Donor Retention: Stop Talking, Start Doing

It’s hard to pick up a publication, read an e-news or go to a conference without being confronted by the ugly fact: Donor retention is at a crisis level. Perhaps three in four first-time donors never give again; this is a massive group of “one and done” donors, and a significant loss to nonprofit organizations. Overall attrition is often in the 50 percent to 70 percent range, and acquiring donors seems to get more expensive every day.

Yep, we sure are talking a lot about this. But what are we doing? And why are we not doing a simple thing that can have a significant impact on whether or not a donor sticks around to give again?

When did receipting donors become just more overhead to cut? When did it move to “do when you get around to it” instead of one of the highest — if not the highest — priority? And why has saying thank you become the exception, not the rule?

On Dec. 18, I mailed eight checks for year-end gifts. (I often give online, but I also mail in checks so I get the full donor treatment.) In every case, I used a mailing that had been provided to me by the nonprofit organization, returning the reply form in the provided envelope. (Am I not obedient?!)

Eighteen days of mail delivery have gone by, and still I wait for five of these eight organizations to even say thank you. Yes, I know there were holidays and lots of companies have a “use it or lose it” vacation policy. I know mail volume is up in the second half of December.

But I also know that year-end is one of those events that is scheduled; it didn’t sneak up and catch us all unaware. And a lot of the organizations I chose to support managed to send me plenty of mail in December — but sending a receipt simply didn’t get the same level of attention.

Here’s a challenge for you for 2015: Put in a better system that allows you to more quickly receipt year-end gifts. I’ll get back to that. But first, here’s what I consider critical for a “better system.”

Make receipting a priority, meaning do it quickly. I received my first two receipts on Jan. 5. Considering there were a couple of postal holidays, that means there were about eight mail-delivery days between my sending my gift and receiving a receipt for it. Well done! These efficient organizations were a national quasi-political organization and a medical center foundation.

Each letter was fairly short and used phrases that oozed gratitude. Call them clichés, but “Your generosity is bringing us closer to the goal .… ” and “Your donation is helping us fulfill this great mission” told me my gift mattered. I didn’t give a large sum, but what I gave was important — that’s the message I received.

The next receipt arrived two days later. I also received a personal thank-you note for one of the gifts (the executive director is a friend), but haven’t gotten the receipt yet.

The other four? Nothing. Three of them are very large, national organizations; you would immediately recognize them if I told you their names. They all mail vast amounts of mail and send out even more e-appeals. But saying thank you? That doesn’t seem to be handled by the same mailing machine that efficiently spews out requests for my money.

And while I’m on my soapbox — I know it costs money to receipt a donation. But it costs a lot more money to acquire a donor! If saying thank you for a $25 or $50 donation isn’t cost-effective, how can you justify spending $50, $75 or more to obtain that donor in the first place?

Make your receipt letters/notes truly thankful. OK, that seems like a no-brainer, but are you really thanking me, the donor — or the masses of donors out there somewhere? Is it about me, or all about you? Here are some things I read in the opening sentences of receipts received in 2014:

  • “We want to say thank you for the tremendous help we’ve received from our donors.” (What about me?!!!)
  • “We are excited that (name of organization) is now officially a part of the (parent organization) family! The ‘new’ (parent organization) includes … (What about me?!!!)
  • “After a very cold, snowy winter, I am looking forward to the arrival of spring more than ever this year. It was very exciting to recently celebrate the dedication of the (building name).” (What about me?!!!)

Sure, call me narcissistic, but I gave you a donation so why isn’t thanking me a priority? I’m glad you are doing so much, but where do I fit in? Did I really make a difference? Why do I get the impression that you’ve got it all covered and my gift was unnecessary?

So, back to my challenge. Look at your donation-receipting program top to bottom. What’s working? What’s a potential deterrent to donor retention? How can you fix it?

If you’re convinced that improving your donation acknowledgement program matters to your organization’s donor retention, send me an email Tell me what you plan to focus on in 2015, and your current processing time for a gift (if known). The first ten people who contact me with this information and provide their organization’s name will be added to my 2015 year-end giving list (sorry, I won’t be a major donor) and this time next year, I hope to include your organization in an article about what went right in year-end receipting.

This old dog is passionate about effective, timely donation-receipt programs. Sometimes I feel like a dinosaur that has missed the announcement that the Age of Saying Thank You has passed and we’re now in the Age of Assuming You Know We Appreciate It.

Prove me wrong … please. And … thank you!

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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