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How Small Charities Can Build Midlevel Donor Programs

Posted: 11/9/2020

Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy

by Maria DeMento

Midlevel donors are an important but often overlooked group of supporters who will give year after year and can become a nonprofit's most loyal donors when properly engaged. In the latest installment of our Ask an Expert series, we track down answers to reader questions about how to cultivate midlevel donors in today's uncertain world and hold onto them well into the future.

Andrea O'Brien, senior director of donor relations at the Wilderness Society; Cory Tenbrink, director of the Sierra Club's "concierge" program; and Vicky Barrett-Putnam, senior director of donor development and acquisition strategies at the Sierra Club, provide the answers.

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How should small organizations with only a few staff approach and steward midlevel donors?

—Fundraiser at an election integrity nonprofit

O'Brien says small nonprofits with limited staff can still create a strong midlevel donor program. One way to do that, she says, is by focusing on where you can make tweaks to your existing donor-communication materials. For example, she suggests using language in donor communications that can be easily adjusted to fit individual donors and occasionally adding a "lift note" to grab their attention.

In direct mail, "lift notes" are short notes or letters that precede the main letter and are usually from someone other than the main letter's author. The notes can grab readers' attention and entice them to read the rest of the communication.

O'Brien says such communications could include a brief thank-you note, a sentence encouraging the donor to read the enclosed update, or a reminder that a membership renewal deadline is approaching. She says "lift notes" can also be a simple message to remind the donor that if they have questions about the nonprofit's work or about their gift, you're happy to talk to them.

She says once an organization receives a donation, it's important to find ways to "amplify" the acknowledgment process.

"If this isn't already the case for all your donors, make sure your acknowledgment letters for your midlevel program are more than just a simple tax receipt, and update your copy regularly," O'Brien says. "Add personalized thank-yous to the mix. Whether it's a handwritten note or quick email, you can hopefully tap some of your program staff or have volunteers help with this."

Once you have thanked the donor, O'Brien suggests assigning midlevel donors someone on staff they can contact for questions about their giving or about the nonprofit's work. She says these donors appreciate the sense of accessibility they get by having someone to contact directly instead of an 800 number. But if you can only do one thing, says O'Brien, make sure it's thanking your donors.

"Finding little ways to make them feel appreciated all year long for what is likely a big gift for them won't go unnoticed," she says.

Tenbrink says the Sierra Club created what it calls a "concierge team," whose goal is to contact the group's midlevel donors through phone calls, emails, and handwritten notes.

"At the initial point of contact, we generally do not ask for money or an action," Tenbrink says. "Rather, we determined the best way to allow them to engage with us was to ask them questions. This builds a connection with the donor, the organization, and the concierge, so the donor understands that they have someone to go to when they have a question, interest, or concern."

This approach helps build relationships because it gives the concierge a way to go beyond knowing the member's name, he says. It helps the concierge learn a supporter's communication preferences and some information about the member's life. Tenbrink admits this approach takes some time. But he says it is worth the effort, and it's an approach that smaller organizations can take through their member-care department or with the help of one or two volunteers. He recommends starting with thank-you calls.

"Sometimes it is just about expressing gratitude and letting a member know who they can reach out to if they have any questions or problems," Tenbrink says.

He also suggests creating donor newsletters both through email and regular mail to update donors on the areas their gifts supported and to provide some "insider" information on what is happening within the organization.

What are the best ways to identify midlevel donors for nonprofits that don't have a research team or wealth-rating tool? Is it best to try to qualify donors with an in-person visit or a meaningful conversation?
—Major gift officer at an animal rescue organization

Tenbrink's colleague, Barrett-Putnam, says her team does not use research or wealth-rating tools to identify midlevel donors. Her team has tested both methods several times and haven't found either to be particularly useful. She says they can even be unhelpful when it comes to qualifying midlevel donors.

"Many organizations view their midlevel donors as just a pathway to acquire more major donors, which is why they focus so much on research and wealth," Barrett-Putnam says. "We have found this process limits your program because there are very few extremely wealthy people in the U.S., but there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. households that are upper middle class."

She says the Sierra Club's midlevel donor program is designed to "maximize revenue" from this group of givers and that finding the major donors among them is just one part of the program; it's not the focus. Instead of using a wealth-screening tool, her team employs basic marketing techniques like looking at a donor's giving history.

For example, if donors have given multiple gifts of $50 or more, or if they have joined with a gift that is three times higher than what they were asked for, then they are probably a good midlevel donor candidate.

The Wilderness Society's O'Brien says fundraisers can certainly try to qualify midlevel donors the same way they do major donors if the charity has a dedicated midlevel officer on staff, but they can reach more midlevel donors through a direct-mail program, even without a wealth tool or access to a lot of analytics.

"Those donors giving just below your midlevel threshold are the perfect target audience for regular invitations to upgrade and join your midlevel giving circle," say O'Brien.

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