Of the email updates requested from 13 organizations, ZERO emailed my colleague back
  • Of the planned giving (bequest/legacy) information my colleague requested from three of the nonprofits, ZERO emailed back
  • One organization that was meant to send a premium in return for a donation never sent it
  • And one organization sent an ask to become a monthly supporter before my colleague received a thank-you letter for the initial donation.

Let me be clear: these details represent around 50 charities total (my 20, and my colleague’s 25 or so). I’m not here to be judge or jury, only to illustrate the room for massive improvement still out there.

Because here’s the bright side.

That retention opportunity – that up-to-two-hundred-percent boost in returns Adrian Sargeant talks about – still waits.

And here’s the best part of all. Your nonprofit CAN be the organization that gets donor care right, starting right now.

Here are five things you can fix fast, for loads of giving goodness…donor retention’s low-hanging fruit:

1. Thank-you letters and emails: First, designate a thank-you guru on your team. Visit my forever free thank-you letter clinic on the fabulous SOFII. Follow the step by step examples. Update your thank-yous until they sing with donor love and gratitude. Don’t worry about sending in 48 hours yet. Start with once a week. Pull your gift list. Every week. Send thank-yous. I repeat: every week, without fail. Update thank-yous often, for every appeal or newsletter if you can, and for special gifts like in memoriams.

2. Donor service: Include an email and a phone number on all your donor communications. If you have a checkbox on reply slips, once a week, look at them. (See #3, below.) Promptly and personally answer any emails and letters that come in. Stop what you’re doing for any donors who visit you. Share donor care requests, questions, and comments with your fundraising team and any other relevant departments. Answer phone calls. (True story: very near Christmastime at one of my client’s offices, the phone rang. On the call was a woman who wanted make a gift to a local charity that helped people in need, but she needed assistance. She had called several other organizations, and my client was the first to respond. Her donation – again, true story – was $10,000.)

3. Reply slip checkboxes and their ilk: From this day forward, you are forbidden to place a check box on your reply slip until you can promptly respond to donors who tick the boxes. If I give you my email via a direct mail reply slip, send me a friendly, human-sounding message to confirm it and to thank me for supplying it. If I tick the box for planned giving (legacy) information, you need to have something wonderful and inspiring and ready to promptly send me. And please-oh-please don’t slap the dreaded ‘planned giving’ label on that tick box! We use warm and emotional language for this but for now you are perfectly okay to start with clear and simple, “Please send me information about making a gift to XYZ Charity in my Will.”

4. Premiums and other promises: If you make a promise to your donors, keep it. Send premiums promptly. Fire direct mail vendors that fail to follow up. Consistently publish any and all communications that you promise special giving groups: president’s circle updates, bequest societies, etc.

5. Post-gift communications flow: Follow this simple rule: I will NOT ask for another gift UNTIL I have sincerely thanked my donors AND reported back to them on how their gift is being (or will soon be) wisely used.

Summary: I know this stuff isn’t as shiny or sexy-sounding as chasing down cause marketing partnerships or posting cool stuff to your blog or filling your social media feed. But I’ve been a proud (virtual) part of fundraising teams that for years have focused on getting the basics of good donor care right. Believe me when I tell you. With the right communications, and a desire to treat your supporters right, your donor retention can improve by leaps and bounds.

The revenues? Suffice to say, Adrian Sargeant was right. They do follow.And if you need to make your case for improving donor retention, have a look at Bloomerang’s donor retention primer – including the jaw-dropping impact of moving your retention rate from 41% to 51%. Well worth the read.

About Lisa Sargent

Lisa Sargent is an award-winning fundraising copywriter and story strategist on a mission to transform the way nonprofits communicate with their donors, for visibly better results and retention. Contributing author to acclaimed decision science book Change for Better and upcoming author of Thankology, Lisa’s free Donor Thank-You Clinics were named one of the world’s “top 10 gifts for fundraisers” by SOFII (Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration) and remain the most-ever visited exhibit there. Follow Lisa’s no-holds-barred blog Sargent Writes and subscribe to her newsletter, The Loyalty Letter, for free insights on the art, heart, craft, and science of generous stories, fundraising writing, and donor communications.

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