How to Win and Retain Donors

Donor Engagement Series

Organizations spend a lot of money  to acquire donors who don’t give again. Even small improvements in donor retention rates have a huge impact; it has been calculated that a 10 per cent improvement in year-on- year retention doubles donor lifetime values.  Donor engagement is about creating relationship for winning and retaining a donor.

We know the key drivers of donor loyalty. In brief, they encompass a donor’s beliefs and values (does the charity share them), experiences (how did they treat me) and emotions (what would happen if I stopped giving?).

We can definitely impact how engaged supporters are with a charity. So a donor retention and development strategy needs to be above all else an engagement strategy. There are a number of tried and tested approaches which successful charities have been following for a long time.

Successful non-profit organizations need to build deep and sustainable relationships with their prospects.  Doing so requires a system — fundraisers that meet new donors and make asks without a plan usually find those donor relationships to be short lived.

In order to reap maximum benefit from those in your fundraising universe, it is important to understand how to walk your fundraising prospects and donors through the five steps of donor engagement:

1.   Getting to Know You

The first step of donor engagement is getting to know the donor, and letting them get to know you.  This step often takes the shape of a non-ask event, an introductory meeting set up by a friend of the organization, or a tour of your facility.  It is a chance for the donor to hear about your mission, your work, and your successes.

At this point, some prospects will opt out of further engagement, because they are not interested in your organization, or because they are more interested in another organization, and want to spend their time and resources there, or because they are not ready to commit to supporting a new partner.

For those that do show some interest, the next step is…

2.  Getting Involved

The next step of donor engagement is inviting your prospects, who have already gotten to know your charity, to get involved.  This might be by making a donation, but my preference is to get prospects involved, at this step, by asking them for either their time (as volunteers), or for their advice and ideas.  Most prospects that you call after an introductory meeting or tour will expect you to ask them for money, and will be pleasantly surprised to hear you ask for their advice on building a stronger organization, or for their help working the registration table at your next event.

Let the donor lead… and let them decide how they would like to get involved.  My favorite question to ask at this point is, “How would you see yourself getting more involved with our work?”

At this point, some prospects will opt out of further engagement, because they don’t have the time or resources to help, or because they are just not interested.

For those that do get involved, the next step is…

3.  Financial Support

At this point its time to ask for a small gift to your organization.  Ideally, you held an introductory meeting or invited your prospect to a tour or other non-ask event.  You got them involved as a volunteer or advisor (and utilized them… meaning that if you asked for their advice, you followed up with them and asked other questions, several times over the course of a few month).  Now, it is time to ask them for a small gift, either as part of an event, a fundraising campaign, or annual appeal.

At this point, some prospects will opt out of further engagement, because they don’t want to make a financial gift to your organization, or because they would rather give their money to other organizations (or, for an extremely small subset, because they don’t give to charity).

For those that do make a gift, the next step is…

4.  Access to their Network

Once someone does make a gift to your non-profit, keep them engaged as volunteers and advisers.  Stay in touch with them, and continue to answer any questions that they have.  Then, ask them to help you by introducing your organization to more people that might be interested in supporting you.  Ask the donor to open up their own Rolodex and personal network to help you find additional support.

This process can take any of a number of paths: the donor could hold a small non-ask event to introduce you to his or her friends.  The donor could send out a letter or e-mail for you, or could invite colleagues to take a tour of your facility.  Similarly, the donor could invite their friends and family to your annual fundraising event.  For particularly well-connected donors, this step might involve asking them to join your board or  some development committee.

At this point, some prospects will opt out of further engagement, because they want to support you, but don’t want to get so involved as to introduce you to their contacts.  Other prospects will be uncomfortable with the prospect of making such introductions.

For those that do make introductions, the next step is…

5. A Major Gift

If someone has gotten to know your organization, had made a gift, and has introduced you to their network of friends and colleagues, and if that person has significant enough personal (or business) wealth, now is the time to make a major ask.

The ask might be a large multi-year annual gift, an endowment gift, or as part of a capital campaign.  No matter the type of ask, by now you should know enough about the donor to craft an ask that appeals to their own personal likes and dislikes, and you should have enough of a relationship to feel comfortable making this call.

Some prospects will opt out of a major gift, others will give.  In either case, continue the process by constantly cultivating these donors, seeking access to their networks, and keeping them informed of your fundraising and organizational activities.

Ten Steps  to help Retain Donors

  1. Give it priority

Any strategy only succeeds if it is given organisational focus and resources. If your fundraisers are being principally judged on this month’s income or how many donors are brought in this year, then it doesn’t matter how many lovely engagement strategies there are.

So, who’s responsible for the quality of the donor experience in your organisation? How senior are they? Are the trustees involved? Is the chief executive? Are your senior management well engaged in your engagement strategy? How much are you spending on the supporter experience? Is enhancing it in people’s job descriptions?

If you can’t answer these questions positively, you don’t have a donor engagement strategy, you have a wish list.

  1. Getting recruitment right

How a charity recruits supporters, the channels it uses and the messages it deploys is therefore crucial to any engagement strategy. Problems happen when there is a mismatch between the expectations of the supporter and how they are subsequently treated by the charity.

Understanding the audience you are bringing in, what people are responding to and what they expect is a critical first step. Making sure that recruitment and donor development strategies are really joined up is vital. Anything which gets in the way of this, for example the habit of many charities to have separate acquisition and development teams, is unhelpful.

  1. Thanking Properly

I don’t think there’s any activity a charity does that’s more important than properly thanking its donors. But too often, charity thanking is neglected.

So here’s some simple things every charity everywhere can do to significantly improve their thanking of supporters.

  • Review your thank-you processes. What are your rules? Does everyone get thanked? How long does it take?
  • Make sure that every donation is thanked on the day it is received. If you can’t do that, outsource donation processing to a company that can.
  • Print out every piece of thank-you communication. Look at what they say and think about how they would make you feel if you got any of them. If they’re not warm, personal and relevant to the recipient, rewrite them.

Once you’ve got good basic processes in place, look at how you can start to exceed donor expectations.

  1. Engage early

Signing up to a direct debit or putting a cheque in an envelope in response to an appeal in the post doesn’t make someone a charity supporter, let alone signing a petition or clicking on an email.

What they are doing when they carry out any of these actions is showing some level of interest; opening an often very small window for the charity to establish the beginnings of a relationship.

What happens next will largely determine whether that relationship develops at all. A proper thank you is one part of what needs to happen, but it needs to be supported by communications that engage and ask for feedback.

What charities tend to do, however, is to bombard new supporters with information about the organisation. Strangely enough, this approach often fails.

  1. Ask about them

Rather than sending new supporters stuff in the “look at me” category, how about asking them what they’d like? Which you’ll need to do to get permission for future communications anyway. And when you do that, get them to tell you a bit about themselves. A few snippets that’ll allow you to talk to them more relevantly.

Tailor your next communication based on what they tell you. Send them something they might actually be interested in, related to what they responded to in the first place. And repeat. You are moving from broadcasting to supporters to having a dialogue with them. This is transformational.

  1. Use (a mix of) the right channels

Understanding which channels supporters use and how is extremely important. Charities need to be able to look across a range of communications channels, map these to donor preferences and behaviours and develop a truly integrated approach.

All types of media are important here. Social media, for example, is already of major importance in donor development. Of course, not all supporters use social media and by no means all of them look at charity messages on those platforms. But an increasing number do and they can be targeted very granularly.

A properly multi-channel approach is something which many charities struggle to do. Again, unhelpful internal demarcations come into play here, such as social channels being managed by “communications” teams not linked up with fundraisers. Breaking down these sort of barriers is essential for sustained success here.

  1. Tailor your approach

Not all donors want to be engaged. Many people are happy with a pretty passive relationship with a direct debit and an update once a year. Every person who gives to you has expectations and these need to be acknowledged and met – including when that is to be left in peace.

We have the technology to talk to each supporter, effectively, individually. We, as a rule, don’t. This a matter of systems and processes, which for many charities will need to be rethought and re-engineered. Supporters won’t understand why Amazon, with hundreds of millions of customers, can speak to me as an individual when my favourite charity can’t.

  1. Report back

Good reporting isn’t sending supporters an annual review or a corporate document once a year. It’s providing specific, relevant feedback on what the charity did with your money and what happened as a result.

At the Misfit Foundation, when we’ve managed to get unmediated content from the field, we’ve found that donors love it. The charity just needs to get out of the way.

  1. Ask appropriately

Of course, charities need to be engaging individuals for a reason. Engagement without an outcome is just entertainment. And even the most engaged people won’t give to you unless you’ve asked them.

So a focus on supporter engagement doesn’t mean relegating the importance of asking. It doesn’t mean asking less frequently, necessarily. It’s all about asking appropriately.

The more information is gathered from the supporter and their interactions, the more relevant and tailored asks can be. A properly engaged donor won’t mind being asked, they will expect it. But how they are asked, for what and why should be in line with the conversation you have had with them to this point.

Ask people in this way and they will give again. Of course they will.

  1. Test and learn

The engagement approach is only a theory, however, until it has been tested by your organization with your donors. The precise mix of communications, the media used, the timings and the messages all need to be tested to find what works in each context. Every single element of donor engagement can and should be tested at a granular level.

Many fundraisers don’t test retention communications because of the issues involved in tracking the performance of cohorts of donors over time. It’s tricky setting up control groups and running tests over time. And of course there’s the time lag between making changes and knowing what impact they are having.

But actually, many things can be tested effectively without running something that feels like a trial of a new cancer drug. We know, for instance, that there is usually a clear linkage between initial direct debit attrition (no-show rate) and subsequent donor performance. So something that can impact on a no-show or second-month attrition rate will probably also beneficially impact retention over a longer period and be tested within a fairly short timeframe. The effectiveness of individual communications can be tested through engagement metrics such as open and click-through rates.

Underpinned by analysis that demonstrates the financial impact of even marginal changes in attrition rates, fundraisers can iteratively develop an armoury of effective donor retention communications and processes.

And then it’s a question of feeding them into the whole fundraising programme to ensure that all activities are developed with donor development at the core.

Tobin Aldrich is chief executive of the Misfit Foundation. This article originally appeared in the March issue of Fundraising Magazine.


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