Declining Donor Retention: Bad News or a Call to Action?

Like you, perhaps, I have felt a sense of frustration over the latest bad news from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project. Bottom line: We, as a fundraising community, are doing a poor job when it comes to retaining donors. I know that’s not “new news” to you; the daily e-newsletters and many others are filled with that message. It’s tempting to respond by saying, “Wow! Those other guys sure are dysfunctional!” But donor attrition affects every one of us as fundraisers, not just the “other guys.”

In case you missed the highlights, you can check outBloomerang’s infographic for a quick look at top-level findings. They matter—to us and to the nonprofit community as a whole. When one in five first-time donors don’t give again, we have a problem. When 57 out of every 100 donors stop giving after one, five, 10 or more gifts, we have a problem. When we’re losing more donors than we’re gaining, we have a problem. And that’s just the donor attrition statistics.

OK, we all know it’s a gloomy situation. And many nonprofits are trying some pretty interesting solutions. But if you are a small nonprofit or one that has a budget that won’t stretch to cover techniques like modeling and multiple copy variations based on donor actions and characteristics, there are still things you can do.

But first, you have to look at your numbers. Compare your statistics for the last year to those on the Bloomerang infographic if that’s as deep as your time will allow you to go. These are related to donor attrition, which is a big enough problem to deserve all your problem-solving attention for the next several months. It’s easy to think that everything is fine—and it may be, but you need to find out. It’s like a dam; a small leak can grow into a huge problem if you ignore it.

Don’t kick yourself if your numbers show that donor attrition has crept up while you’ve been busy elsewhere. Not to be trite, but you can’t change yesterday. What are you going to do today and tomorrow to retain more donors?

Once you know the depth of your own attrition situation, you need to ask yourself, “What can I realistically do to chip away at this?” You may think “chipping away” is too small a reaction, and that’s probably true. But setting a course that you can actually accomplish is far better that drafting an ambitious strategy that looks good on paper, but never gets further than that.

What you can do depends on your staff’s and volunteer pool’s capabilities, interests, priorities, etc. But retaining donors is, at least partially, a function of building the kind of relationships that last. So, a couple of things that I think can build and strengthen relations are:

Responding to donor requests. When a donor calls in, he or she may get a prompt response. Letters and emails are often easier to put off. But taking the time to respond to any donor question or request can strengthen that relationship. That doesn’t mean you always have to say “yes,” but it shows respect to respond and to provide a rationale for your decision.

We probably have all had bad customer service at one time or another, but often the most memorable experiences are the ones that are unexpectedly exceptional. Don’t let the unanswered email, ignored letter or overlooked question be an excuse for a donor to stop giving.

Get in the habit of pleasantly surprising your donors. There’s more to surprising a donor than sending a bumper sticker or address labels. Think about what you are already doing—how can you include unexpected surprises?

Last year on Giving Tuesday, I received an email from Women’s Philanthropy Institute. OK, that was somewhat expected. But the next day, I received a second, completely unexpected email that said, “#GivingTuesday was a success! Thanks to all of our many donors and supporters that not only gave, but also shared our message on social media, WPI . . . exceed(ed) our goal!”

Too often, we move from one need to the next, but neglect to tell our donors how they made a difference. While I am a firm believer in staying focused on fundraising messages in our fundraising, there is certainly room elsewhere for saying, “Thanks! You helped us do _____.” It can be as simple as a buck slipped in a receipt or a short article in a newsletter. Ten months later, I still recall the second email from WPI, but I can’t tell you about any e-appeals I received in the last week. Why? Because it was totally unexpected. Getting a report back is so rare, it stood out.

This old dog can’t promise you a quick fix for donor attrition. I’m still looking for the magic solution that will be a lifesaver for nonprofits big and small (and allow me to retire in the style to which I wish to become accustomed). But until then, I know that what too many of us are doing now isn’t working. So while my ideas may not make sense for you, think about what you can do to strengthen relationships with your donors.

After all, it’s a lot easier to turn down the stranger who approaches you in the hardware store to talk to you about your plumbing than it is to say “no” to a neighbor who needs your help to fix his or hers.

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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