No Wonder Donor Retention Is Hideous

I’m frustrated. The final part of my planned three-part series on year-end fundraising was intended to focus on receipting. So I dutifully made my year-end donations to seven nonprofits that I donate to at least annually. My rationale for these seven is not all that altruistic. In fact, I chose them because they send a variety of mail and emails that serve as fodder for my own creativity and examples for teaching and writing.

But hey, a donation is a donation, no matter the underlying motivation, right?

Thirty-three days later, I have received two receipts. Two. Out of seven. Yes, I know — it was year-end, volume was up, there were holidays to observe and people took time off to be with their families. I get it.

But I also get that donor retention is in the sewer. Every few days it seems, at least one of the e-newsletters I receive talks about the sorry state of donor retention. What is a fundraiser to do? The funnel is inverted, and the donors are escaping faster than we can pour new ones in to take their place.

At the risk of sounding naive and curmudgeonly, I contend there is a simple way to proactively address the need for better donor retention — start saying thank you to the donors you have. Not once a year when you send out the annual giving statement. Not when they attend an event. And not even during your annual telethon. Instead, say “thank you” quickly and sincerely when the donor gives to you.

Year-end 2014 is far in the distance. But if your receipting effort is shabby at best and downright neglectful at worst, you have to start making changes now. Otherwise, 2015 will be just one more year when you desperately look for the magic bullet to combat donor attrition.

There’s plenty of room for truly standout receipting. The field of nonprofits with great receipting habits is far from crowded, in my experience (both at this year-end and over the past few years when I have given to many more organizations, as well). Here are a few suggestions to make sure your organization takes full advantage of the opportunity to build a relationship with a donor and even cultivate a friend and supporter for life.

Set a standard for issuing receipts, and back it up with some ‘teeth’

It’s not enough to simply say, “We want to get our receipts out in five days, seven days, 10 days, whatever.” Policies are known for being written, filed and forgotten. Instead, make it the business of someone in authority to know what every day’s production time is for receipts and if there is a backlog, and make sure someone is empowered to take action if/when standards aren’t met.

I once talked to a large nonprofit that got a receipt to me no more than a week after I mailed my gift. I asked how it accomplished that. The answer? Every morning, a report was given to the CEO, no matter where he was, stating the date received of the oldest donation that had yet to be receipted. With that kind of accountability, it’s no wonder sending receipts was a priority.

Start to cross-train today
If getting receipts out to donors to thank them for their gifts is important (and I believe it is), then no one in the organization is too important to help when there is a (wonderful!) overload of donations. If nothing else, you can open envelopes and paper-clip the check to the reply form or whatever it is you do. Obviously you have to be diligent about security and have procedures that protect both the funds and the donor’s confidentiality, but this doesn’t preclude having a team of people who can be called on to help out for a few hours when there is a need. It’s just good business to take care of your “customers” and make sure their experience in donating to you is pleasant from start to the joy of being thanked.

Rethink policies that jeopardize timely receipting at year-end
Alert — I am going to meddle. But seriously, I think one of the most harmful policies at nonprofits (and one of the few that doesn’t get filed and forgotten) is the “use it or lose it” by Dec. 31 vacation policy. I understand the accounting issues about the accrued liability of unused vacation time. I also am a firm believer in vacation. Anyone who has ever worked with me will be glad to tell you, I am sure, that I never missed a vacation day that I was entitled to. But December is not the time to basically close up shop. Donors need to be helped by someone with deep knowledge when they call to make year-end gifts. Receipts need to be sent every day. Handwritten notes need to be quickly sent to donors who give especially generous gifts. But none of that happens when the fundraising department is on vacation lest people lose those valuable vacation days that keep insanity at bay. Think about it: Can you encourage people to take vacation at slower times of the year or at least stagger the year-end surge out the door?

While there are certainly other reasons for declining donor retention rates, my experience is that receipting and retention go hand in hand. Your receipt package should ooze with gratitude and make it easy for the donor to give again (see my article on hardworking receipts for more information on this).

But for goodness sake, throw this old dog (and all your donors) a bone once in a while and receipt my donation. It’s all about building a relationship — a relationship that leads to deeper involvement (and more giving) in the future.

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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