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Can We Halt the Steady Decline in Donor Retention?

Can We Halt the Steady Decline in Donor Retention?Donor retention continues to fall. According to AFP’s 2017 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report, overall donor retention was just 45 percent last year. It’s down from the previous year. It will likely drop further this year, because that’s been the overall trend for the past decade. 

Naturally, retention varies among charities and even among donor segments, but the message is clear: Too many donors are losing interest. That’s a problem, because low retention requires more spending on donor acquisition,  which is already more expensive than retention. Here are four possible reasons enough donors aren’t staying engaged. 

1. Completing the story in appeals 

Stories are vital for fundraising, but too often in appeals, the story comes complete with a positive outcome that shows the result of the charity’s work. While that might seem reasonable from the charity’s point of view, it isn’t from the donor’s. 

In fact, it takes the donor out of the experience, leaving him or her to think, “If the problem is already solved, what do you need me for?” 

Instead, it’s more effective to use the story to set up the need, and then follow that with the ask, making your donor part of the solution. 

When you tell the entire story in an appeal, the only thing you can do when you get to the ask is to say something like, “Give now so that other people like Fred can live in dignity with safe housing too.” 

That’s a lot less engaging than, “Give now to save Fred from spending even one more night huddled in a doorway, trying to sleep while gripping a tire iron in his hand.” 

2. Using euphemistic language 

Often in appeals, it’s as if we’re afraid of conveying the very reality we’re trying to convince donors of. The result is safe, sterile language that fails to engage.

“Amina was starving to death as her eyes and stomach bulged” becomes “Amina was experiencing food insecurity.” 

“John spent last night sleeping on the sidewalk under a piece of cardboard, clutching an empty bottle of whiskey” becomes “John is experiencing addiction and homelessness.” 

The fact is, most donors won’t ever see a homeless man on a sidewalk, or at least not that often, nor will most donors ever see a little girl in Africa starving to death. If we want donors to care, we have to help them see what the problem we’re trying to solve is really like, instead of some sanitized version of it, which is certainly not motivating. 

3. Mismatching the image and headline 

A common pitfall is a headline or a lede for an appeal that presents the problem—homelessness, poverty, hunger, or whatever the case may be—paired with an image of a person who doesn’t really look homeless, or poor, or hungry. Sometimes, in these cases, the adult or child in the photo is even smiling. 

Mismatching the image and the message sends obvious mixed signals to donors. While it’s true that effective images are often hard to come by, fundraising appeals just don’t work when the elements within the appeal are at cross purposes. In these cases, it’s not surprising that donors are left uninvolved and unmotivated. 

4. Using form-letter language in thank-yous 

Too many thank-you letters read like form letters from a faceless corporation. Because we know that strong thank-you letters increase retention, if there’s any donor communication in which you should feel free to wear your heart on your sleeve, it’s the thank-you letter. In fact, being way more effusing with praise and gratitude than you think is appropriate is probably just about right and probably what your donor is expecting. Anything less than that and you’re missing the chance to create a strong connection with donors. 

While it may seem otherwise a lot of the time, donors actually want to give to causes that are important to them. But we have to engage with them in ways that spark their passion. In order for giving to be meaningful to donors, the appeals they get have to be specific, concrete, and actionable. The more that happens, the more donors will keep on giving and maybe even start giving more.

Can We Halt the Steady Decline in Donor Retention?George Crankovic is an experienced, award-winning fundraising copywriter and strategist. He helps nonprofits engage their donors through multichannel direct response, combining strategy, messaging, offer, and audience to maximize results. An in-demand writer, George has published articles in Fundraising Success magazine, Nonprofit Pro magazine, and other national publications. He is a guest blogger at Jeff Brooks’s Future Fundraising Now site, and he blogs at

Topics: Donors Donor Retention Donor Stewardship