How do we Keep our Donors?

Donor Retention.

Even the name of this topic sends chills down my spine. Donor retention is a constant battle. The segmentation, the plan, the “how do we keep our donors?” questions that occur when talking about donor retention. The stats that a good database can spit out telling you the percentage of donors retained over the past 1 to 3 years. Those same stats can tell you how many donors left during that same time. One of the ways I’ve found that helps me manage the “how do we keep our donors?” question is to think like a donor myself. I start to think about my own donations and how I view those organizations.

I’ve been the one-time donor, the donor that rolls off the donor list after 3-5 years, and the long-term donor earning me a spot on the planned giving mailing list. With each type of donor I have been comes a reason. The one-time donor is typically because a friend asked me to give to something she/he was interested in (the peer-to-peer fundraising campaign). When I am the donor that gives for 3-5 years and then stops is typically because that phase of my life is over, and the organization, while still important, does not have as much to do with my personal goals as it once did. As a long-term donor, those organizations have impacted my life in some way that makes me want to continue my giving (think education and religious organizations).

As a fundraiser, the term donor centric is used often when writing a development plan. As the plan for donor centricity is developed, the one concept that always seems to get lost in the mix is the donor. We all strive to put the donor first. But, when the overall plan is finalized, the bottom line of “how much money?” takes over.

The reasons for why this happens are plentiful. You thought you kept the donor at the center of the plan. You just knew the donor would respond to this idea or that. Your board said so. Your CEO said so. You CFO said so. The consultant said so. Your development team said so. And the list goes on and on. But, did the donor say so? The bottom line, when we implement a plan putting the donor first, how many of us take the time to TALK to the donor. There is not enough time in the world to talk to every donor you have, but there are ways to gather information about what your donor wants. Select a sample of donors (not just the ones you know best) and ask questions.

The questions don’t have to be doctoral style research. Ask basic questions:

  • Why do you give to us?
  • Tell me the story of your first donation that truly had meaning to you.
  • What organization do you give to most often and why?
  • What keeps you giving?
  • How do you like to be thanked?

When we take the time to get to know our donors, retention comes naturally. Simply expecting donors to continue to give year after year without any personal connection is the same as Clark Griswold expecting his yearly bonus and receiving the jelly of the month club instead. Without personal connection, the gifts can change or go away completely.

So what is it that makes these organizations keep receiving my gifts or stop? There is no one answer. And when you talk to donors, each will have a different reason for giving, what the organization means to them, and why it’s on their donation list. For me, it’s personal connection. My connections fall into three main categories: personal, business, and friends/family. I give to the schools that I’ve attended. Why? They gave me the foundation of everything I know today. I see how they are constantly growing and impacting students. I receive information from them on a regular basis with stories of success and how my donations are making an impact.

I give to organizations of which I am a member or employee. Why? I am a big believer that you have to give where you are. If I am a member of an organization that offers an annual fund, I give. If I’m working for an organization that has an employee campaign, I give. It’s a lot easier to talk to a donor prospect when you are a donor yourself.

The third grouping is where most of my random giving comes in- friends and family. Almost everyone I know is involved in fundraising in one way or another. If it’s important to you, and you are a good friend of mine or close family member, chances are I will give if I can. Sometimes I stay a donor with these organizations over time, other times it’s a one and done type of donation.

No matter what your thoughts are on donor retention, how it plays into your development plan, remember the donor. Not every donor loves your organization the same way that you do. Donors have their own story of why. Don’t get caught up in the “how much money?” when the real question is “why us?”

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