Donor Retention Continues Its Haphazard Slide: What You Can Do About It

By on Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Association of Fundraising Professionals released its annual survey on fundraising effectiveness recently, and its results should make everyone in the nonprofit world sit up and pay attention.

We are not doing the right things to promote donor retention. We need connection and relationship – not warm fuzzies for a one-time check. The study shows that nonprofits lost 103 donors, for every 100 they gained. There’s a lot of churn in donor retention with only 43 percent of donors being retained in 2013. That’s less than half.

Should we take these results as a sign? That donors are voting with their feet – choosing to invest once in an organization’s work, and then moving on to invest in something else that tickles their fancy? Or is this a sign of malaise or failure within the nonprofit world? Do we inspire people to donate once, and then fail to connect with them or engage with them? Are we only raising funds in ways that rely on emotion, one hit appeals, and emergencies? I’m concerned about the health of the nonprofit world. And you should be too.

Nonprofits will be reduced to a never ending “survival of the fittest and the biggest” cycle, if they do not start thinking out of the box about relationship-building with donors. The study found that the largest growth in gift dollars/donors came from new gifts/donors, and the pattern was most pronounced in the organizations with the highest growth-in-giving ratios. Over the last nine years, donor and gift or dollar retention rates have consistently been weak — averaging below 50 percent.

So what do you do about it? Here are a few ideas:

Focus on relationship-building with donors, not just campaign execution. Do some old-fashioned fundraising. Be prepared to drink coffee, eat food, talk a lot on the phone and possibly travel. Talk with people where they are comfortable. The conversation should start with saying thank you. Make relationship-building a priority – that means clear someone’s time, find a volunteer, and craft an approach for welcoming and engaging your new donors within the lifeblood of your organization.

Always say thank you.  Remember to always thank a donor for a gift or effort to help your organization. Some donors view getting treat-os like a calendar or a gift from you as a “waste” of nonprofit resources – while others appreciate small gestures of thanks. “Saying” thank you though is simple and should be done in a sincere way (and not just with an automated form email).

Listen to your donors. Why did they give to your nonprofit in the first place? What makes them tick? What is their opinion of your organization and work? How does he or she like to be communicated with? How does he or she like to be acknowledged? What does he or she care about personally and professionally?

Look for other ways to engage and involve your donors. Long-time fundraisers know that it takes time to grow a large gift.  Invite a new donor to volunteer if they can and if your organization has appropriate roles for them to play. Offer a tour of a program or facility for new donors. Or sponsor a coffee chat with the executive director or someone who has benefited from your program, so donors can ask questions and learn in an intimate setting how the organization is making a difference, organized, etc. Ask someone with limited personal time and big time credentials to be on an honorary committee or honorary board or ask them if they are comfortable providing a quote with a photo that you can feature on your website in an honorary supporter section (essentially loaning their name to you).

Analyze your own data. As part of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, the survey’s sponsors developed two downloadable Excel-based templates that nonprofits can use to produce their own Growth-in-Giving reports, enabling them to measure their Gain/Loss performance over time and against the statistics in the appendices of the annual Fundraising Effectiveness Project reports. See reports for previous years.


Blog Post: One Thing Most Nonprofits Stink at (Donor Retention) and How You Can Change It in 2014

Donor Retention Matters (The Urban Institute)

Talk to Us: How are you retaining donors?

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites. She blogs frequently about media relations, social media and work-family balance. She also reviews books on her blog. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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