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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