Retention: Still Your Best Strategy

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by Pamela Barden

Much of what we knew about fundraising before COVID-19 seems to have gone out the window, and “nimble” has been the new No. 1 skill. We’ve received donations from first-time contributors to help with COVID relief, we’ve moved events online, major donor cultivation has moved to Zoom and work-from-home has become the daily reality.

But no matter how soon or how long it is before COVID becomes a distant memory, one thing remains the same: Donor retention is still the best strategy for long-term sustainability.

Retention isn’t easy, as the numbers show us. The Fundraising Effectiveness Project’s 2020 Q1 report found that “the donor retention rate — the percentage of donors who gave last year and have already given in 2020 — dropped three points to 16.4%.” It also found that last year, only six in 10 of existing donors, as of January 1, 2019, gave throughout that year. Or to put it another way, 40% of the people who gave to you in 2019 will likely not give to you in 2020 — even without the mitigating factor of COVID.

What’s a smart fundraiser to do? Focus on the basics!

1. Make Retention a Priority

Don’t allow yourself to be lured by the sultry voice of the “next great thing.” That doesn’t mean you don’t try it; you simply can’t sacrifice your tried-and-true foundational fundraising programs to put all your energies into the shiny new thing. Study after study shows that donors who receive communications across multiple channels are more likely to keep giving.

One of the keys to retention is how committed you are to caring for your existing donors. Jeff Jowdy of Lighthouse Counsel noted that, “We often find that most organizations don’t need to focus on donor acquisition — yet — because they have so many donors leaving their organization. Shore up the support of your family first!”

2. Truly Serve Your Donors

We have all seen the communications from donors that make no sense, ramble on, go on a tirade, ask crazy questions or feel more like a “lonely hearts club” episode. But each communication represents an individual, and that individual deserves respect. Engaging someone in a debate who really isn’t interested in changing his or her opinion isn’t good use of time but saying “thanks for sharing your thoughts with us” can be.

3. Try Something Innovative

One positive out of the pandemic is that many nonprofits had to pivot quickly and find a way to replace a fundraising tool that has served them well for a number of years. Some had success; others not as much. But the takeaway is that many organizations that were previously living in the land of “The Way We’ve Always Done It” stepped out of that comfort zone — and just maybe found a new tool in their fundraising toolbox.

4. Get and Tell Great Stories

Our stories need to be long enough and detailed enough so the donor can paint a picture of the need and solution in his or her mind. This can sometimes be accomplished in a few sentences; other times it takes a few paragraphs. No matter what, it is focused on the donor — not on the organization.

“Too many nonprofits don’t understand the big difference between marketing communications and fundraising communications,” Jowdy said. “We need stories to grab the donor’s interest and show how they can make a difference. We don’t need stories about how great we are, or how much trouble we are in.”

5. Encourage Your Organization to Invest in Programs That Donors Can Relate to

Every program may not have the sizzle that donors can visualize and be attracted toward, but parts of most projects can have a donor-friendly component without sacrificing the integrity of your work. Sit down with your program staff and show them what projects excited your donors. Become collaborators, not competitors, and everyone will benefit.

6. Thank Your Donors

Call, write, visit — just say “thank you.” Forget about self-service — you know, “if you want to feel good, all you have to do is go to our website.” Everyone in development, including your CEO, needs to make saying thank you a priority. The time you spend on that “is a key indicator of the quality of your fundraising program and how it is fulfilling its potential,” Jowdy said.

Pandemic or not, our job as fundraisers is retention. This takes many forms, but one truth doesn’t change: Your donors know you need money. You have to show them you need them. That’s the 14-word secret to retention.

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