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Easy Donor Retention Wins for Everyone


Excerpted from Retention Fundraising: The New Art and Science of Keeping Your Donors for Life

Whether your organization is huge, tiny, or in between, there are critical steps you can take to hold on to your donors and significantly boost their level of commitment.

In my book, Retention Fundraising: The New Art and Science of Keeping Your Donors for Life, I discuss a broad range of strategies. Here I'll focus only on six that are relatively easy and inexpensive to implement.

Retention Win 1: Say Thank You

Obvious, yes, but often ignored. Many organizations take weeks, sometimes months to acknowledge gifts. Others never even get around to it.

My files are filled with notes from fundraisers who know better.

Angel Aloma at Food for the Poor writes:

"Thank-you letters have been effective fundraisers for our organization. On average, we get more than one-fifth of our net income from them. We don't include any ask in the letter, but we do include an envelope and a reply piece.

"Amongst our highest donors, we tested two groups. At the beginning of the year we sent a sincere, simple thank you card to 25,000 donors for their past generosity—no ask, no reply piece, no envelope. The other group didn't receive this.

"Both groups gave almost identical numbers of gifts that year, but the group that received the thank-you gave almost $450,000 more."

Retention Win 2: Improve Your Donor Services

Although correcting some experiences involves a good deal of time, work, and internal debate, there's one retention mistake most organizations can easily fix—poor service.

Too often we treat donor service as an afterthought, assigning it to an unpaid intern to handle during lunchtime. We mistakenly see it as a cost center, when in reality good donor service actually adds thousands, tens of thousands, to the bottom line because of its positive effect on donors' attitudes.

From our studies, it's clear that virtually all organizations should be offering the following. Failure to do so costs the average organization about 20 percent of its donors:

  • Convenient options for reaching donor service agents (e-mail, website, live chat, phone)
  • Convenient hours of operation to reach a live operator or donor representative
  • Helpful and knowledgeable customer service

Retention Win 3: Be Boring

Most of us get bored with our organization's messages long before our donors do. So we're constantly fiddling with new copy, new creative, clever new ways to describe our mission and programs. Tinker. Tinker. Change. Change.

As a result we waste great amounts of time and money. All this tinkering may relieve our boredom, but when we alter or deviate from our organization's core message, we risk confusing donors and driving them away.

There's a reason successful consumer companies err if they deviate from the makeup of their core product (think New Coke): consistency.

The same holds true for nonprofits that are successful year after year.

Be especially vigilant about consistency where new and first-year donors are concerned. A donor who makes his or her first gift because of a direct mail package featuring a powerful story on rescuing abused cats and dogs isn't as likely to make a second gift if thanked with a letter or e-mail touting the organization's work to save porpoises.

Retention Win 4: Give Donors Lots of Opportunities to Talk Back

All successful relationships require the give and take of two-way communication. Yet too many of us fail to seek feedback from our donors. We seek their money—that's one form of feedback, of course. But so is soliciting their opinion.

Every organization regardless of size or sophistication, has dozens of opportunities to solicit feedback.

Among them:

  • Holding an inexpensive telephone town hall meeting to seek your donors' opinions.
  • Sending a brief e-mail survey to your donors after every contact they initiate with your donor service center. Ask if their needs were met, if they're satisfied.
  • Using e-mail or postal mail to determine your donors' level of loyalty or commitment. You can do this with three simple commitment questions, as I show in Retention Fundraising.
  • Installing a pop-up website survey to determine users' level of satisfaction in finding the information they seek.

Here's an interesting fact. Whether donors answer your survey positively or negatively—and even if they choose not to respond at all—the mere act of asking their opinion will help boost retention.

Retention Win 5: Pick Up the Phone

I'm continually surprised at how little the phone is used to bolster donor commitment and retention. Other than a face-to-face meeting, there's nothing better than a phone conversation when it comes to listening, interacting, sharing values, and building trust.

Consider the advantages:

According to a study by the British telemarketing firm Pell & Bales, for every £100 spent on thank-you calls there is a return of £1,000.

And it's not just thank-you calls that work. Telephone calls inviting donors to join monthly giving programs (a good retention strategy in itself) can yield a 10 times greater response rate than direct mail, according to studies by the U.S. analytics firm DonorTrends.

Overall, donors who have been phoned for one reason or another (it doesn't seem to matter) show retention rates 15 percent higher than those who haven't been contacted.

Just as in the case of seeking feedback through surveys, the mere act of phoning, regardless of whether the donor responds positively or negatively, boosts retention.

Retention Win 6: Monthly Giving

One important but not-so-easy retention win should be on everyone's list: a robust monthly giving or sustainer program. It's the fundraising equivalent of going steady.

Chuck Longfield, chief scientist at Blackbaud, preaches a lot about retention and how monthly giving programs relate to it. He fervently believes sustainers are so important he's labeled the imperative to enlist them as "fundraising's last land grab."

Unfortunately, few organizations in the United States seem to recognize the opportunity. The Canadians, Europeans, and now Asians are way ahead of us.

Why? Some excuse-prone fundraisers blame it on America's banking system. The U.S. equivalent of direct-debit elsewhere in the world is the more cumbersome Electronic Funds Transfer System or the old-fashioned credit card system.

But that's a pallid excuse. U.S. groups that have demonstrated skill and staying power—such as Greenpeace, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and ASPCA—are prospering with committed monthly donor programs.


There are many, many more strategies you can use for holding onto your donors, but these six are a fine start. Almost immediately you'll see profitable results.

Other Excerpts from This Book

Easy-Donor-Retention-Wins-for-Everyone_Roger-Craver.jpgThe preceding is a guest post by Roger Craver. A fundraising pioneer since the 1960s, Roger brings an experienced and critical eye to the greatest problem faced by today's nonprofits: donor retention. He has conducted capital and annual fundraising campaigns, advocacy and membership drives in the United States, Canada, and throughout Europe.

Topics: Fundraising