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The Closely Held Secret to Communicating with Your Donors

The Closely Held Secret to Communicating with Your DonorsCommunicating with donors consists of just three basic activities, as I explain in my new book What Your Donors Want ... and Why!

  • You ask for my help.
  • You thank me for giving you my help.
  • Then you report back to me what kinds of good things happened, due to my help and the help of others. "Did giving matter? What did philanthropy achieve?"

Then you do it over and over and over. You never stop, per the good advice of Jim Shapiro and Steven Screen, The Better Fundraising Company. Their drumbeat: "Ask, thank, report, repeat." And yet many charities have a big problem executing this simple routine well.

Asking does not operate in isolation

Asking is part of a system that brings in new donors and then tries desperately to cling to them, retaining very few on the whole. Your most costly failures—low average gifts, poor retention of new donors, unrealized opportunities such as major gifts and bequests—will likely to be due to things as prosaic as your charity's limp thanks and lackluster reporting.

On the flip side: lively thanks and donor-centered reporting will yield your most lucrative successes. Those who are best at thanking are beloved back. And donor newsletters that say all the right things and deliver emotional gratification on a regular basis will always be welcome.

The monthly donor newsletter published by Nashville Rescue Mission, in the skilled editorial hands of Michelle Brinson, raises on its own more than $2 million in gifts annually, about a fifth of the total fundraised each year. For every dollar the Mission spends on overhead, production and mailing, the newsletter inspires almost $7 in additional giving.

Is Nashville's return on investment a fluke? Well, it's unusually high, true. But it's far from a fluke. Nashville is just another example of a competent donor newsletter built with the Domain Formula in mind.

Testing by Seattle's Domain Group in the 1990s proved that a nonprofit could make just as much money from a newsletter sent to current donors as it could from its conventional appeals, assuming your nonprofit followed the rules they established. Here's what they discovered:

  • Competent printed newsletters sent to current donors raise $3.33 for every dollar spent on printing, postage and other costs.
  • Competent direct mail appeals sent to current donors raise $3.22 for every dollar spent.

The ROI looks virtually the same; newsletters make 10¢ more per dollar spent. But there is a difference, a vast difference emotionally: appeals are often seen as a nuisance, newsletters are often seen as a reward.

"Stop staring at my wallet. It makes me uncomfortable."

Charities tend to focus on what they worry most about: How much money can be raised? So they are strongest in asking.

Where they are weaker is in thanking. Nonprofit thanks are often perfunctory, predictable, leaden and unconvincing; robotic, if electronically derived: "On behalf of [fill in the blank,] the board and I wish to thank you for your generous gift today of [fill in the blank]." Result? A thousand "different" thank you's saying pretty much the same thing. Donors give to multiple causes. An average donor will see 10-20 thank you's a year and promptly forget them all. You want to be the thanks they can't forget.

Finally, there's reporting

Charities I review are weakest in their reporting—which is often simply clueless and emotionally dead, serving up stuff that only insiders care about, like a letter from the board chair breaking down the program stats.

There's a reason Heart of the Mission has a 7:1 return on investment. It delivers a real dose of special feeling about real people in every issue. As Harold Sumption, the man "who helped put Oxfam, Help the Aged and ActionAid on the map," insisted throughout his unrivaled career: "People give to people, not to organisations, mission statements or strategies."

Flattery gets you places

As Roger Dooley writes in his book Brainfluence about how to use the findings of neuroscience in sales and persuasion: "Mom was wrong."

She preached that "flattery will get you nowhere." In fact, "research shows that even when people perceive that flattery is insincere, that [same] flattery can still leave a lasting and positive impression of the flatterer."

All flattery feels good, in other words. Your perfect mantra now becomes:

  • Ask (and flatter)
  • Thank (and flatter)
  • Report (and flatter)

And don't be shy about it! Tell your donor often, loud and clear, in the big type, just how great she is. (And if you don't really believe that donors are all that great, well ... I guess feel free to fake it. But ask yourself if you're in the right job.)

The Closely Held Secret to Communicating with Your DonorsTom Ahern is author of What Your Donors Want … and Why! from which this article is excerpted. His other books include Making Money with Donor Newsletters, Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes, and How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money.

Topics: Donor Relations Donor Communications Donor Stewardship