Q&A: Doctors Without Borders Explains Its Donor-Centric Model
As the competition for donor dollars steepens, many nonprofit organizations look to lower their attrition rates, which is the percentage of donors a nonprofit loses annually. While we believe that these organizations should prioritize donor retention, many nonprofits believe new donor acquisition is the solution to their attrition problem. In fact, the “2021 Nonprofit Leadership Impact Study” found that 41% of nonprofits believe their biggest challenge is acquiring new donors, while 10% believe that it’s retaining donors. While nonprofits can acquire as many new donors as they want, without a retention strategy in place to keep these donors a part of the community, donors will continue to lapse and attrition rates will continue to increase.
According to 2021's Q1 “Fundraising Effectiveness Project Quarterly Fundraising Report,” the repeat donor retention rate is 44.5% (up 0.4%) and the new donor retention rate is 14.2% (down 7.9%). With an influx of new donors coming in from COVID-19, now is the time for nonprofits to home in on donor retention and secure the donors’ loyalties for the years to come.
In order to retain more donors, nonprofits should sit down with their fundraising and marketing teams to create a stewardship and retention strategy. Even more importantly, nonprofits need to build better rapport with their donors. To begin, consider these questions:
- What is my organization’s attrition rate?
- What is my organization’s donor retention rate?
- How can we retain more donors?
- What is our stewardship strategy?
- Are we putting too much emphasis on donor acquisition?
- Are we communicating with our donors in authentic ways?
- Are we giving them an experience that they want to be a part of?
Kim Goldsmith-N'Diaye, director of development at Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders in the U.S., was previously a marketer in the private sector who moved into the nonprofit sector. Currently, Goldsmith-N'Diaye leads all of the fundraising at MSF, including mid-level gifts, major gifts, planned gifts, corporate gifts and foundation gifts. In an exclusive interview with NonProfit PRO, Goldsmith-N'Diaye shared more about MSF’s donor retention efforts, gave an overview of its communications strategy, explained why its monthly giving program is so critical and much more.
How is Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders focusing and improving its donor retention efforts?
Donor retention is incredibly important for us. There's no mistake — it's a balance between retention and acquisition. For MSF, protecting and improving retention [is] on multiple fronts across one-time and across recurring. In 2021, like many nonprofits, we're responding to COVID-19. And like a lot of nonprofits, in 2020, we saw this huge increase. So quite naturally, we were worried — are these donors going to behave across the board, whether it's one-time giving to recurring — and across audience levels? We were really worried about how we retain these [donors] because if they react, if they behave like “normal emergency donors,” we were looking at a 60% churn because that's generally what it is with the emergency donors. But quite honestly, the first thing we did was to tag these donors to see how they were going to behave.
So, the donors who came in between March and August of last year, what we're seeing is that we're retaining them better than average due to a few critical steps that we think we've taken above and beyond. In addition to the gift acknowledgement — the single donor acknowledgement in mail and by phone — a second acknowledgement is sent by mail to our mass donors. We send a lot of email and mail. We change up the content. Yes, it arrives after a tax acknowledgement, and the ask is all important for the second gift, but what's really important here is that we really talk about how that first gift is really making an impact.
We have something called “temoignage,” which tells it like it is. It's just very clear: "Here's the situation. I don't know if you've seen it. Here's how we're responding." It's almost telling a story and sharing how we're doing it on the ground. And we work closely with our communications group. Donors get a steady stream or cadence of communications on a variety of topics through mail, digital and telemarketing to keep them engaged. We have a rolling renewal program to make sure that one-time mass donors renew, or we'd like them to renew.
But again, we also ask because we have a lot of touchpoints. We have talked to donors to understand: "Is this the right number of touchpoints, or are we overdoing it with you?" Another important group is our sustainers. They're really important to retention as you know. We have special cultivation and stewardship communications with them as well. We have a robust five-month, multichannel, recapture program for a sustainer who lapses. And so they receive letters, a phone call, emails and text messages again to remind them to update their contact information. And then there are gift offers at the high-touch level and mid-level that [our team] reaches out with to recognize the generosity of our donors and to continue to build those relationships.
What does a typical communications plan look like for a new donor, and how are you converting first-time and one-time donors to give again?
When a new donor comes in, they get a welcome package. [Each donor] has their own journey. But again, we will talk about the things that we're doing, and at some point, in that journey, we talk about the importance of being a sustainer and what that means to the programming. Along that journey, along those different touchpoints, we do reach out and we say, "Becoming a sustainer does X, Y and Z." We encourage people to be a monthly or a sustainer, convert from that one-time [gift].
What tactics are your team using to build more authentic relationships with its donors, especially with a larger donor base?
Our goal across whatever audience we're talking about is to be as donor-centric as possible, and everything we do in the fundraising department is designed to make the donor understand and feel proud of their impact. So, we share updates with our donors as they happen. For example, cases in India are surging as it relates to COVID-19. This past week, we've sent out emails to our mass donors, letting them know what we're doing. We don't have an ask in there. There's no solicitation. It's just to update. And again, we use this communication format of temoignage, which is witnessing and really telling it like it is.
It's to update how their previous gifts have helped. And this has been really important with COVID-19. There are a lot of other things — disease outbreaks, malnutrition, maternal health — but COVID-19 has kind of covered everything so to speak. Like many organizations, we are trying to connect with our donors remotely. We've had a number of public webinars on COVID-19, where donors and all of us have access to our executive director, medical staff and program staff. We did a COVID-19 series, and we found that our planned giving audience made up 25%. But all that to say is that people are listening. So we ultimately seek to provide a multichannel and surround sound experience for the donor, and one that's fulfilling and moving, because we know everybody has different needs and where they tune in, in different channels.
How are you tracking donor communications and keeping your staff accountable in following up with donors?
It depends on the donor giving level. The teams are really divided up into audience, so when I say that, I mean mass audience. There are major gifts, mid-level, planned giving, corporate and foundation. So it really is about gift level or audience level, I should say. And for our mass donors, we have a steady stream of communications, as well as automated data journeys. And we use things like Salesforce Marketing Cloud to get out all of that email, so we know who's responding to what as it relates to the mass audience, and what's not really working well.
For mass recurring and mid-level, we have a monthly review. I'll call it the business review, but we want to understand what's working; what's not; where we are in terms of acquisition, retention; what are the new possibilities in terms of acquisition; where we are with lapsed donors. So it's almost like a monthly business review, and then we match that up to our annual plan.
Tell me more about your monthly giving program and how you’re encouraging people to become sustainers.
Conversion from one-time to monthly is about 15%. That is incredibly high from my perspective. Some of that I attribute to COVID-19. The past year has been exceptional, and I think because COVID-19 is worldwide, there's just been an extremely high-conversion rate. With that said, our sustainers — who are really important to us — [include] about 128,000 recurring donors. Our sustainers are critical, and they're critical to our fundraising model.
Being perfectly honest, it's a stream of revenue that's consistent. We acquire sustainers now across all of our channels: email, digital paid advertising, mail and face-to-face canvassing. In 2019, 70% of our sustainers came from face-to-face. Of course, in March of last year, we had to close down our face-to-face. What we were able to do during March  to the end of the year, we were able to make up a lot of our face-to-face volume through digital, which was quite amazing.
We reopened briefly in the summer and fall of last year, but on a very small scale. However, we closed it down again in November because of increasing COVID-19 case trends. We relaunched again in mid-March of this year, but in like seven markets versus the 25 to 30 markets we generally would be in, and we hope to scale up.
In terms of improving donor retention, what’s your advice for fellow nonprofit leaders?
You have to look at your retention strategy as a strategic goal. As you're building your priorities for your plan for the year, or even your strategic plan for a three-year period, you're looking at acquisition, but you're looking at retention because it costs less to retain a donor than to get a new one. In the emergency relief group, we're all after the same donor.
So it really pays to have a solid retention strategy, and it's really looking at donors, not just people who are currently in your pool, but also lapsed donors. It's lapsed donors who've lapsed over the past 12 months versus the last 36 months because by 36 months, they go back to being new donors. It is about having this solid retention strategy to balance that acquisition and ensure that budgets for audience and channels include funding to do the tactics. I always say to the team, “We can talk about strategies, but what's the road map? What are the activities adding up to? What's the path to really execute your strategy? Are the tactics adding up to where we need to be?” So it's about being intentional as it relates to it.
Looking at cost per donor, your average gift, [and] retention, it has to all be in balance to drive your ROI. So again, what's that balance in terms of retention? Because if you just look at retention alone, you could go down the wrong path. You have to consider what channels your donors come in because is that the best way to renew them? Someone who comes in digitally probably may not be the same path as direct mail. And direct mail still works, but is that donor really gonna renew through direct mail?
Look at your recapture process. There's this five-month period that is really critical when you look at your sustainers across all channels, so you have to know when your dropoff points. For one-time donors, look at those first three months because generally it's that three-month mark that people drop off. Then, re-engage your donors before they lapse.
Editor's Note: This cover story was originally published in the May/June 2021 print edition of NonProfit PRO as “A Renewed Focus on Donor Retention.” Click here to subscribe.
Nhu Te is senior content manager at Fundraise Up, the AI-powered online donation platform for enterprise nonprofits. In her work, she focuses on helping nonprofits create more impact through personalized donor relations, digital fundraising and thoughtful use of technology.