Do You Retain Donors or Do You Renew Donors?

In 2013 I (delightedly) visited Tucson (hiked), Seattle (Archie McPhee and the fab Davenports), Eugene (U of), Lansing (Go Spartans!), Calgary (fave city), OH (fave state), CT, San Diego (Sean Triner), DC, Anchorage (cocktails with midnight sunsets!), the Berkshires, Buffalo (wings), New Haven (hotbed), Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe (Agents of Good), Bratislava (where do I start?), DE, Baltimore (I got crabs), MA, Portland, ME (Duck Fat restaurant), and Toronto (Love ya, AFP Congress!) … among others.

As you can see, I circuit ride. So I hear things.

And maybe the BEST idea I heard all year? It emerged this Nov. from Penny Harris, principal at Renewable Philanthropy.

Penny wishes fundraisers would STOP altogether using the word “retention.” There’s nothing nice or appropriate about it, she convincingly argues.

Cage“Retention” suggests bars. Cages. Tight grip. Maybe even organizational constipation?

Penny has a MUCH better word in mind: “renewal.”

Doesn’t that sound good? Like a trip to the spa, in three evocative syllables. Sure, membership organizations already talk about renewal. But that’s more about math than emotional rebirth, I think.

Real renewal means:

  • The donor’s renewed.
  • The organization renews its vow to the mission.
  • The movement renews its joint energies.

“Improving retention” sounds like a job for tool boxes and hard hats. “Increasing our rate of renewal” sounds like giving birth. Some will object: “mere” semantics. But you know what? Semantics are OFTEN all that matters.

Penny’s point (as I understand it, perhaps mistakenly):

“Retention” puts the focus on locking up donors in the prison of your database … while “renewal” puts the focus on the donor’s desire to continue finding meaning through your mission.

Penny feels — and this message is not approved by her; it’s my interpretation — that charities sometimes lose their way when they pursue “retention.”

Whereas, if you focus on donor “renewal,” then you’re focusing on what the donors need: a sense that their values have been refreshed and moved forward.

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Tom Ahern
Author of four books, Tom Ahern is considered one of the world’s top authorities on donor communications.
Tom Ahern

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By |2017-06-10T19:49:21-04:00December 9th, 2013|Donor Retention|

3 Comments

  1. Gregg Davis December 10, 2013 at 8:10 pm - Reply

    Well said!

  2. Claire Axelrad December 16, 2013 at 3:57 am - Reply

    I like this. Sometimes we can get a little nuts about jargon (e.g., when it’s important to avoid it like the plague and when it’s okay because nothing else will convey our message quite as well among this particular subset of people), but what’s important to always keep top of mind is what our terminology stands for. When it comes to “donor retention” it really is about renewing a donor’s passion for our cause — and for our organization’s particular methodology and track record when it comes to addressing the cause, fulfilling the mission and reaching towards the vision. Words have a tendency to lose their meaning over time (or the meaning changes). It’s always important to be mindful of this, and to know when it’s time for a change. Provocative post!

  3. […] Do You Retain Donors or Do You Renew Donors? Maybe the BEST idea I heard all year? It emerged from Penny Harris, principal at Renewable Philanthropy. Penny wishes fundraisers would STOP altogether using the word “retention.” By Tom Ahern […]

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