Donor Retention—A Call to Action and to Organization-wide Quality Performance

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Are you as tired as I am of hearing about donor retention?

Well, don’t get tired yet! Because charities do such a lousy job of retaining donors that writers and researchers and speakers and bloggers are going to keep banging this drum until the nonprofit charitable sector gets its act together…and actually retains donors!

Talk. Talk. Talk. Beat the drum. Beat it over and over and over.

But, the bottom line: Organizations (and fundraisers and bosses and boards) are not doing the work. So retention rates continue to be an embarrassment of epic proportions.

More than a decade ago, The Agitator (Roger Craver and Tom Belford) wrote, “Loyalty is the Holy Grail of Fundraising.” And actually, loyalty is the Holy Grail of any business and any friendship.

Conduct your own mini–research campaign. Ask people in different professions what the customer retention rates are expected to be and what they actually are at their organizations. Ask the banker and the drugstore manager, the librarian and accountant, and the attorney.

Forget smart business for a moment. Just think about being nice and respectful. If nice and respectful and caring doesn’t work, then think about smart business.

 

Doing the right stuff

First: There is absolutely no question that loyalty (retention of customers or donors) is the best way to sustain and build a business. No question! So stop discussing how important this is!

Second: You aren’t doing your job if you don’t read the professional literature and follow the research. I know you’re busy. So is everyone. But this is a profession and you’re supposed to be the professional.

Third: You aren’t doing your job even worse if you don’t apply the stuff that you read and learn about.

Fourth: Part of your job is finding, securing, making the time to do the right stuff.

Fifth: Part of your job is explaining and justifying to your boss. Showing and telling to your board and the program staff and so on. Most of this work is organizational development. And that means you have to learn about organizational development and behavior. That’s what fundraising professionals need to learn. (And so do all senior staff, by the way.)

There are lots of authors and coaches and mentors to help you do all five items noted above. It’s your job to learn, and keep trying, and succeed and fail, and do it again and again and again.

Then, look in the mirror. Did you try your best and hardest over and over and over? But progress is still insufficient? If you’re actually enabling people well, then the problem may well be your boss and board and… You deserve better. Make every effort to find another job.

So start implementing the five steps described previously. Improve your implementation.

Start with reading the right stuff, from people and organizations like: Tom Ahern. The Agitator. Jeff Brooks. Agents of Good. The Fundraising Effectiveness Project (FEP). Leah Eustace. Nonprofit Storytelling Conference. Mark Phillips at Bluefrog. Ken Burnett. Beth Ann Locke. Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. SOFII.

 

Then talk

Yes, it’s really that simple…and that complicated.

Have meaningful conversations with the players in your own organization. Share stories of their lives and experiences and worries and fears. Engage your boss and board members in conversations about their experiences as customers and donors and trusted people.

Listen and actually hear. Watch and learn. Embrace and practice empathy, for others and for yourself.

Do all this, for yourself and with yourself, for others and with others. Then you’ll be embracing donor-centrism. And that builds donor retention, and that’s loyalty.

 

Strategies

Invite people to share their best (and worst!) customer experiences. The rules: Only marketplace customer experiences. No talking about charitable giving and nonprofits. Ask people to find the similarities between the various examples. Identify the key concepts. Then, engage people in a conversation about how these concepts apply to charitable giving and nonprofits and donor experiences.

Invite people to share their best (and worst!) donor experiences. Invite people to explore how their donor experiences are similar to and differ from what happened during their customer experiences. Together, identify the concepts from the marketplace and the charitable sectors that must be in place to build trust and loyalty, thereby increasing donor retention. Staff should be drawing the threads together and referencing the concepts from the fundraising body of and research about retention/loyalty in fundraising.

Focus on your organization. Ask people to compare their donor experiences elsewhere with their donor experiences at your organization. Together, identify the barriers to performing optimally at your organization, and identify the ways to overcome the barriers.

Share interesting blogs and videos with your colleagues to reinforce the loyalty theme. Find the right stuff for the right audience. Staff has to be reading and viewing the information in order to find the right items to share in the particular nonprofit. You’ll find something great for the program staff or the senior management. For the board’s fund development committee or the event committee. For the board meeting. For your boss. Share at the appropriate time, in the appropriate setting. That could be a board meeting, or a staff meeting, or over lunch. Talk about the meaning and the value and the implications of these readings and blogs and videos for your organization.

  • 79% and change. That’s the retention rate of our non-profit. It has been for decades.

    We take every opportunity to express to our donors our appreciation for their support. We regularly communicate the impact and outcomes of their support. We have a program by which every donor receives a personal phone call thanking them for their support at least once each year. No ask, just thank you. Thanking donors is part of the staff culture. Our executive director has modeled ‘donor-centric’ throughout his tenure.

    Assuring donors at every opportunity of their continued value to the organization will create loyalty.

    • simonejoyaux

      Lovely, Ken. Communicate impact. Make the donor the hero. Thank and thank and thank again. Take a look at the relationship building research being done by the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.

  • Derek Glass

    Simone, nobody with a healthy self esteem should accept your insulting claim that charities are doing a lousy job, or that we all need to get our acts together. Charities are not full of slackers. What makes your negative thinking even more insulting is that apparently, the “solution” is to hire “experts” like you, your husband, and Roger Craver. We just need to stop asking questions, read your books and do what you say. This is not just psychologically abusive and self serving, it is also not the real answer to improving retention at all. I suggest you just get out of our way, stop ridiculing, scolding and humiliating us and let us do the jobs we are already doing, quite well thank you.