DONOR RETENTION | If You Love Someone—Don’t Let Them Go!

publication date: Feb 7, 2024
author/source: Lynne Boardman

Sometimes I feel like everyone in our sector must be hearing the same thing over and over again at conferences, in articles, books, and in meetings: “Invest in keeping your donors!”

That said, we are constantly welcoming new fundraisers. Hurrah! Folks who have been around a bit are making their way into positions of management with more oversight and responsibilities and control over what to prioritize. Double hurrah!

So, what follows is a short recap around the WHYs and HOWs of donor retention. Some have been talked about many times – and some have remained mysteriously unsaid.

The WHY is easy

It’s always been cheaper and better to keep a customer or donor than to acquire a new one. That’s true in every sector, not just fundraising. A few more WHYs have crept in, though.

First, we’ve been living through tumultuous economic times over the last 18 months. As we know, most charities (those who continued fundraising) experienced a “pandemic bump,” achieving some of their greatest fundraising successes in 2020-22, from their individual donor programs. (Events and corporate giving certainly took a hit at times.) And then, many felt a downturn in 2023.

Fortunately, most of our clients noticed that their 2023 end-of-year results came in strong, making up for softer results earlier in the year. It seemed like donors were holding onto their gifts until year-end even more than usual. But, prospecting also suffered in 2023. It became more expensive to recruit new donors, and numbers were lower. This means it’s important to hang on to those who did give.

Second, it must be acknowledged that there’s a much longer list of WHYs than just these two. When we lose donors, we’re not just losing their annual donation. We’re losing their potential income— conversion to monthly support that’s almost always worth over $200 a year or $2,000 and up in long-term value. Also lost is upgrades to mid-level and leadership programs and, of course, my favourite—legacies.

The simple list of HOWs for donor retention

  1. Thank them. Thank them again. Show them why the world’s a better place because they gave. Encourage them to give again. (Hint: don’t dispense with your printed donor newsletter, and think of ways to keep key donors as close to the work as possible.) Pretend that every donor is your grandmother. Would you REALLY be foolish enough to ask her for something else before you properly appreciated her the first time? Thinking of my own family, my palms literally started to sweat as I typed that sentence.
  2. Get as many folks as possible onto monthly giving. There is so much wisdom out there about this, but put simply, offer monthly giving every chance you get, in each channel. Use a combination of mail, digital and phone approaches to new donors, loyal donors and even lapsed donors. Test amounts and offers. Create “challenges.” Consider testing face-to-face. Offer downgrades or “holidays” if people feel they need a break. Hire trained canvassers to work events. Feature monthly donors in newsletters. Include in every P.S., in appeals as well as thank-you letters. The list goes on.
  3. Ask in more than one channel and make it EASY to give in more than one channel. Does more even need to be said? Multi-channel donors are more valuable than single-channel donors and the reiteration of an ask in more than one channel bumps up results in the others. 
  4. Be emotional and tell inspiring stories. Make the collection of stories somebody’s job. People may decide how much to give with their heads, but they make the decision to give with their hearts. Reach those hearts. And remember that stories are sticky. 
  5. Take the time to find out why they give – and especially why they’ve stopped.
  6. Did I mention … thank them and show them why they matter?

Now, the controversial stuff.

The charity sector adopted “database marketing” or “donor-base marketing” many, many decades ago. This approach is based on two things: good data and a commitment to building relationships with donors. Are we really doing as well as we could be?

Working with 20-30 clients a year over 20 years, I get a front-row seat to the world of data and I can report that it doesn’t always feel like it’s going better than it did 20 years ago. But why? We have fancy, expensive databases in place. Why are there still so many errors in data entry?

And why does our multi-year, multi-channel “Mystery Shopper” program show that thanking and stewardship seem to be falling behind, too? (With some wonderful, heart-warming exceptions, of course.)

Here’s one guess: we don’t do well at things we don’t value and I don’t think data is understood or valued enough at charities. At least not by the people setting the priorities and holding the purse strings.

We have great databases, but a shocking lack of experienced data staff

One solo person is often responsible for data at their organization. I know of nonprofits who have a single data manager and 30,000 donors! It is impossible for that person to keep that donor base clean, healthy and up-to-date and provide all the reports and analysis that important decisions are based on.

Here’s a thought: given that data is the foundation of all fundraising success, take a look at what your charity pays these wizards. Is it less than your other fundraisers earn? Is it less than your finance department? Because I’d argue – if we actually paid based on value – we’d probably pay them the most. Kind of like how the pandemic showed us that we’ve been paying the most important people in our society the least.

Every single fundraiser in our organizations relies on good data to raise the money they do. And at many charities, it’s an unholy mess. In another scenario, it may be great now – but is it entirely dependent on one or two people? What if they win the lottery and quit to travel the world? We need to hire sufficient staff in our data departments. We also need to train them on fundraising and the ways that their job underpins everybody else’s. We need to value them enough to attract them from other sectors, and to keep them.

On the stewardship front

Even as our donor bases get bigger, we never staff up accordingly. I think back to when I worked at a charity who had about 500 donors. We knew many of those people personally and would write messages on their thank-you letters. When that charity’s donor base grew to 1,000, I don’t think they doubled their donor relations staff. What about when it grew to 5,000? 10,000? 20,000? Last I heard, they still only had 2-3 people building relationships with all those donors.

Now, the promise of database-marketing was that we could talk “almost one-to-one” with thousands and thousands of people. And that is (almost) true for appeals. (Please add extra tailoring for your monthlies, mid-levels, legacy donors and “super loyals.”) But what about the other part of the equation – keeping in mind our lovely grandmothers? Proper stewardship takes a more personal touch. Which means more people.

It’s likely that everyone reading this article already agrees.

More folks are needed in data, and more folks are needed in stewardship. There are great resources around to help you quantify these truths if you need to make a financial argument to your board, management team or purse-string-holders. I’m thinking of audits that show second gift rates, retention rates and long-term value. The first person I'd talk to about this is Sam Laprade at Gryphon Fundraising. I’m also thinking about the modelling that shows how a 10% boost in year one retention can mean at least a 50% increase in long-term value.

But I’m also thinking that I’m nearing grandmother-age myself … and I’m already sure that I won’t be giving second gifts to those who haven’t said thank you for the first one.

Now, look. It’s been a long January. So, to end on a happy note, just imagine how great this year could be by making some fundamental changes to value our data folks and our amazing donor-facing staff—truly the “hidden gold” of our organizations, and all our endeavours.


Lynne Boardman has spent 25 years creating successful individual giving programs for charities in both Canada and the UK. Her work has spanned health care, international development, human rights, education and environmental causes. Co-founder of the podcast, Raise and Shine, Lynne is the Managing Director of HMA, and speaks, strategizes and writes about legacy fundraising whenever there is someone nearby to listen.

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