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Nonprofit Donor Retention 101: Always Do This

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Did you know as many as 81% percent of new donors don’t return to give again? And only 43% of all donors remain loyal? 

Donor attrition has gotten worse over time. It’s also the number one reason you’re raising less money than you could.

You’re Leaving Money on the Table

I don’t mean to be harsh, but this is the truth.  

Donors tell us this all the time, both with words and actions.

Donor Negative WORDS

When respected researcher Penelope Burk asked donors why they stopped giving, or why they gave less than they could, here are some of their responses:

I didn’t receive any information at all after making a gift to a not-for-profit last year. I wonder what they did with the money and whether it helped.

There were two instances this year where I made gifts over and above what I had intended and they both involved personal contact from someone in the development office (director or gifts officer). Being thanked for my previous gift was much more persuasive than receiving multiple emails and direct mail letters.

I would definitely make larger gifts if there were 1) fewer campaigns; 2) those campaigns championed more targeted solutions; 3) those solutions were backed up by better impact information.

What my friends and I talk about is how donors who make smaller gift are dismissed as unimportant.

I’ve narrowed my giving down to organizations that issue informative and concise reports about what they are achieving with donors’ contributions.

My giving decisions are based on news coverage and testimony from people I respect about the efficacy of not-for-profit organizations. 

Last year I had one of the most positive experiences ever after donating to a relief agency that was intervening in a disaster that had affected our out-of-state friends. After giving, I received email updates that always included expressions of appreciation for my contribution. The organization described how they were helping those affected by the disaster, and how their services would be evolving over time. The tone of every communication was positive and respectful. As I result, I will give them another gift this year, even though I do not live in the area in which they work.

I am very impressed with their follow-up. To have the organization thank me and explain how the dollars were used WITHOUT asking for more money actually made me want to give more.

You can see donors would respond positively were they to hear more from charities about the impact of their giving, and if they felt they were treated with appreciation for their support – at whatever level.

Donor Negative ACTIONS

For as long as the Fundraising Effectiveness Project has measured nonprofit donor retention it has been abysmal. People give. Then, more often than not, they stop. Donor and dollar retention rates have averaged well below 50% for over a decade, and it’s been getting worse over time.

Long-term retention (5+ years) is now 10% or less.

If any for-profit company experienced this extraordinary level of customer loss and disinterest, they would consider themselves to be in a crisis.”

Penelope Burk, author, Donor-Centered Fundraising

Your Nonprofit’s Ameliorating WORDS + ACTIONS

If you want future gifts, you must give present ones. The greatest gifts you can offer are (1) heartfelt gratitude, and (2) consistent communications on impact.

Nonprofit donor retention requires building a relationship. A one-time receipt is certainly not the stuff of which good relationships are built. Hence, you must (1) put as much time and thought into your thank you process as you do into your solicitation process, and (2) develop and implement a plan of consistent donor communications designed to make the donor (not you) feel good. 

These begin with a prompt, personal, powerful thank you and continue with at least quarterly “Thank you; this is what your gift makes possibleimpact messaging. Let’s take a look at how to do this.

How to Scoop Up the Money: Always Do This

Were money lying on the table in your house, you’d want to scoop it up quick – before someone else came along and stole it, or before the wind simply blew it away. Think about donor philanthropy the same way. What you do right away matters most, because it builds a positive first impression, establishes trust (the foundation of any lasting relationship), and reaffirms the donor’s good decision in choosing to invest with you.

The simplest way to kick-start a strong, lasting donor relationship is to always do this: send an email welcome series. This is most critical with new donors, because attrition with this group is otherwise extraordinarily high. Yet I’d also advise automating a series of messages to send to repeat donors; don’t ignore your most loyal donors just because you think they’ll stick with you no matter how you treat them. Some will; most won’t.

New Donor Email Welcome Series

1. Within seconds or minutes after online gift: 

  • Send to Thank You Landing Page. People shouldn’t worry their gift didn’t go through. Rather, they should be immediately rewarded! Check out these great examples from Hubspot.
  • Also email or text simple gratitude message. The landing page is no substitute for a prompt, personal, powerful thank you. Send something donors can feel great about right away, and that they can also file away for tax purposes. Check out these examples you can email. If the gift was made using a smart phone, text the simple gratitude message. This can even take the form of a video, with you thanking the donor personally in just 15-20 seconds. Texting is great, because more people open texts (90%+) than emails. Check out examples from Rally Corp on their Rally.So “Wall of Love” and Thank View.

2. One to five days after gift: 

  • Email a first-person story about the impact of the donation. This can come from a real beneficiary, or from a symbolic one (e.g., tree, river, painting). It can also come from an influencer (someone the donor is likely to respect), testifying to the impact.
  • Also make a thank you phone call (set a threshold, e.g. $100+ gifts) or send a thank you text. Learn more in my free Donor Thank You Calls eBook + Script. Research shows donors who are called renew at higher levels than those who are not. See here.

3. One week after gift: 

  • Ask the donor to take another action, such as volunteer, attend a free event, sign a petition, complete a survey, or share on social media. This is not an ask for another monetary gift. Rather, it’s an engagement opportunity that helps the donor see (1) you’ve got a lot going on, and (2) you care about their participation and feedback; not just their money.

4. Two weeks after gift: 

  • Send another first-person story about impact.

Three to four weeks after gift: ask the donor to become a monthly supporter. Once a donor becomes a monthly donor, plan to send monthly emails or texts with brief donor stories demonstrating impact. Don’t include a solicitation in these. They should be pure gratitude and impact messages designed to make the donor feel really good about hearing from you.

At least quarterly thereafter:

Send first-person stories about impact. Put the donor into the stories by thanking them again for making these positive incomes possible.

Repeat Donor Email Welcome Series 

  • 0-24 hours after gift: Simple message of gratitude.
  • 1-3 days after gift: First-person story about the impact of the donation.
  • 1 week after gift: Ask the donor to take another action, such as complete a survey, sign a petition, attend an event, or share on social media.
  • 2 weeks after gift: another first-person story.
  • 3-4 weeks after gift: ask the donor to become a monthly donor.

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