Dancing with the “once-a-years”

publication date: Apr 2, 2012
author/source: David Kravinchuk

When I go dancing, which I don’t do very often, it is best you stand back. You do not want to get in the way of what is about to be unleashed. And frankly, it’s best just not to watch.David Kravinchuk photo

I think that’s a fitting, though visually disturbing metaphor for our relationships with a very special group of donors – the “once-a-years” (OAY).

Many of us laboriously gather and code these donors (who tell you explicitly that they only want to be solicited once a year) in our database and then we promptly forget about them until the holidays, or January. Or some other predetermined time.

Getting closer

I was inspired to think about these donors recently when I saw OAY results from a client’s mailing that blew me away (more on that later). I started jumping up and down, yelling excitedly into the middle of our open-concept office with little regard for what everyone else was doing.

And despite the fact that I disturbed her deep concentration on pressing client concerns, my colleague Nadine Fowler joined in. Together, we were like little kids that had just found a secret stash of Easter chocolate in the front hall closet.

Turns out Nadine had also been seeing some remarkable results with some of her clients. We had both seen good performance with this group before. But the difference in these recent results was the remarkable boost in response rates and average gifts.

Now we both knew that following donors’ wishes was just the right thing to do. But we were shocked at how awesome this group was at holding up their end of the bargain. Clients who’d stepped outside their comfort zone and asked OAY donors to join them on the dance floor had starting seeing big returns for taking a chance on those wallflowers.

We knew we had to share, so, here are my deep thoughts on OAYs, along with some of Nadine’s advice.

First the basics

Make your OAY ask in January. Don’t worry if you have previously sent this ask at another time of the year. Make the shift. Remind your OAY donors that you are helping them live their OAY dreams. And if you are changing the timing, just share that in the ask.

Don’t stop there. Some people are terrified to over-mail this group. Many of us only send one communication a year – a solicitation. That’s a huge mistake. Instead, keep them informed, inspired and engaged by sending something at least every quarter: a newsletter or two, an update from your CEO or board chair.

And Nadine adds: Don’t forget to send them newsletters or reports that show them the value of their gift at work. OAYs may not like to be asked for money more than once a year, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t steward, report and thank.

A deal is a deal

Now here’s the reason to send that OAY ask in January: you can go back into your database at the end of the year and find out which OAY donors did not respond. Then, says Nadine, you can send them a reminder.

“Some people swear to donors they will only speak to them once a year, but they’re leaving money on the table,” she notes. “It’s not uncommon to see 20% response rates from donors who didn’t give to their ‘annual’ ask. And they’re up to 50% more generous at year-end than regular donors.”

I know that some of you are freaking out! Sending a second solicitation to donors who explicitly told you that they only want to receive one appeal a year?

Nadine has some wisdom on this, too. “I’m big on treating donors how they want to be treated,” she explains. “So when you agree to ask only once a year, let them know that you’ll send a reminder at the end of the year if you haven’t heard from them. When donors know they will get a reminder, they won’t feel annoyed, and that helps to keep response rates to the reminder high.”

Numbers tell the tale

Nadine’s laid out the argument strongly. But I’ve just got to add some statistics. Here’s a snapshot of those OAY results that got me so excited.

Response rate: 42%

Average gift: $200

This is awesome when compared to that client’s regular donors (response rate, 13%; average gift, $53). But it blew the doors off their middle-high (previous gift of $250-$1000) donors, with their response rate of 22% and an average gift of $268. That’s not a lot higher than those OAYs.

And that was no blip. I checked and found that this group has historically out-performed (by a huge margin) most other donor segments for that client.

So take a quick twirl through your database and have a look at some of your OAY donors. Think about how, when and why you’ll ask them out dancing next. And don’t be surprised if these wallflower donors end up owning the dance floor.


OAY donors are excellent prospects for monthly giving because they renew at high rates and usually exhibit very loyal behaviour. You have a natural way to introduce them to each other, since they already have so much in common. Monthly and OAY donors both love not receiving a bunch of solicitations through the year, and they are more loyal and generous than regular active donors.

David Kravinchuk is a member of Good Works, a consulting firm that works with clients to engage donors at a truly human level and build donor loyalty and commitment. Good Works welcomes your ideas, comments and criticisms about this tip.

Please email David with your reactions and thoughts.

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