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Dr. Adrian Sargeant's 7 Principles of Donor Loyalty

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Dr. Adrian Sargeant is a marketing professor specializing in charities. In his groundbreaking research, he uncovered 7 chief reasons why donors will sometimes stay with a charity for years.

Most new donors don’t stay, you know.

Somewhere between 70% to 80% of first-time donors NEVER make a second gift, multiple studies confirm.

Is that abysmal retention rate a tragedy … or a farce? It’s safe to say it’s lousy, compared to customer satisfaction rates in the commercial world. In the commercial world, a 70-80% loss rate would say one thing loud and clear: new customers aren’t falling in love with us. Something’s wrong with our product. Something’s wrong with our service.

And orders would come down the pipe: “We’re hemorrhaging new customers! Quick: do a survey. Find out what’s wrong.”


I’m going to give you my personal interpretations of all 7 principles. This is merely how I view them.

I asked Adrian’s permission to share his findings with the world, and he said, “Of course.” Some people might set out to trademark the 7 principles and put an electric fence around them, with a pay to play policy. Not Adrian.

If you have a minute, thank him. Here’s why:

Dr. Adrian Sargeant’s well-researched advice, taken to heart, can double or triple your annual take within a year or two. Promise. I’ve seen it happen a number of times.

Adrian and Jay Speaking1. Your “customer service” is good.

Wiki-definition: “Customer service is a series of activities designed to enhance the level of customer satisfaction….”

Donors are fundraising’s customers. And only satisfied customers remain customers. Put that in needlepoint and hang it in the staff bathroom.

A lot of good customer service is easy stuff.

Call it irrational, but donors routinely wonder, for instance: “Did you actually get my gift?”

That’s one reason you send a “thank you” so quickly … a “thank you” that is obscenely enchanting; something a prime minister would send to a duchess. (Need help with that? Engage someone like Lisa Sargent. Watch Downton Abbey maybe.)

And don’t stop there!

Then you send a second thank you, just to be sure they know you have indeed logged their gift, it’s already at work … and that you deeply, profoundly, authentically, charmingly, personably rather than robotically appreciate it.

Trust me on this: a second thank you, research shows, will be richly worth it. (Bless you, Angel Aloma.)

Another obvious donor question? “Does giving really matter to this mission?” Or how about one of the most often overlooked questions I encounter, “Do you really need charity?” (See how Princeton U., America’s most successful higher ed fundraiser, answers this question.)

When you anticipate common questions and answer them eagerly up front, you’re doing far more than most charities. So, who does do just such things extremely well?

AARP – America’s most sophisticated marketer to people over 55. Fifty-five, as it happens, is exactly the average age of people entering their prime donating years in the US, according to good research. Do you know what a person at that age wants to hear? AARP does. Study.

2. They share your beliefs.

In 2008, the Barack Obama presidential campaign showed just how remunerative shared beliefs can be if you’re a charismatic leader with a simple message.

Alas: that describes so few charities. Most are neither charismatic nor simple.

What can “mere” shared beliefs do? They can win the White House for the first African-American president. Why did so many US households donate unusually large amounts to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign?

People who donate hope to win a meaningful fight, Yale economist Dean Karlan learned. Prof. Karlan studied giving to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Karlan’s key finding: middle America elected Barack Obama.

Shared beliefs win.

3. They’re aware of consequences.

You clever devil, you.

Somehow … thanks to your uncommon powers of persuasion (and, of course, message repetition; because saying something a 100 times is light years more effective than saying it a few times), you have trained your donors to firmly believe that, “Someone could be HURT if I do NOT give.”

… OR …

Alternatively (since you like to accentuate the positive), your donors now firmly believe, “Someone will be HELPED if I DO give.”

Nonprofits have fallen into a logic trap that does them no good at all. They have this theory that makes perfect sense on one level: “If we show people how great we are as an agency, they’ll support us. The more we talk about our programs, our successes, our data, the more money we’ll make.”


Look, the donor assumes your agency pretty much does what it says it does.

Save the Children saves children. Food for the Poor feeds the poor. Crisis Aid International brings aid to places in crisis around the globe. (Crisis Aid is a personal favorite: a tiny faith-based charity doing huge good in tough neighborhoods like Somalia.)

To keep donors loyal and happy and giving, you only have to connect two dots.

  • Dot #1: the generous, wonderful, compassionate, kind donor.
  • Dot #2: the good outcome that your donors’ grand and empathetic hearts will make possible (children saved, poor fed, people in crisis helped).

Connect those two dots.

Only those two dots. Your specific charity is just a footnote to those two dots.

Warning: Ditch ahead!

Fundraisers, charities, board chairs, EDs: resist the temptation to elevate your footnote status into a big third dot.

No third dot! No third dot! No third dot!

And what, you ask, would that third dot be?

It would consist of the usual words and pictures: a nonprofit endlessly yapping on about itself and how much it does and how amazing its work is.

Save your nonprofit’s boasts and drawn-out explanations of programs and crushing data-lanches for the employee orientation package.

Your donors will NOT respond to that stuff.

Just the opposite, in fact. When you insert a big fat third dot all about you, donors give less and leave sooner.

Get over yourselves.

Nonprofits are a means to an end, for the donor.

The truest words I’ve ever heard about donor motivation are these from marketing’s philosopher-king, Seth Godin: “We support a charity or a soccer team or a perfume because it gives us a chance to love something about ourselves.”

When people give to you, they’re not loving the charity. They’re loving themselves.

4. You’ve connected.

Say it loud. Say it proud. “You.”

As in, “You are invited.”

As in, “You are invited to join a wonderful family of people willing to help others, even strangers, overcome real problems.”

As in, “It’s not up to us. Sure, we have the expertise. But that’s all just going to sit idle and go to waste without compassionate people like you. With your generosity, though? That’s a big, fat different story. With your kind help? Well, then the miracles never end!”

BTW, the preceding paragraph is not a parody. It’s how you should write to donors and prospects, if you hope to maximize response.

If, on the other hand, you’re uncomfortable writing that way, get used to smaller portions. Paraphrasing the great Jeff Brooks: “Start corny. Stay corny.”

Look: you’ve got all these “contact points”: acknowledgements, thank you’s, welcome kits, appeals, newsletters … all these times when your organization is in direct contact with the donor.

These contacts are all HUGE opportunities. Each is a GOLDEN chance to make a GREAT impression. Each means you can HUG the donor. At each contact point, electricity should flow into the donor and light that person up.

Know what you’re actually selling to donors

To quote renowned psychologist and Nazi death camp survivor Viktor Frankl, “Humans are driven by a will to establish meaning in their lives. They need purpose.”

Charities can help supply that. That’s the commodity you are selling: purpose.

You break your contract with your donors when you don’t successfully convey to them how much difference their charity has made in the world.

This bad habit is why so many charities remain perennially underfunded, I suspect. Neglecting to properly praise donors is their besetting communications sin.

About your boilerplate

Permydia X. (named changed, protect the innocent), director of communications for philanthropy/alumni at a brand-name university, wrote me the most apropos email the other day, talking about exactly this problem:

…a reluctance to embrace donors without reserve. A.k.a., incompetence in donor relations.

“Can we get a petition going to eliminate the term ‘acknowledgment letter’ from the fundraising industry vocabulary?” Permydia asked.

Sign me up.

What’s happened at Permydia’s shop is “our fundraisers have passed the [acknowledgment] task on to administrative personnel who have never met the donor” — or any donor, maybe — “[and] don’t know what the use of the funds will result in. [They] come to the communications staff every 12-18 months looking for ‘boilerplate’ paragraphs about our fundraising priorities….”

Boilerplate, hey? Sound familiar?

OK, let’s return to Adrian Sargeant’s 4th commandment: Thou Shalt Connect

And NOW let’s take a basic IQ test. Please answer this question:

Is boilerplate likely to connect? [ ] Yes [ ] No

Permydia notes that people “freak out” about writing acknowledgment letters … and therefore turn out soulless merde (if that was French, pardon mine).

“It seems to me that if you know the person, why they made the gift, and you can project a few ideas on what can be accomplished with the funds, you’ve got a dandy letter in the making,” she wrote me.

She confessed, “I think people have a very hard time being sincere in writing – they try to make it sound like the gift will make worlds collide or something, which is not likely what the donor expected. They’d just like to see a problem fixed.”

That last paragraph? Highly quotable. Highly notable. Thank you, Permydia.

5. They trust you.

Before I’ll make a gift to your charity, what do you have to prove to me?

Research awhile back by Cone found that donors had two main preconditions:

  1. A charity has to be effective.
  2. A charity must seem trustworthy.

And why would I trust you?

Well, you could display all your charity watchdog credentials, as Operation Homefront does on its home page. That would help convince me.

But there’s an even easier way to make me trust you.

Oddly, as Adrian points out, if your organization is seen as smart in one area, then people assume you’re smart (i.e., reasonably trustworthy) in all areas.

Isn’t that a twisted bit of reasoning? Yet reliably true.

How to look smart? I strongly recommend being smart on the customer service end, since that’s where your customer (i.e., your donor) will notice you most.

Thank donors well … and you’ll be seen as smart.

Manage the donor relationship well, by asking new donors up front, for instance, what their communications preferences are … and you’ll be seen as smart.

In my personal thesaurus, I see “smart” as a synonym for “thoughtful.” If your organization is thoughtful about its donors’ questions and needs, then you’ll be seen as smart. Or vice versa.

Remember this photo, offered up by Mark Phillips in his Queer Ideas fundraising blog:

Make Me Feel Special

Mark, managing director of the UK’s staggeringly intelligent Bluefrog agency, titled it: “Everything you need to know about fundraising in one photo.”

1 + 1 = 2: when you answer your donors’ underlying psychological needs, you attract more giving and earn improved retention rates.

6. Multiple engagements.

Two-way interactions (i.e., the donor talks back to the NGO) significantly improve retention, Adrian found. Being able to express an opinion is worth a lot, turns out. Want to hold onto more donors?

Ask them about their “communications preferences.” I.e., Dear Donor, How many times a year would you like to hear from us?

Mail that survey 3 years running. If you do (and then religiously comply with your donors’ instructions), I predict that your retention rates will rise like a hot-air balloon in a cool Arizona morning.

Dr. Sargeant is especially fond of customer (i.e., donor) surveys.

Intelligently crafted customer (i.e., donor) surveys speak truth to delusions. Customer (i.e., donor) surveys are the thermometers of marketing and sales (i.e., fundraising). Surveys can tell us whether consumer (donor) sentiment is running hot or cold, positive or negative.

Basically, commercial firms use customer surveys as a navigation aid. OK, captain, something’s not working on this end. Steer the other way.

Yet (ouch!) NGOs almost never do customer (i.e., donor) surveys. I can say that confidently because I’ve seen the research. (You thought nobody was watching?)

Do you REALLY wonder why donor retention amongst charities is generally dismal? You never ask your customers (i.e., donors) what they think. And you expect them to love you? No: they feel ignored and abused.

Donors know the game. “It’s a numbers game,” everyone says.

Yes, it is … in arenas like large-scale direct mail.

Here’s the math behind mass mailings: even with weepingly low response rates, you will still make a decent return … if you mail out enough professionally produced pieces to the right people and make an irresistible offer.

I work in that world. At some point, I confess, numbers become your friend. You almost can’t fail, if your direct mail appeals are reasonably competent.

I’ve drifted. Let me drift back. I’m begging you: survey your donors.

It’s easy … and will return your investment many times over. Retention will improve, and you’ll reap the rewards of better average lifetime value per donor … or what I call BALVPD (just kidding; the acronym is rubbish).

Nor do you have to re-invent this wheel.

Check out these sample surveys from Adrian:

7. They’re learning. Are you taking them on a journey?

This final principle’s easily explained by showing you some stuff, all from SOFII:

How many RNLI lifeboats are at this moment plowing the seas around the UK? Donors can see for themselves. Here’s the full case study on SOFII. RNLI’s tagline: “…the charity that saves lives at sea.”

No one knows more about bringing joy and insight to the donor’s door than Lisa Sargent. Look at her makeover of the Merchants Quay donor newsletter, with the highly capable design connivance of Sandie Collette.

Greenpeace USA asks its donors to make origami whales … and lands a whale of a response.

How many of these principles are you enacting at your organization? Let us know in the comments below!

This post originally appeared in the Ahern Donor Communications newsletter.

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