On the issue of pumping more revenue out of your current donor base, I learned from Uncle Roger and Uncle Tom at The Agitator: “On average, we have found that if you have 5,000 donors, a 10 point increase in retention could mean $175,000 in additional net income … 10,000 donors and you put an additional $350,000 to your bottom line … 20,000 donors, $700,000 … and so forth.”

Better retention? It could be for fundraising what fracking was for US oil industry, releasing entirely new reserves.

Tom Ahern——

On the question of just how you do retain more donors, I learned (again from The Agitator): “A three-minute thank you call will boost 1st year retention by 30%.”

Which reminded me of something I’d learned in 2012 from The Agitator as well: how Uncle Angel Aloma, the ED at Food for the Poor and a brilliant donor communicator, raked in an extra $450,000 in generosity from 25,000 select donors. His secret? He was extra grateful. At the beginning of the year, he sent an extra thank you note to these donors, without any ask.


When I, the donor (a.k.a., the customer), “buy” you (my charming new charity), I’m in an emotional state: a state of enjoyment.

I like helping. I enjoy doing good. Being generous. Truly. Physically. When I act that way, my brain feeds me dopamine rewards. That particular stimulus/response is built into human wiring. If I could afford to write checks to charity all day, I’d stay high as a kite.

But there is also a phenomenon let’s call “donor’s remorse.”

It’s just like buyer’s remorse: an oppressive feeling of disappointment and doubt that you’ve made a bad purchase decision. It’s a feeling of potential loss that happens immediately and automatically as soon as the first gift is completed.

I’m feeling it right now. I just gave $500 of my hard-earned income to a political candidate whom I trust and admire. And yet I wonder….

Donor’s remorse is immediate because, as Uncle Alan Clayton loudly and often points out, all emotions are instantaneous.

Should we despair? No: fundraisers can to a large degree control donor’s remorse.

They can, for instance, reverse it, through effective “new donor communications” (think “welcome kit”). You can quickly convert donor’s remorse into a strong platform for long association and cultivation, by substituting a positive emotion for a negative … but DO put the emphasis on the quickly.

Angel Aloma’s secret to success was brilliantly obvious: Deliver more gratitude than expected.

You know, it’s amazing how many charities do gratitude badly.

Step #1 in any recovery is simple: “Admit the problem.” (Angel Aloma did. In 2005 he realized that Food for the Poor was doing low-yield “corporate” rather than high-yield “donor-centered” communications … and the rest is Christ-centered, feeding-the-desperately-hungry, largest-US-international-relief-and-development-agency history.)

Are the right people on the bus, Uncle Jim Collins might ask?

You have charity staff themselves vandalizing successful fundraising, calling it “poverty porn,” which

[apparently?] donors watch for some very wrong and ugly reasons. The burning question for our industry, for our times: Do donors get off on the suffering of others?

Oh: then you have the idiots who think we need to re-engineer our donors and their innate charitable impulses. By the way, have you seen Eric Friedman’s new book, Reinventing Philanthropy? Read how the smartest guy in the room sees the charity industry.


Impact Communications taught me: “When asked, what’s the single biggest reason donors say they stop giving to an organization? Over-solicitation. But ask them what that means and they explain, ‘They asked me for another gift before they told me what they did with the last one.’ So over-solicitation is really under-communication and failed donor stewardship.”


I asked a veteran observer, “Why do you think the fundraising industry can’t get its act together? I don’t think I’ve seen a positive metric since 2008.”

“Well, there’s online,” she said without much enthusiasm.

Et tu, online?


Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign used email appeals to raise $690 million from 4.5 million people. That’s an average gift of $153; not small change.

Online giving is increasing: steadily, reassuringly, predictably. Yet at this time its total remains an un-transformative fraction of the giving pie (omitting Mr. Obama’s success).

Shall we be a teensy bit analytical?

For one obvious thing, some of the steady, annual increase in online giving simply doesn’t count as big news. It’s simply a shift in fulfillment habits amongst the philanthropically inclined; you know, those people.

They’re moving away from the relative inconvenience of check-writing to the relative convenience of clicking on things.

If the Internet has done any one thing to massively change human behavior, it’s the introduction of clicking. It turns us all into genies: we click and something happens. It makes passivity (staring at a screen) into action. How great is that? 


Welcome at last: young donors

The only truly “new” (introduced decades ago) bright spot in donor acquisition and retention for established charities seems to be ‘street’ fundraising.

It’s an acquisition method for monthly contributions that’s called ‘face-to-face’ fundraising outside the United States. It’s also derided where it’s long established as “chugging” (charity mugging). It can be pretty intrusive in a rich city like London.

It happens on the sidewalks, between well-trained and personable younger people … and their peers. As a 60-something I have walked utterly unmolested (giggling) down a busy sidewalk lined with “chuggers.” I was invisible to their radar because of my advanced age.

Done right, street fundraising’s ability to hoover up huge numbers of never-seen-before younger donors is truly amazing. There is a PR stumbling block: the first 11 months of a new donor’s gifts are transferred to the for-profit company that trained the chuggers, last time I checked.

Do charities STILL net huge increases in giving, to fund growth of the mission? Yes, they absolutely do.

Which, Charity Navigator and other one-size-fits-all evaluators, is ALL you really need to know: the mission is growing. More are being helped.

Take this factoid with your morning coffee:

About a fifth of the annual charitable income in Australia now arrives via monthly gifts that were mostly obtained from 20-to-40-somethings with credit cards … and a willingness to try to save the world.

Younger donors? They are signing up in droves.

Just NOT by the traditional methods. (Though you’d think after 25 years street fundraising would be deemed “conventional.” That’s an entire generation, after all.)

This post originally appeared in the Ahern Communications newsletter.

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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