Let’s zero in on donor communication plans. In particular, how such plans can help move the needle upward on new donor retention rates.

We know from the most recent FEP study results that first year donor retention rates are hovering in the 20-30% range. This is scary for those of us in the fundraising profession because for every 100 new donors we are able to attract, we typically lose 70-80 of them the next year.

First Year Donor Retention Data

Some charities are able to achieve first year retention rates above 70%. I have had the privilege of speaking to a few of them throughout my travels to various conferences. All of them share the same recipe for success:

  • A true and genuine focus on relationship building with all new donors
  • A deep understanding of “customer service”
  • The use of a detailed and multi-faceted communication plan

I have always asked why more fundraising offices and systems aren’t built upon these themes if they lead to so much success. It is most certainly not due to a lack of daily effort in most organizations.

Fundraisers are usually so busy with daily tasks that they can barely keep up. In my experience, most of them focus on finding new donors through direct mail, email blasts, special events and other similar tasks rather than focusing on building relationships with existing donors.

The Basics of a New Donor Communication Plan

A robust donor communications plan, if in place, can have an immediate positive impact.

Such a plan will provide a standard set of events or actions to take place as soon as the first gift arrives. The actions should strive to create a feeling of belonging between the donor and your organization without causing any concerns or pushback by the donor. This means listening and following their lead in some cases. Please remember theme number two above on “customer service.” Bear in mind you must be flexible in some situations, as well as applying common sense with regards to your communications.

The chart below is from the our chief scientist Dr. Adrian Sargeant:

Notice the thread or cycle of actions outlined by this particular charity after a new gift comes in. It is a multi-step process taking place over several weeks. The key actions include:

  1. Varied forms of communications (so we can see what works best)
  2. A systematic approach to introducing the donor to your mission and the need for support
  3. An ask for feedback from the donor
  4. An opportunity for personal contact with the donor in some manner
  5. Personalization and segmentation for the communication medium involved
  6. Proper timing of the actions

Our goal is to know by the end of the first 90 days if we have a relationship or not. If the relationship is not formed in the first 90 days, the changes of a second gift/retention decline dramatically.

You organization will need to try and test various plans to see what works best over the long run. I also suggest auditing your competition. The audit is simple to conduct and can be quite revealing. Here are the steps:

  1. Research 15-25 local and national charities who you think might have such communication plans in place
  2. Make a first gift of varying amounts from $5 to $25 to each of the charities on behalf of yourself as an individual with your own home address and email
  3. Make 1/3 of the gifts on-line, 1/3 by mail and 1/3 as part of an event
  4. Respond naturally if communications are undertaken back at you by the charities donated to
  5. Track and record the actions of each charity and more importantly your personal feeling about each action
  6. Report back on all of the above at the end of 90 days

Such an audit will provide a broad context of what can be done. I am guessing your future new donor communication plans will reflect this new found expertise!

When you combine the findings from such an audit with the other ideas and suggestions listed above your organization should be able to either create of improve communication plans which will dramatically improve your donor retention rates. Please drop me a quick note sometime and let me how your plan worked. Good luck making improvements in your donor retention rates come to life!

Jay Love

Jay Love

Co-Founder & Chief Relationship Officer at Bloomerang
A 30+ veteran of the nonprofit software industry, Jay Love co-founded Bloomerang in 2012. Prior to Bloomerang, he was the CEO and Co-Founder of eTapestry for 11 years, which at the time was the leading SaaS technology company serving the charity sector. Jay and his team grew the company to more than 10,000 nonprofit clients, charting a decade of record growth. Prior to starting eTapestry, Jay served 14 years as President and CEO of Master Software Corporation. MSC provided a widely used family of database products for the non-profit sector called Fund-Master. He currently serves on the board of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and is the past AFP Ethics Committee Chairman. Jay is also the author of Stay Together: How to Encourage a Lifetime of Donor Loyalty.