In this webinar, Valerie Harris will discuss best practices for producing the personalized, “donor-centric” communications that can propel your donor retention rate past the national average of towards the high retention enjoyed by elite institutions.

Full Transcript:

Steven: All right. Valerie, 1:00 Eastern. Is it okay if I go ahead and get this party started?

Valerie: Yes, you may.

Steven: All right. Awesome. Well, good, afternoon everybody if you’re on the East Coast. If you’re on the West Coast, good morning. Thanks for being here. If you’re watching the recording, I just hope you’re having a good day, no matter where you are because we’re here to talk about donor retention, specifically personalizing your communications, which is really important for donor retention. We’re going to talk about that today. One of my favorite topics. I’m excited. I’m Steven, and I’m over here at Bloomerang, and I’ll be moderating today’s session as always.

And just a couple of housekeeping items real quick before we get going, just want to let you all know that we are recording this session and we’ll be sending out the recording as well as the sites later on today. So you won’t miss anything. We’ll get all that good stuff to you later on. If you get interrupted or got another meeting, no problem. We’ll get that good stuff to you later on today. But most importantly, please send in your questions and comments along the way. There’s a chat box. There’s a Q&A box. You can use either of those. We’d love for this session to be interactive. There’s going to be some interactive elements, but we’d also like to take your questions at the end. So don’t be shy. Tell us who you are. Introduce yourself now in the chat if you haven’t already. We’d love to know who you are. Tell us how the weather is. Anything fun you want to tell us. But don’t be shy. You can also send us a tweet. I’ll keep an eye on the Twitter feed as well. But we’d love to hear from you over the next hour.

And if this is your first Bloomerang webinar, just for context, if you’re wondering what the heck is Bloomerang, we are a provider of donor management software. So if you’re interested in that, check us out, you can visit our website. There’s all kinds of videos there. You know, we’re pretty easy to find. But you know, we love doing these webinars. We do these webinars a couple of times a week now, one of our favorite things. But if you need software, check it out. Don’t check it out right now. At least wait an hour because my very good buddy, Valerie Harris, is joining us. Valerie, how’s it going? You doing okay?

Valerie: I’m doing fine. I’m happy to be here. Happy to spend my birthday with you guys.

Steven: Yes. It’s your birthday. So happy birthday, by the way.

Valerie: Thank you.

Steven: We were talking about this webinar and, you know, I kind of threw out some dates and you said this was your birthday and I said, “Are you sure you want to do it on your birthday?” But it worked out for your schedule. It’s awesome you are here. You’re my new buddy. We’ve been getting to know each other over the last couple of months. You wrote a really awesome blog posts for us about how you built a diverse team, which is something we really care about here. So I’m going to share that in the chat, if you don’t mind for folks to read later on.

Valerie: Please to.

Steven: But if you don’t know Valerie, she is the senior director of Stewardship Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. And if you folks have been on my webinars before, you know, I like to bring in consultants, you know, nothing against consultants, but it’s always a really fun treat when I can bring in someone who was actually doing these things. Not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. So, Valerie, geez, she has been super successful at the university. She’s run their fundraising. Big campaigns, definitely has done the thing she’s going to talk about and very graciously is going to share her knowledge with us and on her birthday. I mean, geez, we cannot repay this kindness, but, Valerie, I’m so excited. I’m going to stop sharing. I’m going to let you bring up your slides. Hopefully it’ll work. Okay. It’s always a little tricky with Zoom, but let’s see.

Valerie: Okay. Now which one is this? Share. Okay.

Steven: Yeah. Share button, it always hides from me. There it goes.

Valerie: Okay. Here we are.

Steven: Take it away.

Valerie: Thank you, Steven. And welcome, everyone, to this discussion on personalized communications and its role in donor retention. And Steven told you something about me. Yeah. I’m at the University of Pennsylvania now. I’ve been there for almost 10 years. But I’ve had a very long career in nonprofit development communications and, in fact, except for five years spent in publishing, which has also stood me in good stead with development communications. My entire career has been with nonprofits. In that role, I’ve worked with small, medium, and large nonprofits. I’ve worked in K through 12 education, community services, and the arts. I’ve worked for very small neighborhood organizations like the Paul Robeson House in West Philadelphia where I am and for city organizations as large as the Private Industry Council of Philadelphia. For network organizations such as communities and schools in Philadelphia, which the communities in schools has branches all over the country, you guys would probably know. And as I said, most recently in higher education.

I’ve also worked with diverse teams. Teams are my specialty and my love, but I’ve been a one-person team. I’ve been part of a two to three people team. And right now I have a pretty nice size team. I supervise six writers, all dedicated to development, communications, and donor stewardship at the University of Pennsylvania. So with all of that diverse experience, I have a lot of knowledge about how fundraising is done in organizations across the spectrum and I know how different stewardship communications is handled in small organizations as opposed to large, well-endowed organizations. So I hope that I can share some things with you today that will help you regardless of what size organization you work with kind of up your donor stewardship gang.

So, first of all, let’s see if you’re in the right place and we’re on the same page. Before I even ask these questions that I’m showing you now, I like to know, and maybe you could raise your hand in the chat, how many of you have between one and three years’ experience in nonprofit development? Okay. How many have between four and nine years in nonprofit? Okay. And how many have like 10 years or more experience? Wow. All righty now.

And now I want to also ask you about the size of your organization. How many of you work for a organization that you would consider small? Okay. Okay. How many work for an organization that you would consider medium size, maybe no more than what 40 employees? Okay. And how many of you work in a large organization, a large institution? Okay. So we got a nice range of experience here. So let’s look at these questions. Are you responsible for writing gift acknowledgements to donors, to your nonprofit? Preparing individual reports? Sending correspondence then to donors or other stakeholders on behalf of your organization? Or crafting the messages that keep individuals engaged with your nonprofit?

So if you have answered yes to any of these questions, then you are in the right place and you have one of the most important roles in the fundraising cycle because your communications help maintain strong relationships with new and existing donors, which brings me to donor retention. Let’s look at these stats. So this is the report that was done, I think, by the Association of Donor Relations Professionals. And at the end of 2019, you see the stats are a little dismal. But if you think that these stats are, you know, not what you want to see, there is hope. And we will look at this video because there is good news. The number of recaptured donors was up 3.8%. And this video will show you the importance of retaining your donors and how that impacts the health of your organization. This video is how Steven and I met. Because it is produced by Bloomerang, but it gives you one of the most succinct and clear explanations of how donor relations impacts your organization.

[silence 00:10:19 – 00:12:25]

All righty now. How many of you know, what your donor retention rate is? Okay. Cool. Cool. Because I did not know what our donor retention rate is. And I had to ask someone in my organization who handles all those stats. So that’s another big difference, and we’ll talk about that a little bit more between working at a smaller organization where you have access to things and a larger organization where it’s more de compartmentalized. Well, the video says that the average donor retention rate is like 40% for nonprofits. I was told that our donor retention rate to our annual fund is 69%. So that is a good place to be. But I think that one of the reasons why we are there is because we practice personalization religiously, particularly to our major donors. But wherever we can do it, we do it. Because this is the reason, it’s imperative to your development mission. As the video explained, you don’t want to have to keep spending time capturing donors when you have a pool of existing donors, that if you treat them nicely you can hold on to them. And one of the ways of treating them nicely is personalizing your communications. So this is important, but let’s get a handle on why donors stop giving.

Why do you think donors stop giving? Let’s play a percentages game. Here are the top eight reasons research shows that donors stop giving to an organization that they’ve given to before. But I have mixed matched the percentages from the correct or the corresponding statement. That means all the charities more deserving 5% of donors did not stop giving for that reason.

So let’s see if you can kind of match them up a little bit. If you go to the chat, we’re just going to maybe take a look at four of these. From these statements, which one of these statements do you think that 5% of donors give for, not for stopping their donations to an organization? Five percent. Maybe you could write it in there. Maybe you could write it in there. Okay. Thirteen percent is not this one that we show here, we’ll show it in the next slide, but no response to inquiries or other communications. That’s 13% of donors do not say that. What do you think the 13% of donors say? Eighteen percent of donors, what do you think that 18% of donors say is the reason they have stopped their donations? And lastly, 54%, and this is over half the number of donors. Why do you think of all these statements here, that they would say they have stopped their gifts? Okay.

All right. Let’s go on to the next slide and see what those answers are. These are the correct statements. So how many did you get? Correct. Okay. Five percent of donors stopped giving because they thought your organization didn’t need them anymore. So that’s a very small amount. Let’s jumped down to 13%. Never got a thank you letter. Now, and this is why we are here. We’re going to be talking about this. Thirteen percent they never got a thank you letter. Eighteen percent say there was no response to inquiries or other communications. And that would mean complaints as well. We need to respond to those. And 54% of the donors said that they could no longer afford to give.

How many of these do you think that an organization can readily address? Think about that? Because I say your communications could have a positive impact on at least five, maybe six out of these eight. And I dare say, not even death has to stop those donations from coming. And I’ll tell you a story about that as we move on. There are a lot of things that you and your role as a communicator can do to stop these statistics and statements from happening to your organization.

All right. These are the top fundraising trends that everyone has been working on over the course of the year. And really these started a little bit before 2020. And how many of these initiatives are in place at your organization? Are you boosting your annual giving by utilizing online giving and technology? Are you using corporate matching programs and encouraging your donors to check with their companies to see if you have corporate matching programs in place, or also even working with a major donor to kind of set up a fund that they will do the matching if people put in a certain amount of money? Are you using that? Are you finding ways to appeal to younger and more diverse donors? Is that part of the conversation at your institution?

And lastly, right up there among the top trends is personalization. And we will talk about that now. Why? Because personalization delivers. It strengthens your communication, strengthens your relationship with your donors. It makes them feel recognized like they’re part of the family and that you share a common mission. The goal of personalized communications is that when your donors start thinking about their charitable contributions, you want them to think about your organization and what you and they are accomplishing together. Doesn’t take a huge budget. Doesn’t take a huge staff. There are tools available to help, and you cannot afford not to personalize.

And this is why. The people who were the best at thanking were also the best that retaining donors, and therefore, increasing lifetime value. That’s a nice little e-book if you want to know some different stats, learning to say, thank you. That’s available online if you want to take a look at that. But the bottom line is as writers and stewardship professionals, this is our contribution to the fundraising cycle. So today we’ll talk about some of the most effective and beneficial ways to say thank you and to acknowledge your donors. We’ll look at what personalization is, five touchpoints for personalizing your donor communications, four elements of an effective, personalized communications program, and easy measures of your success.

Okay. First off, personalization is a strategy. It’s an approach. It’s a mindset, and it will color everything that you do. In our shop, there’s things that we do every day to assure that the letters that we are sending out the communications to donors are as personalized and specific to that donor as we can make it given the resources we have on hand. But it’s a strategy. It’s an approach. Some of these things, they look very easy, addresses an individual, but sometimes people get that wrong. Is it Mrs. Harris? Is it Ms. Harris? Is it Valerie? Is it Val? So how do you address this individual?

Proper salutations are also very important to optimizing that point. It acknowledges the recipient’s relationship to your organization. Is it a board member? Is it a volunteer? If it is and they have given a gift in your acknowledgement letter, you don’t want to forget the service that they’ve provided for you. So you will also thank them for their service. If they’ve been on the board, thank them for their leadership. If they’ve been giving for a while, thank them for their ongoing commitment or their dedication to the cause. Anything that makes it sound like you know them and that their relationship to your organization is a valuable one.

Does it appropriately indicate the recipient’s relationship to the signer? Now, in a lot of organizations, the person who the letter is the top executive and . . . but sometimes it’s the board chair. It could be the development director, it could be a number of people. The personalized communication only rings true if the information shared in the salutation is appropriate to and specific to both the recipient and the person signing the letter.

It references the impact of the gift, and that means that it assures the donor that the gift is going to the area of interest that the donor has expressed giving to whether it’s for scholarships, or fellowships, or the capital fund or whatever. You don’t want to thank them for just giving, if they indicated a reason for giving, you want to assure them that that’s where that money will go.

And also personalization as a strategy, utilizes fresh language for repeat donors, because nothing spells form letter more loudly than using the same language that you used for that donor in your previous communication. And here’s a tip. Treat foundations and corporations like individuals. I know that a lot of smaller organizations rely heavily on grants and gifts from foundations and corporate foundations. Just like you would do with an individual giver, address your acknowledgement letter to the person who signed your award letter.

And moving on, communicate with your donors. Let them know what you’re doing periodically, even without, you know, if it’s just an email or just a short letter, include them on your events list even if you don’t think they will come. They will at least know more about you and about this institution, this a little organization, a small organization, large, or whatever that they are supporting and what you’re doing in your community. Communicate with your foundations and corporate donors and not just when you are getting a gift.

So here are five touch points for personalizing. Of course, there’s thank you. What aspect of your organization’s mission does this gift advance? There are invitations, congratulations, and we congratulate donors, major donors on personal or professional accomplishments that have nothing to do with us. Like, say, for instance, we’ve had several athletes get drafted by the NFL. And when we hear that, we always send them a little note of congratulations. You know, they may not have been in a position to be donors before, but they will certainly be in the position to be donors after a couple of years with the NFL. So we make sure that we congratulate those people. And that’s just an example.

Condolences. Now, remember I said that death does not have to stop those gifts from coming. We wrote a condolence to the son of one of our important donors. She was a long time donor not a very big, big donor, but she was a longtime donor. And we wrote a condolence to him when she passed away and the son wrote back to us a very heartfelt letter of thanks, noting how pleased his mother would have been to know that he had received such a nice letter from the university and how important the university had been to her. And lastly, he said he looked forward to continuing to support our goals as his mother would have wished him to. And up until now, this son himself, and this is a grown man, actually, he’s in the UK, so he’s been away. But up until now, he himself had not been a donor to the university. So you can see how important it is to keep in touch with people, to acknowledge the giving of someone, the relationship of someone to your organization, even. If it’s been a couple of years, it’s also important, and it means the world to the people who are left behind.

And then this brings me to reporting, reporting in quantifiable terms about the number of people served and their circumstances, the number of animals saved, the amount of green space conserved, historic structures preserved, whatever it is that your organization does. Report in quantifiable terms and it will make people feel proud of themselves. And that’s what you want, not just proud of what you’re doing, but proud of themselves for being a part of this wonderful enterprise that you guys have going.

Here’s another little tip. At this point in time, email is working better than letters in some cases. When much of the country shut down, one of our leaders asked us to start sending emails rather than letters on his behalf, acknowledging donor contributions. And he started the email almost with an apology for the informality of using email rather than a letter to acknowledge their gift. But we were so pleasantly surprised to find that donors readily emailed back expressing appreciation for our responsiveness to their giving, talking about the good work we are doing in the face of the pandemic, wishing us well, and other positive sentiments. When donors write back in response to your expression of thanks, that’s how you know you’ve strengthened the relationship. Okay. Steven, how are we doing? We need any need any time?

Steven: You’re doing great. Keep on trucking, I’d say.

Valerie: All right. Thanks. Okay. So now we’re going to talk about the four elements of an effective program. And this is what we have put in place at Penn, certainly since I’ve been there. These are the four things that we emphasized. And these are what you need. You need access to information, a consistent editorial voice, an easy access letter tracking database of your own, and you need teamwork. Okay? Access to information, what kind of information do you think that you would need to personalize your communication? Are you asking the right questions? This is one thing I also would like to know. If you would show me, show of hands in the chat, how many of you work in education? Okay. How many of you worked in healthcare? Okay. How many you have you work in community services? Okay. How many of you work in the arts? Okay. And I had on my notes, like other. Do any of you work in a industry that I did not mention? Okay. Okay.

All right. So considering your industry, what are some of the questions that you might ask that will help you personalize your communications? These are some questions that came to mind for me because we always ask this, if it’s a current, past, or new donor? And well, for us, it would be maybe a student, this is a current student, but for others, a current participant, if you worked for arts organizations. Patient, parent, or patron. Has the sender seen the donor recently? This is when you need other people working with you to give you that kind of information. Does the donor have any volunteer roles, any important milestones coming up? And what is their giving history? To what program areas?

You’ll find the answers in your organization-wide database. And hopefully, most of you work for institutions that have that. In that organization-wide database, it should show you the donor’s giving history, program interests, relationship to the organization and volunteer roles, sometimes preferred salutation as what we were talking about, is it Mrs. Harris, or Ms. Harris, or Valerie, or Val? Knowing these kinds of things is key to helping you personalize your communications.

Well, what if you don’t have access to an organization-wide database? I go to these Ivy+ conferences like twice a year and I have consulted with some of my colleagues and some of them do not have access to the organizational-wide donor database. And they’re supposed to be doing the stewardship. If you don’t have access, that’s when you depend on frontline fundraisers at all levels. We depend on our major gift officers for the detailed information.

Those are the kind of people who can tell you if the donor has recently met with your leadership or seen them at an event, and you could add that little personal touch that says, like, for instance, “I enjoy seeing you at the polar bear gala last month and I look forward to the time when we can be together again.” Little notes like that we always put on there. But we need frontline fundraisers to tell us those kinds of things. So in my shop, we do have access to the database, but we work both entities. We work the fundraisers as well. Either we reach out to them before we start the communication or we have them review the letter before it goes out. So you have to build that relationship. If you don’t have, that’s a very important relationship to have readily available to.

And the last place to get the information is in your own letter tracking database. It will make your life so much easier if you have some kind of system on your desktop that puts donor information you. If you don’t have this, you should create one for yourself and your team.

Your easy access letter tracking database. This is where you readily see your communications history with the donor and it gives you quick access to information to help you personalize your current correspondence. So it should be a record of what you wrote to them last, so help you write to them this time.

An easy access letter tracking database, there’s a whole lot of software out there that you can choose from. But the most important thing is that it is customizable for your needs. Easily searchable, has the notes on the last letter or email sent, if they gave a gift before, how much and where did they give, and any space for personal notes. Now, the kind of personal notes that we put in ours is like, say, for instance, some donors only want their correspondence from you to go to their business address. Sometimes there’s a husband and a wife and they’re both giving and they want separate letters. Sometimes they’re in separate places. Whatever the deal is, you should have some kind of space that you can put that personal note there. And always, always, always honor your donor’s preferences.

Here’s what I can readily see on mine. And believe me, ours is very simple, but it does the trick. So we know the donor’s name, the relationship, last communication, all that stuff. Thank you. The last thing that we wrote to them, was it a thank you? Was it a congratulations? Was it condolence? And also, who reviewed or approved it? And finally, the amount of the last pledge or gift. It’s nice if your software allows you to paste a PDF of the last bit of correspondence so you can readily see how it was phrased. And you should think of this as tracking the giving and communications journey from first gift onward.

Okay. This is another part of the personalization package, consistent editorial voice. This is where the creative skill comes into development, communications, and donor retention. In my office, we write for two leaders. We write for the president and we write for the senior vice president of development. Their phrasing is distinctly different. Our job is to make sure communications are specific to them and consistent over time.

So how do you achieve consistent editorial voice? Know the sender’s tone or phrasing. And this played a big role in how I got my job at Penn. When I was interviewing for my job, I had to get to the second round of interviews. I had to create a fictitious letter from the president to a large donor acknowledging his support. There was a whole team of people who had to look at my writing and my approach, and I wanted my letter, my introduction, my job application letter to stand out.

So what I did was peruse the university’s website and found some statements that the president had up there. I also found some links to recorded messages from her and I listened to them until I felt I had a feel for not only the way she speaks, but the words that she uses and the personality she puts across. It’s a warm and gracious, and empathetic personality. So I put that in my letter and I know as I was doing the interview, that they said, “This sounds most like what we would do, what she would say.” So having never met her, that’s how I boned up on what would most likely sound like her. And that was a win for me.

Also, meet with your leaders periodically if you can and get their feedback on the communications you create for them. For instance, if you’re writing for somebody and they’re consistently changing what you do, you need to know that. You don’t want to keep on sending them what they’re not going to accept. So you need to get that feedback and develop that relationship with your leadership, that they give you their feedback. Also, any feedback that donors write to them based on what you’ve written for them. This provides a glimpse into how the donor views his or her relationship with the sender and with your organization.

And lastly, develop some word and phrasing guidelines and stick to them. For instance, if your sender does not use contractions like we’ll and don’t and so forth, then you don’t use contractions. We will, we do not, so on and so forth. But someone else may welcome the casualness or the colloquialism that is imparted when you do use contractions in your writing. So it depends on who you’re writing for, and who they’re writing to, and what the relationship is, all these things that you need to keep in mind. But whatever you do, be consistent, whether you’re writing for one person or two people, or even if you are the signer, set the tone and be consistent. Personalized communications are addressed to a particular person and they should sound like they come from a particular person.

So the last bit, the last element of an effective personalization communications program is teamwork. And let me share another little story with you about the importance of adequate staffing and teamwork. We share donors a lot with large organizations of our type. So as I said, I go to these Ivy+ meetings. It seems that one of my colleagues at a sister university, and we share a major donor who like given to both of our institutions. However, she tells me that the donor wrote to her development office stating that the acknowledgement that he had received from us came weeks earlier than what he had received from them and this made him feel that we valued him more and that his gift meant more to us than it did to them.

So my counterpart was telling me . . . she was asking me how we were able to implement such a timely turnaround. But as we talked, I learned that while their leadership and their fundraisers were doing a great job, the stewardship communications office was having a hard time keeping up. Her team was actually about half the size of mine and working virtually in isolation from the development officers.

So what does your team look like? Are you a one-person shop? If so, these are the things you have to do. And I’ve been here. I’ve had to do this myself. First of all, make relationship building a priority. Position yourself as a partner to frontline fundraisers. You need them to supply you the details that will help you do your job and they need you to get out timely correspondence to valuable donors. So try to . . . if you have to call them, if you have to say, “Can we have coffee? Do you have a minute to talk to me?” Whatever, you and the frontline fundraisers need to be on the same page, you need to be on first name basis and they need to accept hearing from you as a natural course of things.

You might also want to start with templates. You know, we do templates every year. We change them every year. They’re tailored to our most commonly designated entities where the money goes like to the annual fund, or to capital, or to scholarships, or to fellowships. So we have these templates and we tweak them and personalize them as appropriately. So that’s a great time saver for somebody who does not have a lot of people working with them.

And lastly, build that database, get that database. I don’t care if it’s Excel or if it’s sophisticated, like Bloomerang or anybody, get that database, because that’s the information that is going to help you get your correspondence out in a timely manner and with the appropriate salutations and all of that. And you need that at the ready. So get one, determine what information you need, and then tweak it for layout and functionality as it fits your needs.

So say you have a team. Okay, it’s not just you, you have a team, but maybe you feel like you might need more. If you wanted to get this personalization thing going, maybe it doesn’t take up huge budget, but it does take some time. It does take research. It does take some diligence and consistency. Maybe you need another person on board. Tie your team’s communications to your organization’s fundraising success. That’s how you make the case for more.

How many personalized communications have you sent to donors? Can you show the increase of acknowledgement that you’re doing from year to year? What kind of feedback are you getting? What would additional staff allow you to do and how would that impact your communications? All of these things are things that you can report back on to help you build the case for a stronger stewardship communications team. One that will help with your donor retention and help with your financial health.

Scale practices to fit your team. Giving your current resources, what could you adapt now that we’ve talked about today? What could you do now, given your current resources? Without adding anybody else, what could you do? With the people you have on hand, what’s a reasonable turnaround time for you? We try to respond to people of a certain amount within five days of the gift, and if it’s a higher amount or a rush, 48 hours. That’s what we can do and that’s what we strive to do. But if you can’t do that, do whatever you can do. Make it policy and be consistent with it.

With your team, get on the same page. Make sure that everybody is, you know, going in the same direction, meet regularly with them to talk about issues, addressing your performance as a team, put a process in place, put processes in place. One of ours is a second pair of eyes on everything.

I recently received something from another office and it said, “A $10 gift from so-and-so.” And so that was a $10 million gift from so and so, so that was a big error. And she told me, “Nobody was around to proofread it.” That’s not acceptable. Second pair of eyes on everything is one of our policies. And you will do, you know, what you need to do to make things work for you.

On the people level with your team, maybe develop a team mission statement or a set of team values and link these to the business outcomes that the team desires. We did this, we framed them, hung it up in my office and so on, and everybody had it in their little office and everything so that we know that our whole thing is to write targeted, personalized communications that helps donors make our institution a philanthropic priority. That’s the mindset we’re working from. And a mission statement will help you and your team develop a winning mindset as well.

Terms of the team. Diversity does matter. Middle managers often have difficulty embracing diversity and inclusion efforts because we often don’t see how diversity and inclusion kind of fits with what we’re trying to do, which is optimizing day-to-day operations. Like we’re trying to sell things, retain donors, produce things, and all that. So we sometimes don’t wrap our minds around diversity and inclusion bit and how important it is. But as the country is changing and as people are becoming more aware of the inequities that we have been dealing with for years, companies are paying more attention. Organizations are paying more attention.

So take advantage of some of the training opportunities that help you understand the social ethics of workplace diversity and its contribution to the bottom line. And it will only make you better. Bringing great talent and tapping into underutilized talent should be among your top business goals anyway. So it’s going to make you better if you pay attention to the diversity of your team.

And you may have seen this. It’s more than ethnicity and gender of, there are lots of diversity, aspects of diversity that play into it. Whether it is marital or parental status, geographical background, spirituality, recreational habits, everything. I personally do not like a team of all anything, because then, you know, I always just feel like I’m missing something. So when you’re hiring or promoting, think about what’s missing on your team. Maybe you need somebody who’s very strong in the editorial space. Maybe you need someone who is good at maintaining data. Check your biases at the door when it comes to what that person might look like because they come in all shades, talents, and everything else.

The other thing that you can do is consider the reality of what’s already in their place. For me, it’s been a plus to have a sports enthusiast on my team. My president is a sports nut. You can see her at all the university games. You can see her on nationally televised games in the audience. And then we have a lot of donors who give to our athletics and recreational program. So it’s great to have a writer on staff and granted, I did not hire him because of his vast sports knowledge, but once I found out about it, then I capitalized on it because when I get gifts from people who are giving to athletics and giving to recreational programs, I know I can call on my guy to channel the voices of the president and the senior vice president and so forth and talk to the donor from that same place of enthusiasm. What I have learned is that a team that is diverse in backgrounds, personality, life experiences, and interests can speak to a donor population who is diverse as well. And that is the bottom line for us in terms of our development communications.

So you have everything going, you got access to information, you got a great team. You put down consistent and timely communications. You’re touching on the touch points. It’s not just thank you. You’re tracking what you said before. How do you know it’s working? So I will give you a hint. It is going to take time. Can you commit to a two to three-year window to watch personalization increase your donor retention rate by say 8% or more and incrementally beyond that?

Here’s some of the data that you can start collecting almost immediately that will help you understand to what extent personalization is working for you. These are the metrics that I use to help tie our donor-centric communications to the financial success of a fiscal year or to our making history campaign and the current campaign that we’re in. How many personalized donor letters and emails are sent?

I’m going to tell you, I used to feel like stewardship communications was like the stepchild of the fundraising team. And I learned that what you measure gets managed, it gets staff put there, it gets resources put there because what you measure gets noticed. So leadership needs to know how many letters you’re getting out there, how many emails are sent, how quickly your gifts are being acknowledged, the number of donors receiving your touch point other than thank you.

Donors writing back in response to your gift acknowledgement or touch point. Donors responding positively to your response to an inquiry or a complaint. You cannot ignore these under this, unless it’s like somebody that’s totally off the wall. If someone has a complaint, like say, for instance, we get this one a lot. Say a donor’s child applies for admission and they don’t get in. You better believe we often hear about that and we don’t just blow them off. We have nice language that we send to them. We want them to come back to the fold. We understand their disappointment, but whatever the kind of complaints that you might get, you should respond to them because a lot of times donors will then respond positively to you.

And then we get down to the nitty-gritty, first time donors making a second gift and repeat donors making increasingly larger gifts. You’ll see this in your letter tracking and your system, but this is where you really partner with the fundraisers because teamwork makes the dream work. I mean, you are their partner in getting these important communications out to the donors that they value and who support your organization.

So I am going to stop there. And I hope that you’ve picked up some practices that you can apply to your own donor relations program or that I’ve confirmed some of the good things you’re already doing. And if we have any time for a few questions, I’ll be happy to take them.

Well, I got all the time in the world for you, Valerie. So you tell me when it’s too much, but we do have some awesome questions here. But first, thank you. It was such a joy to hear from you because it’s rare that I meet, you know, another donor retention fanatic like I am. So this was cathartic and edifying for me. So thank you. Thank you. We’re getting a lot of cool chats in here. I think people are appreciating it too. And I love the, you know, the first person approach because you’ve done all this stuff. I got a couple of good ones here that I think you can sink your teeth into. You know, you mentioned mentioning maybe things that are happening in donors’ lives or recent milestones. How did you all find that information? Were you maybe poring over newspaper articles, Google results? How did you . . . Yeah.

Valerie: We do Google alerts.

Steven: Oh, smart.

Valerie: They’re usually it’s like, “Must be somebody in one of the other offices whose whole job must be Google alerts.” Because they’ll say, “Oh, can we send a congratulations to so and so? He just got promoted to such, and such, and such.” And it has nothing to do with us, except that he is either a donor or he is on the board and all of that. And we even write to people, we even write to donors who make huge gifts elsewhere and congratulate them on their on their civic mindedness or whatever. But we do congratulate and talk to people who do things outside of us. And Google alerts is one thing that we do. And plus, once when we get a request to write to somebody, we traditionally Google them anyway to find out what’s going on in their lives.

Steven: I love that. I love congratulating someone when they make a gift elsewhere. That’s really cool. That’s amazing. Awesome. We’ve got another one from Katie. What about memorial gifts, Valerie? And I’m not too familiar with the higher ed world, but did you get a lot of memorial gifts? And how did you approach those people? Because I know that’s a hard one, to retain those folks because there may not be a big connection, but any experience there?

Valerie: Now, I’ll tell you the truth. I am not a fundraiser myself, but we do get gifts that are made . . . if this is what you mean, like we get gifts that are made in honor of someone or as a tribute to someone. Oh, yes. And we definitely mention that when we acknowledge the letter. We definitely mention that. We are notified about that. We get a gift report every day and it’ll say whether the gift is made in honor of somebody or in tribute to someone, and that’s definitely a part of our communications back.

Steven: And you would include that. It seems like not including that would be kind of the pitfall, right? Because . . .

Valerie: Right. You never want to sound tone deaf. You never want to sound like whoever is signing your letter doesn’t know everything that’s going on with this donor and the institution. And we kind of made fun of that. We used to make fun of that, like who is, you know, our president? She likes Santa Claus. She’s everywhere. She knows everything. She’s a tooth fairy. But the thing is, yeah. When it comes to this institution, yeah. She is.

Steven: I love it. You touched on this briefly, but a couple people are asking about phone calls. It seems like, you know, in this era of social distancing, quarantine, that would be kind of powerful right now. Is that something that you’ve been kind of employing as part of the mix of communication?

Valerie: Fundraisers do call people. They are definitely calling people and it seems like people are calling us too. Because I don’t work personally with donors, I only like the people to call donors who have the personal relationship with donors because you never want to have . . . and we’ve had this too. You don’t want to have a person who is in an administrative position or an ancillary relationship to the donor saying something that the fundraiser would prefer not be said. Right?

Steven: That makes sense.

Valerie: So the person who was closest to the donor should be the one who calls the donor. But, of course, like in the annual giving space, there’s almost like, you know, like a phone bank of people and they call in and everything. So those people, evidently they have a script, they know what to say and what not to say and they know when to kick it up to someone higher to respond to the donor.

Steven: Cool. That makes sense.

Valerie: But emails, emails, we are doing a lot of emailing.

Steven: Yeah. Okay. That makes sense. Yeah. We’ve seen that in our customers’ emails and phone calls right now, at least since March being kind of the top two, that tracks. Well, you’ve already been really gracious with your time. I know we’re a little over. Maybe one more, Valerie, since it’s your birthday and you need to celebrating. Some people here asking about giving level thresholds, right? Is there kind of an alarm bell that goes off in your system when someone gives above a certain amount? Do you set kind of a threshold like above this amount, people get a phone call below it’s maybe an email, a handwritten note? Is that part of your scheme? Because that was a lot of different opinions on that. Curious your take.

Valerie: Well, okay. I work in a very decentralized institution and my team primarily works with the president’s office. We will be notified, and a lot of times this happens, when she makes the phone call to the person. If she has called the person, then our letter will say, “It was great talking with you, but I wanted to formally acknowledge your giving,” such and such and such. So that there is a record of communication. The paper trail is very important. It’s not a receipt that you would get from the accounting office, but it can stand instead of a receipt if it needs to. So the phone calling does happen. People do thank for that. I know that for us thresholds, we write for the president at $25,000 and above. But even if you’re making a $5,000 gift for whatever kind of gift you’re making, somebody is going to thank you. Whether it’s somebody in the Dean’s office or wherever, somebody is going to thank you. No gift goes unacknowledged.

Steven: Okay. Depends who’s doing it at that time.

Valerie: Yes.

Steven: That makes sense. Well, I can talk about this stuff all day. I know we’re already a little over time and I’m appreciative that, geez, you know, 200 people are sticking around 10 minutes late, but Valerie, this is awesome. We got your contact info here. Is it okay if folks reach out to you? Because obviously you’re a wealth of knowledge and an awesome host. Yeah.

Valerie: Absolutely. You can connect with me on LinkedIn and you can also connect with me via email at

Steven: Nice. And we’ll be sending out the slides, the recording. I put a couple other things in the chat, but if you missed them, I’ll put them in that email as well. Valerie, we might have to have you back to talk about team building because I really enjoyed your last few slides.

Valerie: I love talking about team building.

Steven: Yeah. Let’s talk about that. Well, maybe we convince on your next birthday to come back.

Valerie: Or before then.

Steven: Yeah. We don’t to have to make it a tradition, I guess. Valerie, this is awesome. Thanks for doing this. Really enjoyed it. And thanks to all of you for hanging out. You know, I know it’s a busy time of year. I got a lot going on. But, you know, obviously a good presentation. And we got a good one coming up tomorrow. That’s right. It’s a double header. Valerie got us kicked off. My buddy, Stefanie, going to talk about leadership. Actually, you pretty well dovetail is out of this one. So if you are an ED, CEO, or maybe you’re on the board, that’s okay. We’d love to have you come on. Maybe if you’re an aspiring leader, join us tomorrow. Twenty four hours from now, a little under 24 hours, we’ll be talking about it. So visit our webinars site, our page. You can register for that. We also got some cool webinars coming up on into February almost, and maybe another session from Valerie soon. But we’ll talk about that later. So we’ll call it a day there. Thanks again for joining us. Hopefully, we’ll talk to you tomorrow, but if not, hopefully we’ll see you again on another session. So have a good rest of your Wednesday. Stay safe, healthy. We need all of you out there. And we’ll talk to you again soon. Bye now.

Valerie: Bye all.

Steven: See you.

Valerie: See you. Can I look at this chats?

Steven: Yeah. I’ll send it to you. I’ll send you the transcript. Let me save it before we end here. Save. Okay. All right, Valerie. I’ll email you. See you, friend.

Valerie: All right. So how many people did I . . .

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.