Retention? Enough Already!
Before you let the next person into your life who wants to sell you the latest and greatest silver bullet that will increase your retention rates, please do yourself a favor and just say “no.”
Don’t get me wrong — I prioritize optimizing retention rates as much as the next fundraiser. But I’m sick and tired of all of the money nonprofits throw away on the newest, best, magical survey, model, theory or sales pitch that comes their way. A lot of folks are in a frenzy about declining retention rates — and many of them make a living trying to keep the rest of us in a continued state of turmoil over comparing our retention rates to the nonprofit across the street or the person sitting next to us at the conference we’re attending.
We get it — retention rates as a whole could be better, and increasing retention is an easy sell. Who doesn’t want to increase their retention? We read about it. We talk about it. We watch people wring their hands over it.
The funny thing is, a lot of the cures I have read about or heard people talking about don’t have ROI attached to them. (I believe retention starts with your acquisition and acknowledgment programs, but that’s for another column.) Many of the things you’re hearing about or being sold on are most likely just promises of things that will happen if you:
- Ask your donors (via a costly survey) why they no longer give to your organization. (News flash: Most of them will say they do give to you — even if their last gifts were four years ago); or
- Ask your donors (via a costly survey) how much they love you — or not; or
- Ask your donors (via a costly survey) what they think of your program work and how you should prioritize it. (Are you really going to radically change your core programs or mission if you find out your donors aren’t that into them? If you’re not willing to do that, don’t waste time or money asking the question.); or
- Overlay expensive demographics on your file so you can determine how many donors you have who wear purple shirts when they make donations to charities that begin with the letter “W,” how many of your female donors are rock collectors and how many of your male donors over 55 eat plums; or
- Contact donors less frequently; or
- Don’t ask for money.
They can’t promise quantitative results, but they promise that if you only do these things your retention rates will go up, the sun will shine, you will get a raise and life will never be the same. Or not. Oh, and because there is no projection attached to these magical methods, don’t hold the person who sold you on it accountable — because your failure is not his or her fault. It’s yours because you didn’t send the email to the man over 55 while he was eating plums.
We knew this was coming
Let’s face it: We all want a healthy file, and we all want loyal donors. In fact, wouldn’t we all love a file full of baby boomers who act like their parents and grandparents when it comes to philanthropy? Oh, the “matures” — the World War II generation of donors that is loyal, trusting, focused and spreading the wealth around to a number of organizations like clockwork. Where did they go wrong in raising the donors of today?
Now, we have files that mainly comprise baby boomers who give less money to fewer organizations than matures. They (we) are an interesting group and behave exactly like Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co. told you they would in 1999, when we commissioned a study conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates titled “Toward 2000 and Beyond: Charitable and Social Change Giving in the New Millennium.” (Thank you, Roger Craver, for your insight in designing this study back in the day.)
The participants were donors to progressive nonprofits and charities, but the findings hold true for donors across the board: “While most donors to progressive nonprofits and charities are driven by very powerful motivations — because they truly want to advance a particular cause, help those in need, save lives, and feel that they’re making a difference — they are not simply going to give and hope for the best. Indeed, they are far from complacent about how the organizations that they support are going about the business of advocating for change, communicating their messages, and raising needed funds.”
Donors who participated in focus groups revealed “a fundamental trust in nonprofits to do good work and fight the good fight, and this trust may sustain donors’ commitment in the face of onslaughts from the opposition or the seeming insurmountability of a problem. This sense of trust, along with donors’ personal concern about various causes, can carry loyalty and attachment only so far, however. Indeed, donors have high expectations of charities and public interest groups, in terms of the steps they should take to maintain donors’
support in the future.”
The report stated that there was an important lesson to be drawn from this finding. “Supporters must be able to rely on more than inherent trust in an organization to know that their contributions are indeed sustaining the group’s work and helping to make real progress. More than any other action, in fact, donors say that the public interest groups and charities they support must be more accountable regarding how they spend contributions (an assertion backed by 79 percent of all donors).”
Your file of baby boomers behaves now just like it told you it would in 1999. War, stock market crashes, world disasters, a recession, four presidential elections and a host of other things that have happened outside of your control have not changed the one thing donors want most. They want you to be accountable in how you spend their money. Go figure.
Retention tips of the month
Your donors want to love you as much today as they did when they made those first gifts. So, what are my retention tips of the month?
- Retention is not the only metric you should be concerned about — overall file health is often overlooked. Take a look at these metrics, too. Are you upgrading folks? Building a monthly giving program? Raising more money this year than you did last year?
- Analyze what your donors are giving to and what they aren’t. What are they telling you by the results you already have about what motivates them to give to your organization?
- Examine and re-examine your acknowledgment program. The best way to lose donors forever is to not thank them properly for the gifts they just gave you.
- Evaluate your messaging. Don’t bring donors in on subject A and then only talk to them about subjects X, Y and Z. And tell them about the people, animals, planet or plants that they help. Please tell them with a story and not just facts.
- Be accountable to your donors. Tell them how you spend their money. Make them feel good about the choice they made when they accepted your first offer to change the world. Tell them about the work you’re doing together and why their money makes a difference. Let them know you appreciate them and that without them your work could not be done.
These tips may not be sexy or cutting-edge or have fancy names. But they also don’t cost thousands of dollars to implement.
Sometimes, the silver bullet is just good, old-fashioned fundraising.