With a significant philanthropic uptick in response to a pandemic and renewed drive for racial equity in recent months, there is a unique opportunity in 2021 to drive fundraising with a robust retention program. Committing to building relationships with newly acquired donors to nurture ongoing support represents an area of potential that is rarely seen.
Why is 2021 the year of retention?
For many nonprofits, the unique conditions of COVID-19 generated a banner fundraising year. Americans were moved to ease the suffering of their neighbors and expressed their desire to help social causes. The Black Lives Matter movement also generated strong emotions that spurred donations to a wider variety of organizations. And Americans concerned about the sustainability of their favorite charities responded generously to appeals for support.
In short, with all the drama and disruption of the year of COVID—because of it—2020 provided opportunities for nonprofits prepared to make good use of the reanimated spirit of generosity. For only the second time in at least a decade, nonprofits experienced a spike in new donors. According to the Association for Fundraising Professionals’ Fundraising Effectiveness Project, organizations saw an average increase of 18.5%.
Consider what this new pool of donors represents: an opportunity to establish relationships, build more engagement, show impact, and retain donors over time. However, these episodic donors require intentional and focused stewardship if they are to continue supporting your cause once the fervor has dissipated and the immediacy of the disaster has passed.
Retention Is Critical!
Nonprofits should seek to increase revenue and fulfill their missions by recruiting new donors and scaling up existing donors. But without an effective retention program that maintains existing supporters, all that effort can amount to running in place. Acquiring new donors annually without working to retain current donors is the equivalent of filling a leaky bucket: At best, it is an inefficient way to increase fundraising; at worst, it is a recipe for draining the coffers.
According to the Blackbaud Institute’s Charitable Giving Report, roughly 60 percent of existing donors renew each year, meaning that nearly a third of all donors do not renew. When looking at first-time donors, that rate is compounded. For new donors, nearly two-thirds never make a second gift.
And this is not a new phenomenon. As Roger Craver, editor of The Agitator, noted back in 2012, “…day in day out, thousands of nonprofits pour the bulk of their marketing and fundraising dollars into a leaky retention bucket, seemingly oblivious to this gigantic waste that endangers their very future.”
Though smaller, a similar rise in donor acquisition and wave of new support came in 2017, as highlighted in the second installment of the Vital Signs series. It was prompted in part by a contentious political environment, a mass shooting in Las Vegas, and a parade of hurricanes. However, after that year’s uptick, nonprofits were unable to maintain the momentum, and retention continued to decline.
Donors are slipping through charities’ fingers every year, and they are leaving faster than they are being replaced. Research shows that the social good landscape is financed by fewer households every year.
Donor retention is a tremendous challenge, but it is also a shimmering opportunity. This toolkit examines why retention matters and explores best practices for building relationships that keep donors giving and delight them into increasing their support. Improving retention rates has never been so urgent.
How well is your organization retaining its donors? You can determine the raw numbers using your own data, but context is important. To put your results in the proper perspective, benchmark them against relevant indices. For example, it might unnerve you to discover that your overall annual retention rate is barely above half until you learn that it puts your organization above the industry average.
The Long-Term Value of Retained Donors
General practices in new donor retention often unwittingly discount the value of experienced donors giving new gifts. The irony in this observation is the long-held and demonstrated wisdom that the best prospects for new donor solicitation are experienced donors. But the cost of failing to retain new donors is substantial.
Gaining one new donor cannot make up for the loss of an existing donor.
With the notable exception of those that have built substantial sustaining donor bases (which we examine further in the Retaining Through Sustaining chapter), we project that organizations across the sector need three or four new donors for every one multi-year donor they lose. The math is simple: You cannot replace a $100 multi-year donor from a donor class that renews at 70% with a new donor giving $50, who only has a 30% chance of being retained next year.
How can you retain new donors? In a nutshell, it is all about relationships. Start by getting to know your new donors. No one has to give to charity; all giving is voluntary. Yet nonprofit organizations spend a fraction of their budget—if they spend anything at all—learning who their donors are and what they think about.
First, you’ll need to get to know the donor marketplace in which you are operating. Regularly connect with staff and volunteers who are engaging with your donors to learn what they hear from new donors. Then, make donor research a non-discretionary fixture of annual fundraising, marketing plans, and budgets.
Know Your Benchmark
No nonprofit operates in a vacuum. Benchmarking is a tool that many social good organizations use to assess their performance compared to peers. It is used to generate standard performance metrics for fundraising, program delivery, and accounting to identify gaps in strategy or implementation.
Benchmarking can be applied against any organizational unit or department, function, process, or outcome. Any way you slice it, the goal of benchmarking is to identify the best practices and opportunities and to alter your processes for improvement as a result.
Benchmarking allows you to gain a higher-level view that can inform realistic goals while providing a framework for shifting practices in meaningful ways. This kind of knowledge is power—the power to expand your most successful practices and address ones that are underperforming.
Your goal will inform which specific metrics you track over time, but it is crucial to keep these consistent year over year. Remember to keep a high-level context and use metrics that reflect your true progress toward the organizational goals identified. Ensure that these metrics can be regularly and uniformly collected to easily compare the trends across long spans of time. You can also look to similar organizations in your field for ideas on which key metrics to track—using a common set will allow you to share information and benchmark across organizations as well.
Analyzing Donor Retention
Donors can be segmented by their motivations, methods of giving, donation levels and statuses, place in the buyer journey, geography, or a variety of other factors. The best segmentation efforts distinguish among donors in ways that link to segmented message strategies.
Segmenting first will necessitate multiple donor retention analyses, but they will unearth rich veins of information about each group.
1. Donor Retention Rate
Donor retention measures the percentage of donors who return to donate to your organization from one time period to another. Donor retention is typically calculated by dividing the number of donors in a current time period, like your current fiscal year, by the number of those same donors who also gave a gift in a previous period, like the last fiscal year.
2. Donor Attrition Rate
The donor attrition rate measures the percentage of donors who did not return within a particular giving level or donor category, or who did not give at all. We sometimes call this last group “LYBUNT,” which stands for “Last Year, But Unfortunately Not This.” Donor attrition is calculated by subtracting all donors who gave over a current time period from those who gave over a previous time period, then dividing that number by the total of all who gave last year. As a shorthand, attrition is also the remaining percentage after you’ve accounted for retained supporters over a given time period. In other words, 100% minus your retention rate.
3. Recency/Frequency/Monetary (RFM) History
This is often one of the first steps in helping you decide which prospects to contact with which message and ask amount.
- Recency is how recently a donor has made a gift. The more recently a donor has given, the more likely they will continue to keep you in mind for future gifts. Compared to a lapsed donor, recent donors can have a higher likelihood of engaging in future interactions or receiving gifts.
- Frequency is how often a donor gives. A donor who gives frequently or engages with you as a sustainer is likely to value your cause and attend in-person events or volunteer.
- Monetary value is how much a donor has given in donations. Your major givers will have a high monetary value, as they believe in your cause enough to give your organization a significant gift.
4. Donor Level Moves
This metric tracks how many donors have moved up or down and how long donors have stayed at the same level. This can be based on membership, category, or constituency code.
5. New vs. Recurring Donors
This metric reveals how many of your existing donors gave for the first time in the current year compared to how many donated prior to the current year.
6. Frequency of Engagement
Frequency of engagement measures how many points of contact per donor your organization makes. This can include emails, letters, phone calls, events, meetings, and any other types of contact you determine “engagement.”
7. Portfolio Status
Portfolio status is a solicitor performance metric that tracks the various stages of donor cultivation. This metric is essential to detecting what stage donors are in, how long they’ve been in that stage, and any movement between the stages.
Combined, these seven metrics offer a comprehensive view of your donor landscape and provide clues about the weak spots in your retention efforts, representing an opportunity for improvement. No matter what strategies your organization develops for its retention program, they must have an authentic relationship with the donor as their foundation, says Marc Pitman, The Fundraising Coach:
Every donor retention effort begins with information. In the age of big data, countless companies are turning their wealth of data into a valuable asset. But, unfortunately, the same is not true for many nonprofits.
Data should be an asset that enriches nonprofits and helps them grow. Data is valuable because it is the raw material of information and insight. But many organizations are keeping this treasure trove shelved away. They get overwhelmed by the data, fail to maintain it, or choose to ignore it.
If you want to know the answers to questions like “which supporters are the most loyal?,” “which email campaigns have been the most successful?,” or “what programs need to improve the most?,” then you need to leverage your data. Relying on previous experience or gut instinct alone will not help you drive results. The treasure can be found hidden everywhere in a nonprofit organization’s data.
Your data analysis will help you craft a retention policy that works for your specific organization and your various donor groups.
Keys to Improving Retention
Knowing your donors—and their relationship with your organization—is key to improving retention. Contextualizing donor relationships within a cycle can help you understand their needs.
First, donors are acquired, and then welcomed and thanked. Throughout these initial stages, it is your job to make a lasting first impression and express gratitude to your new supporters.
Next, as donors become even more familiar with you and your mission, your efforts should transition into a strategy for sustaining them and maintaining their interest to grow their value. As your supporters’ journeys evolve, you should continually evaluate their relationships, demonstrate impact, and adjust your communications as needed.
Here’s how to target your supporters depending on their stage the cycle.
Welcoming New Donors
The first step in your retention program will be welcoming new donors and allowing them to get to know your organization and your cause. In the wake of COVID-19 and its flood of new donors, this will have special urgency.
A welcome series is a series of emails sent to new supporters over time. It can educate and inspire new supporters without making them feel like you’re only reaching out to them for donations.
After an episodic influx of new donors, a welcome series is especially valuable. This is your organization’s one chance to make a first impression and frame the conversation with donors whose passion for your work might otherwise have proved fleeting.
According to the 2019 Blackbaud Luminate Online Benchmark, welcome series emails tend to outperform regular campaign emails. In 2019, welcome series emails boasted a solid 19.32% open rate (versus 15.56% for routine emails) and a 1.55% clickthrough rate (compared to 1.25% for routine emails). These numbers demonstrate the benefits of reaching out to people soon after they act in support of your organization.
Keep these best practices in mind as you build your welcome series:
- Decide on the key messages you’d like to express. Ensure that your message resonates with someone new to your organization by providing context behind your mission, like sharing your founding story or spotlighting an individual involved with you.
- Begin with a goal in mind. As you map out your series, what are your long-range goals? Ensure that your content reflects these goals. Maybe you are trying to recruit new volunteers, grow your social media presence, increase your sustainers, or all of the above. Your words should inspire recipients to support these goals.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. There’s no need to panic about starting from scratch; a welcome series provides an opportunity to repackage some of your existing content. Maybe one of your previous email campaigns was a smashing success, or you have a templated thank-you email from your executive director. Get creative with what you have and how you can keep using it to welcome new supporters.
- Be mindful of your message. If your welcome series recipients have also been added to your main email list, for example, you’ll want to ensure that you are not sharing duplicate content between these two streams.
Content Development and Execution: Tips and Topics for Your Welcome Series
Your first email in your welcome series should follow a simple framework:
- Thank new donors for their interest in your cause and express appreciation for their gift. (You can explore more tips for showing gratitude in Demonstrating Appreciation.)
- Tell them what they can expect from your communications.
- Give them whitelist instructions for increased deliverability of future emails. In other words, ask new donors to add your email address to their safe senders list.
- Help them get to know the organization or cause more deeply.
- Tell them how to connect with you on Facebook®, Twitter®, Instagram®, and YouTube®.
Once you have your first welcome email established, the topics for the rest of the emails in the series are up to you. Try mapping a six-month email series for new donors. You read that right—six months. Don’t panic! Start with what you need to say, and then determine how many emails it will take to say it. A three-message series is a great place to start. This is an opportunity to repackage existing content and save some time. Here are some topics that might feed well into the rhythm of your email cadence:
- Educate supporters on low- or no-cost opportunities to engage, such as attending a free event, following your organization on social media, and volunteering.
- Use content that got a great response in the past. Maybe you can pick up a blog post from last year’s end-of-year campaign letter. Don’t be afraid to repurpose that proven successful content.
- Share stories of impact that your organization has made. Tell a personal story about an individual who has been impacted by your mission.
- Use pictures to show your mission in action. Pictures are worth a thousand words, so share them!
- Invite donors to explore different volunteer opportunities. Your new audience will likely find it helpful to know locations, time commitment, skills required, family opportunities, opportunities for remote or digital volunteering, and more.
- Share progress toward specific goals and programs. Supporters appreciate updates on how their donations are used, and progress updates may inspire them to help even more to get you over the finish line.
Finally, automate it. Once the content is built, it is time to set the series and let it work its magic. But do experiment with the right timing for your audience; there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for the best message frequency. Most email automation systems can be set up using groups, segmentation, and filters to automatically send emails to any new people who join your email list at designated times.
Then, remember to check in regularly on the series performance. Adjust content as needed to keep it fresh and relevant, especially the information about your organization and its programs.
Using these best practices, your new subscribers will receive a curated, thoughtful introduction to your work.
After welcoming new supporters and introducing your cause, a key consideration is expressing gratitude. Mike Snusz, principal strategy consultant at Blackbaud, says thanking donors is an under-recognized strategy for engaging them. In his section Eight Ways You’re Not Thanking Your Donors from the Blackbaud Institute End-of-Year Fundraising Toolkit, he suggests the welcome series is only the first of eight innovative ways to show appreciation. Now that we’ve covered the welcome series, here are the remaining seven:
1. Credit your donors instead of your organization
When you say what’s been accomplished in the past year, give your donors the credit. Instead of saying “Our organization was able to…,” say “Donors like you were able to…” Help them feel connected directly to those in need and eliminate the middleman (you).
2. Send a donation update email
If you struggle to send relevant email content, here’s an easy one. Once or twice a year, report back to your donors on the impact of their gifts. It’s so simple but seldom used. Doing this conveys transparency, responsibility, and gratitude.
3. Make giving an experience
When you donate to Stand Up to Cancer, you can launch a virtual star in honor of someone who’s had cancer. The organization thanks its donors by giving them an experience. The donations fund cancer research, but this experience also helps donors feel closer to those they’ve lost.
4. Say thanks in regular emails
Within your email newsletter, event invitations, or news alerts, include an occasional thank-you note to donors. Besides showing appreciation, you may engage them enough to keep reading. Some tools will let you insert hidden messages to donors within these emails.
5. Make a thank-you video
Somebody in your office has a smartphone. Make a short video from your nonprofit’s executive director or those you serve saying why they’re thankful and why the gift is important. Include the video on your donation confirmation page.
6. Include a thank-you photo
In your confirmation email or page, include a photo of those you serve waving or holding up a thank-you sign. It’ll help your donors feel great about the gift they just made.
7. Send a holiday email
As you map out your year-end campaign, consider including an email to let donors know you’re thankful for them. It’s also a good way to stagger hard asks throughout your year-end campaign.
“Ideally, once a gift is made, the donor gets swept into a cycle of: Give, get thanked immediately, get thanked a few more times, then give again. And so on forever and ever,” says Rachel Clemens, Chief Marketing Officer at Mighty Citizen.
“The key here is to make sure your donor retention efforts are aimed squarely at this cycle (of giving thanks and ongoing recognition). Often, nonprofits make the mistake of treating donors as total strangers who need to achieve ‘awareness’ and ‘engagement’ all over again. Even if their first donation was made on a whim, donors who’ve given at least once are supporters, not strangers.”
Retaining Through Sustaining
In 2020, sustaining donors declined slightly as a percentage of total donors, but the general trend over the past five years has been slowly increasing as more organizations grasp the value of sustaining donors. There was a pause in face-to-face solicitation during the worst of the pandemic, but about two-thirds of organizations increased the number of first-time recurring donors via conversion to sustaining gifts—mostly in the digital space.
While many organizations reported an increase in cancellations of sustained gifts during the pandemic’s early quarantine period, these quickly returned to more typical levels. Donors acquired directly as sustainers in the prior year retained at a 59% rate in both 2019 and 2020.
Those organizations with clear, direct, and consistent messaging for sustainer acquisition clearly benefited from those donors’ rising rates of retention. That stands in stark contrast to declines in retention rates for emergency donors acquired with single-gift donations. Half of the donors acquired as sustainers in fiscal year 2017 were still giving in fiscal year 2020, versus just 18% of single-gift donors acquired at the same time.
As payment methods, including EFT and PayPal®, expand, and credit card updater services continue to improve, donors agreeing to make an annual ongoing gift could potentially retain at far greater rates than single-gift donors.
Through focus groups, in-depth interviews, and survey research, we have found two immediate motivations are most often cited by those who have decided to become sustaining donors: budget management and convenience. Additionally, many sustaining donors cite a deepened commitment to the organizations they are supporting as monthly donors.
There’s no doubt that habit and inertia play roles in sustainer giving, but marketing and fundraising that adds value for the donor and deepens their commitment is still a wise strategy.
Seasoned fundraisers know that the longer donors stay with an organization, the more valuable they become. A sustained donor constituency is an especially valuable class of donors that meets three essential objectives for donor base development: stability, value, and yield. In a Blackbaud Institute study, Sustainers in Focus, only 3% of donors who gave a gift in 2006 were still giving in 2015. Of those who gave in 2006 and moved to a sustainer gift in 2008, 29% were still giving in 2015, and their total gifts were 35 times as valuable.
Given the power of sustained gifts, it is time to establish a sustainer program if your organization doesn’t already have one and accelerate your program if it is not reaching its full potential. Here are eight best practices for creating a new program and bolstering the effectiveness of an already-established program:
1. Ask new donors to give on a monthly basis.
Double the retention rate among sustaining donors. Because the primary cause of dramatic increases in sustainer giving over single-gift giving is increased donor retention, and because the lowest retention occurs with new donors, it makes sense to encourage new donors to give on a monthly basis.
2. Convert multi-year, single-gift donors into sustainers.
Single-gift donors who have been retained in active support for two or more years have proven even more valuable as converts to sustainer giving than new sustaining donors. It makes sense: These donors have become increasingly engaged in the mission and goals of the organization.
3. Make monthly giving the website default.
The most appropriate and effective way to encourage sustainer giving for new or retained donors is making it the default donation option on the website. According to Sustainers in Focus, doing so helped one organization more than triple the percentage of online donors who became sustaining donors.
4. Use a credit card updater service and update invalid credit card data.
Tracking down donors and manually updating credit card data requires a significant amount of staff time and expense, and failing to do so results in lost revenue. One organization included in the Sustainers in Focus study spent $7,000 tracking down $200,000 of revenue this way.
5. Encourage donors to use an electronic funds transfer.
Increasing retention, even for highly retained sustainers, maximizes donor value and return on program investment. Across the organizations evaluated in the Sustainers in Focus study, electronic funds transfers (EFT), or direct withdrawals, increased donor retention by approximately 13% and revenue retention by approximately 6%.
6. Pay attention to missed payments.
Don’t be shy about following up if a payment is missed. Use the opportunity to check in on your donors and ask whether their missed donation was intentional. This demonstrates care and respect and provides an opportunity to measure their engagement level.
7. Steward your sustainers.
The arm’s length nature of automatic credit card or monthly EFT giving and the “set-it-and-forget it” nature of ongoing donations can lead to organizational complacency about sustaining donors. Resist the temptation! The practices employed to steward non-sustaining donors should be used with sustaining donors as well to keep them highly engaged in your mission.
Craft annual communication plans tailored specifically to your sustainers. Remind sustaining donors of the special role they play in sustaining both organization stability and increasing its financial capacity for fulfilling the mission. Engage donors—both those who are active and those who have lapsed—in sharing their opinions through one-on-one interviews, focus groups, and surveys. Consider assigning a concierge (a contact person specially assigned to communicating with sustained donors) to manage these efforts.
8. Refine your stewardship practices.
Refining the stewarding tactics in ways that distinguish mid-range or middle-donor programs from broad-base general support are the basic practices of upgrading donors to sustained gifts. Practices that characterize closer collaboration and engagement can make those simple tactics even more effective. They can include personal contact by senior management, special events for high-dollar donors, and ad hoc reports of the significant role sustaining donors play in the annual financial support of the organization.
All of this is critical to the retentive power of sustained gifts.
Thanking donors and soliciting donations are important elements of a retention strategy, but if donors are to be partners in your mission, they must be kept apprised of the progress made possible by their contributions. According to a survey by RootCause, a marketing consultant for nonprofits, three-quarters of donors are interested in learning about their contributions’ impact. Nearly as many are interested in organizational efficiency, like overhead costs; and nearly two-thirds expressed a desire for information about the larger issue an organization addresses.
In other words, to understand their role in supporting positive change, donors want open, transparent communication around questions like:
- “What is the problem this organization is trying to solve?”
- “How effectively is the organization operating today?”
- “How does my contribution help?”
Combining the power of storytelling with data can help you tell a compelling story around what your organization is working so hard to achieve and how supporters can help you get there, so the answers to these questions should communicate your impact through data-driven content. In her on-demand webinar, Storytelling with Financials, Stephanie Skryzowski, CEO of 100 Degrees Consulting, recommends that the best place to start is to think about what data you already have access to—whether it comes from your fundraising system or financial system—and how you can use it to support your mission narrative and build trust with your donors.
Ongoing communications addressing these topics can reverberate with supporters and drive engagement with your organization. Deepening the relationship with donors leads directly to retaining them as donors.
Donor retention is the most cost-effective way to keep your fundraising bucket filled, and its power accelerates over time. Its success rests entirely on communicating with donors through the channels they use with the messages that resonate best with them.
Getting that right is the surest way to improve retention and increase the lifetime value of your donors.
- Alexis Sykut
- Ashley Thompson
- Barry Waldman
- Keturah Hammond
- Lindsey Salmony
- Mike Snusz
Published August 2021