If Our Donors Aren’t Listening, Are We Really Communicating?

Most of us have heard the philosophical question numerous times: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Similarly, estimates of donor retention—that range from horrible to abysmal—have made me wonder, “If a direct response message lands in a person’s mailbox/inbox and they don’t pay attention, are we really communicating?

My answer: not as often as we’d like to think. We’re posting, tweeting, emailing, writing and even videotaping. We’re collecting likes, thumbs up, shares and pins. But donors and prospects aren’t impressed.

Consider these statistics from the 2015 Fundraising Effectiveness Report Donor Retention Supplement:

  • Overall donor retention is 46%.
  • Retention rate of new donors who only gave once in the last year is 25%.
  • The retention rate of donors who gave two years in a row is 65%. (What a difference!)

Reports on the dire state of retention are everywhere—kind of like news about the election and the Zika virus. But that doesn’t change the facts (above) or our obligation as fundraisers to pay attention.

Do you know your retention rate?

If not, you have to figure it out. Yes, you HAVE to. Why? Because you don’t know if you need a Band-Aid or an open heart surgery if you don’t know the scope of the problem. If you are fortunate and your retention rate is far above average, do more of what you have been doing, and do it even better; it’s clearly working. But if it is slightly above, at or below average, something needs to change—fast.

One of the keys to donor retention, according to the aforementioned FEP Supplement, is the cumulative giving of a donor over 12 months. Donors giving less than $100 had a 53.5% retention rate, while those giving $250 or more in the same period had a 76% retention rate. That’s a big deal. Need proof? If you have 1,000 donors, you are losing 24 percent of them a year (76% retention) and you are not adding any new donors, you will be down to one donor in the year 2041. But under the same circumstances except with only 53.5% retention, you will have just one donor left by the year 2025.

This gets us back to communication—or the lack thereof. With the relative ease and low-cost of online communication, many nonprofits have more messages directed at prospects and donors than ever before. But it is generally estimated that donors and prospects see more than 5,000 marketing messages a day: “Buy this soft drink. These are the right shoes for you. This charity is worthy of your support. Don’t you deserve a new car like this one?” Yes, messages from your nonprofit are mixed in with all the other messages—and it’s becoming easier and easier to miss messages, even from people and organizations you care about.

So how do we break through the noise?

We simply must make sure we consistently share messages our donors and prospects want to hear. Mark Phillips, founder and CEO of Bluefrog, diagramed “The Fundraising Paradox.” As he’s invited readers to share it, I do so here because it is an exceptionally easy way to quickly grasp of why we are failing to communicate with prospects and donors.


Here’s my challenge. Take your last newsletter (print or online), your latest Facebook posts, your direct mail or eAppeal, and even your receipt and thank you letter. Underline everything from the blue circle in blue and everything in the purple circle in red. Go really crazy and highlight anything that shows how your organization and the donor solved a problem in yellow.

Do the same exercise with all your communication to donors and prospects in the past three months. Are you offering your donors information that they want to hear, or are you force-feeding them what you want them to hear?

If your messaging is spending most of its time in the blue circle, chances are you aren’t communicating…at least not to the donors and prospects that are the lifeblood of your organization.

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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