Donor retention is simple…

Donor retention. It’s all everyone talks about these days – and quite right too. It costs a lot of money to inspire someone to give to your cause, and that’s money wasted if all those donors simply enter stage left and exit stage right.

But it’s talked about as if it’s some big intractable problem, whereas it seems to me that the answer is blindingly obvious.

It’s all about manners.

We must simply remember, at all times, that we do not have an automatic right to receive any single one of our donors’ gifts. Not one. People give to us for a whole array of reasons, of course. But in the end, it all boils down to a rather corny phrase – they give out of the goodness of their hearts. And I know that if I, as a donor, don’t feel that this is in some minimal way acknowledged, I am very, very unlikely to become a ‘loyal supporter’ of a cause.

People give to people. Another true thing, and it’s said so often you are probably sick of it. But we seem to only heed this wisdom in terms of acquisition. If we take that maxim into retention as well, we should know instinctively what we need to do to retain our donors.

We must work terribly hard to remain people to them. Treat them as individuals. Make an effort to get to know them. Help them to feel like an important part of our cause’s family. And yes, let them know, often, that their ongoing support matters, and how best we would like them to continue it.

The problem, of course, is one of scale. And I think it is about your own perceived scale – how ‘big’ as a charity you internally feel yourselves to be, and how your structures are informed by that perception.

If you feel yourself to be a fundraiser in a ‘small’ charity, then you may well struggle with acquisition because of budgetary challenges. Acquisition is expensive. But your donor retention should be excellent, since the fact that your charity looks and feels small, and because you feel it to be so, will be an automatic bonus for donors. Because for small, read personal. It will be much, much easier for them to feel connected to you. If they phone up, the chances are they will reach you, or someone who sits next to you. If they email in, it is most likely to be you that monitors that inbox and ensures a prompt and personal reply to their enquiry.

That’s the way it works for me and my colleague Katie at Leeds. We are a big university, for sure. But in terms of numbers of donors, we are still a ‘small’ charity. Yes, we have a number of great colleagues who do database work, gift processing, and stewardship. But as well as planning and running all our direct marketing appeals via phone, mail and online, Katie and I are also front-line supporter services for the majority of our donors. If our alumni like or don’t like what we are doing, we will hear about it, quickly.

And I see that as a big plus. We are lucky to work with a great creative agency to help us plan and write our appeals, and we regularly send them the feedback we have received from the people we have phoned or written to.

This is perceived as unusual. “We don’t get this from most of our clients,” say our account team.

Frankly, this shocks me. Is there really such a glass wall between most ‘direct response’ fundraisers, and the people who are directly responding? How can you really call yourself a direct response fundraiser if you don’t see, respond to,  and if necessary pass on at least some of the direct response?

It would seem to me that if that is how your charity operates, you have become too ‘big’. You have ceased to see donors as individuals and merely in terms of percentage response. Maybe you refer to personal letters from donors as ‘white mail’? Maybe you don’t see or read the majority of it (because it is handled by your supporter services team or an external response-handling agency?), far less respond with anything other than a form letter.

And if this happens in your charity, then you will always struggle to maintain the loyalty of your donors, because there is no person in your charity for them to feel connected with, even to a minimal extent. You will become perceived as impersonal, and maybe even rude.

And the solution to this is simple. Don’t try to change the donors. Change yourselves. Find ways to become people again, that your donors will want to continue to give to. Stop being an organisation. It is very easy for people to say no to an organisation. It is not so easy for people to say no to people.

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9 Comments

Filed under Direct mail fundraising, Fundraising

9 responses to “Donor retention is simple…

  1. Great post! Reminded me of when I started at NCH years ago – I’d spend absolutely hours reading the ‘white mail’. It was closest I could get to listening to the call 😉

    • Exactly! My favourites when I was at The Phone Room were the Friends of Welsh National Opera – each one of them felt such a personal ownership of ‘their’ opera company – we averaged 25 minutes a call, where normally it was about 7. And people really share their souls with you sometimes – I’ve found a bit of counselling training has stood me in good stead as a fundraiser as well…

  2. My scripts got better the more supporters I heard talking. End of.

  3. Your paragraph about size hit home. At the CMA (heart muscle disease charity, the condition often runs in families, so it really is personal for those we are here to help), we are small enough that our event supporters (half our income) get an excellent personalised service from a superb events fundraiser. That absolutely 100% definitely has meant they do more for us, they hear about things from her personally on Facebook (she has 350 friends all since April!) and they want to get involved. Brilliant.

    We don’t as yet have a proper regular giving program, but we do have membership which consists of approx 3000 and they are very strong supporters for the most part, happy to tell us when we get it wrong. I love reading their letters, positive or negative, because it makes them personal for me. I think of (names changed) Edith, and Bob, and Malcolm as real people because they ARE real people. It’s been a struggle to ensure the great example set by events is carried across to all areas, but the Board have agreed extra resources and as a result, a Community Fundraising Manager will be able to give a much more personalised service to our Community supporters (and ensure proper crossover with events and whatever way of supporting they wish to do.)

    That means I am going to be wrestling with revamping our membership in 2014 (we imply they get something for being a member, but really it is about their membership strengthening our voice!) and I will also be looking to grow regular giving alongside membership. It’s not an area I have huge experience in, but I will try my damndest to bring the events and community feel that I have known and loved to the world of appeals and membership!

    I do agree wholeheartedly that it seems bizarre to focus on acquisition when there is still scope to raise funds from retention, and having the added benefit of long term supporters that become advocates!!

    • Thanks Nick – really great comment 🙂 Of course, none of this implies that we don’t need to acquire, because we will never have 100% retention! Some donors really do only want to give once. Also you need to acquire significantly if you need to grow significantly. But the retention challenge needs to be factored into the acquisition plan – if all goes superbly well, can you still maintain the personal touch with all those new donors? If not, it may be time to rethink either the pace, or build more budget for staff support into the acquisition effort to ensure that retention doesn’t suffer…

  4. Small is Beautiful! And, it’s very effective. Our challenge as we grow is keeping that wonderful, personal feel of a small charity.

    One of the biggest mistakes you can make as you grow is setting up internal processes that make life easy for your staff but more awkward and less personal for your donors.

    Thanks Adrian!

  5. Great post, Adrian. I totally agree, of course.

    And woe be to the person who holds back those notes or letters from me! The only people who send them are the people who really care. And it’s so important that we listen to and respond to those people!

  6. Pingback: What’s a name to you? | ifundraiser

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