3-Step Solution to Sustainer Retention
In theory, monthly givers are an annuity—a bit of an upfront investment, yielding solid, steady returns for the foreseeable future.
In practice, they are more of a garden—plant the wrong seeds or neglect care, and no amount of shoveling manure will recoup your investment.
The fall-off of newly acquired sustainers can be scary, considering that costs to acquire coveted donors in channels like face-to-face and DRTV are much higher than your average one-time giver. Even when you are trying to convert existing donors to recurring giving, you face an opportunity cost of the one-time gifts you could have received.
Thus, it’s irresponsible to take a Ron Popeil “set-it-and-forget-it” approach to the retention of these valuable donors. Thankfully, a disciplined three-step approach can keep these donors with you for years and justify future acquisition spending.
Step No. 1: Measure the Donor’s Experience, Commitment and Identity at Point of Acquisition.
Think about what your next ask currently is for new online monthly donors. Is it something like, “Share your donation on Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat/Twitter!”?
If so, ask yourself this: Wouldn’t you rather know if they liked donating to you before asking them to share about it? Just because you have someone’s treasured credit card digits does not mean they enjoyed the process. Thankfully, many issues that one might have—I didn’t care for your canvasser, your donation form was hard to use, I didn’t get a promised benefit—are easily fixable. And for the price of a $4 phone call, you can save a $400 lifetime-value donor.
Commitment to the organization is also an excellent predictor—quite often, the best predictor – of whether someone will stay with your organization. This can reflect on your acquisition source and method. Would you rather acquire a low-commitment sustainer for $100 or a high-commitment donor for $110? Probably the latter. But if you aren’t asking about commitment, then all you can go on is that cost to acquire, so you will choose the wrong future investment.
Identity is the thing about the donor that makes them want to give to you. While you are learning about the donor, you want to get this critical piece of information. The ideal donor journey for any donor, but especially for a sustaining donor, is one that understands and reflects the donor’s individual reason for giving. Unfortunately, too often, we choose the efficiency of a one-size-fits-no-one journey to one that will keep our donors for the long term.
Step No. 2: Model Your Donors for Their Likelihood to Lapse.
You may say you are already doing this. You know your younger face-to-face donors won’t retain as well nor will the people who give and your lowest monthly ask amount. But these measures are crude at best. User-supplied information, like commitment, satisfaction, and identity, are far more predictive than either transactional or demographic variables.
But you don’t have to choose. The best model is one that combines everything you know about a person—self-identified, transactional and demographic—into one measure of how likely they are to come back.
Step No. 3: Revise Your Program Based on What You Know.
Part of this is revising donors’ journeys based on what you know about them. We’ve found that low-commitment donors benefit from additional touchpoints that introduce the donor to the organization, but high-commitment donors actually lapse more often when they receive these extra communications (with comments like, “I already love you—why do you keep selling me?”).
Similarly, if someone is a lapse risk, a little extra love early on can help get him or her through the first six months, which can be brutal for new sustaining donors. On the other side of the coin, those donors who are low-lapse risks are also your best candidates for an upgrader.
This also means customizing post-acquisition communications for the donor’s identity. One nonprofit partner got their donor’s identity (cat vs. dog) on the phone before even asking for the donation. Armed with that information and a tiny bit of customization to the script, they were able to increase response rate and average monthly gift by 15 percent each. Not only that, but they also knew which message to use to retain those donors further down the line.
The other part of revising your program is using what you’ve learned to retool and revamp your acquisition efforts. Now that you have a model that tells you how likely someone is to lapse from the moment they enter your organization, you can immediately determine how good a means of acquisition is by the types of donors they are bringing in. If a canvasser is bringing you low-commitment, low-satisfaction donors, who the model says are at risk of lapsing, that canvasser can go in immediately for retraining. Conversely, if your social media ad campaign is bringing in donors with your most valuable identities with low lapse risks, you may be willing to spend more to bring in donors there than by other means.
So, in short:
- Learn about your donor.
- Use what you’ve learned to predict what future donors will do.
- Use what you’ve learned to make things better for your individual donors and for your acquisition systems.
It’s not complex to do. It requires some versioning of your communications and setting up your systems to handle donor feedback. But it pays dividends in happier and more profitable sustaining donors.
Nick Ellinger joined the Moore, where he works to increase the automation and customization of fundraising as chief brand officer, in January 2020. Before that, he was DonorVoice’s vice president of marketing strategy, working with organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Share our Strength | No Kid Hungry, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation to look at their fundraising with a different lens. He developed his direct fundraising muscle running Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s direct marketing program for a decade. He’s also the author of "The New Nonprofit" to challenge fundraising norms.