Slowing Down the (Donor) Revolving Door, Part 1

Like many adults who grew up in the upper Midwest, I have recurring nightmares about being stuck in a revolving door, going around and around before finally being spit back onto the street. OK, so it’s not really that bad, but being knee-high and seeing only boots and heavy winter coats is somewhat character-building.

Unfortunately for many nonprofits, it can feel like we have an invisible revolving door that is causing our donors to disappear from view, never to be seen again. It’s clear that retaining donors is essential for organizations to survive and thrive, but how do we increase the likelihood of retention?

Let’s look at the general steps first before we go into proven tactics for donor retention.

  1. Accept that you have to have (at a minimum) two plans: One for first-time donors and one for multi-gift donors. You can’t simply decide that you live in a one-size-fits-all world. First-time donors need a different kind of nurturing. You have to help them grow into your more robust communications.
  2. Donor retention is not a one-time effort or a one-medium program. Donors might not conform to your calendar, and they might not choose to respond to a particular communication method. You need to make multiple efforts to get them to continue giving and approach them from different directions.
  3. Even though it hurts, you have to figure out when to give up. Continuing to mail to a donor who clearly is no longer interested is a waste of your organization’s money. Some attrition is a given. Death, moving away, changing financial circumstances, disinterest — any of these can cause a donor to stop giving. Your focus needs to be on what you can control — things like boring communication, lack of understanding of the need, failure to see how a gift brings about results and a feeling that I (the donor) am not truly appreciated.

So, now that we’ve established the basic steps, let’s talk about how these translate into effective programs that maximize donor retention.

In this post, I’ll talk about first-time donors; next week, we’ll look at multi-gift donors.

First-gift donors are generally not all that committed to your organization. Some were invited to an event by a friend. Others gave a gift in someone’s honor or as a memorial. Still others heard about your organization online, in the mail, on the radio, on TV, or from a respected person or a friend. There are numerous reasons why they chose to give that first gift — loyalty to your nonprofit is probably not one of them (except for the rare donor that we all wish we had more of).

To increase the likelihood that a first-time donor will give again … and again … here are some proven strategies.

  • Mail the receipt for the first gift in hours, not days (and definitely not weeks). Seventy-two hours is a good rule of thumb for the maximum amount of time between receiving the gift and the receipt being mailed. Much longer than that and the donor forgets she even gave, starts doubting that your organization is really effective, questions her stupidity for donating or worse, feels like she was scammed. If mailing out receipts isn’t an organizational priority, change that today. Distinguish your organization by being quick to say “thank you.” That’s something donors appreciate — and remember.
  • If the first gift is online, make sure your online acknowledgment is more than a terse, “accounting-friendly” message. Add short but warm copy that reaffirms that the online donor made a good choice. Ooze gratitude.
  • Make sure the next message the new donor gets affirms your gratitude and shows results. Don’t jump into asking for another gift too quickly (but don’t neglect to ask, either).
  • Offer a small, mission-focused premium if he gives a second gift in the next 60 days (some go for 30 days, others 90; it’s what you decide is best). Think low-cost, easy-to-mail and good for branding. Bookmarks or magnets are appropriate choices.
  • If the first gift is more than a threshold that you determine, have someone call just to say thank you. (This is a great way to involve volunteers.) Use this call to get more information, if possible — for example, what is it about our mission that is most interesting to you?
  • Mail your “best of” mailings and/or send your “best of” e-appeals to the new donor for the first few months. Your proven winners are often the programs that are easiest to understand and have the most obvious results.
  • Remember to invite these new friends to support you in ways other than giving a gift. Ask them to “like” you onFacebook, follow you on Twitter, share a referral name, sign a petition, send a note to someone you are helping, etc. Your goal is fundraising, of course, but also building a relationship.
  • If a donor doesn’t give a second gift after a certain amount of time, let him go. Continued efforts years after the first gift only waste your money and irritate people. Trust me — the nonprofit still mailing to me eight years after I sent in a one-time memorial gift is not ever going to wear me down. How long you try to get the second gift will vary by source of the first gift (i.e., event vs. memorial gift vs. mailed donation), but stop when it is no longer profitable for you to keep in touch with a one-time donor.

Next week, we’ll talk about cultivation for retention, but meanwhile, use the comment area below to share any other tips you have for encouraging first-time donors to become faithful partners.

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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