Dealing With the Dreaded ‘A’ Word

Every nonprofit, large or small, has one thing in common. All suffer, in some degree or another, from donor attrition.

For whatever reason, donors stop giving. She loses her job or her health. He loses interest. They move and neglect to tell you.

Donor attrition is a fact of life. Don’t try to compare your rate to anyone else’s, because every nonprofit has a unique set of circumstances. Source of donors (some channels attrite more than others), age of donors, even the connection donors have with your organization (for example, alumni vs. members) are all factors in your attrition rate.

So what’s a concerned fundraiser to do?

First, find out what your attrition rate is — and what it’s been. You may have a built-in report in your donor base, or you can calculate it by looking at the three kinds of donors you have each year — first-time, repeat from the prior year and reactivated from a lapsed status. (Send me an e-mail if you don’t have a tool and need help calculating your attrition rate.) Calculate it for at least the last three full calendar years. Is it going up, down or staying level?

If possible, also calculate the attrition rate by donor source. For example, if you have event-acquired donors, direct-mail-acquired donors and online-acquired donors, they probably aren’t all attriting at the same pace.

Once you know where your biggest “leakage” is occurring, you can focus on strategies to plug some holes. Are you talking to the donors in a similar manner in which they were acquired? For example, if your online-acquired donors are failing to give again, is it because you’ve been mailing to them instead of e-mailing them? Did you use one message to acquire donors (say helping children with cancer) and then switch messages (for example, to funding medical equipment) once they gave?

Of course, it could be nothing you are doing. Your biggest attrition problem could just be donor fatigue. So look for patterns. Is there a point in time when donors are more likely to stop giving? If so, you have a great opportunity to change this by giving them an extra dose of appreciation at that point.

For example, I received in the mail last week a special package welcoming me into a nonprofit’s faithful donor’s club. I’m not a major donor, but I have given to the organization every year for the last four years. Quite possibly, it has found that giving donors like me this extra “touch” after four years re-energizes them to keep giving the fifth year, sixth year, and on and on. I developed a similar program several years ago to honor donors after giving for three consecutive years; the result was a major turnaround in the attrition rate of three-year donors (which was our “leak”).

Depending on your donor file composition, you could consider a thank-you call after a certain amount of time, a small premium or another appropriate strategy. Monitor the results to see if it reduces attrition, and stop it if it isn’t making a positive difference.

When you recapture a donor who has not given for a year or more, consider a special receipt letter that welcomes her back, lets her know you have missed her partnership and invites her to call in if she has any questions. Reactivating a donor only so he lapses again in a year is costly, so be sure he knows how valued he is by your organization.

Of course, you’ll never completely end attrition, since donors do age and pass away. That’s why it is important to remind your donors about remembering your organization in their estate plans. This may be an attractive opportunity for a donor who has had to stop giving because of a fixed income, so promote this in your newsletter.

Attrition is a fact of fundraising life, so celebrate when your hard work results in a reduction of attrition by a percentage point or two. We may have to live with attrition — but let’s not give up without a fight.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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