How This Donor Feels: What I Learned From Giving $25 to 19 Nonprofits
Last year at this time, I sent $25 donations to 19 organizations. Only one ranked among larger organizations in term of annual income. So, how do I, a small-level donor, feel 12 months later? Would I want to give again (and maybe a larger amount) based on the relationship that was built in 2016?
First, some background: In January 2015, I invited organizations to send me a note about their donation acknowledgment programs. I would send a year-end donation to the first 10 that replied. (I couldn’t help myself. I actually chose to support the first 20, but one didn’t have any contact information or even a website telling me how to give. So I arrived at 19.) I mailed in a check and did not provide my email address. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe in e-appeals, but I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by them. So I set the “rules of engagement” to be mail only.
Of the 19, all but one receipted me. I received the receipts within five to 28 working days. (By comparison, I also sent $25 donations to four large nonprofits that I have given to for several years. Only one of those receipted the gift, but all have been very aggressive in mailing to me throughout the year.) One of the 19 sent a welcome kit.
One of the 19 was a large organization that uses an outside mail service, so I will exclude them from this analysis. So, what happened with the remaining 18?
First, seven of them never contacted me again. Six of those did send a receipt, but beyond that, I never heard from them again. I can guarantee that when you don’t bother to contact a warm, breathing donor for 12 months after she gave a gift, you can pretty much write them off. If my little experiment has any application to the wide world of nonprofits, I’d say a 39 percent “failure to do anything to build a relationship” rate looks like a pretty significant factor in donor attrition.
Takeaway: Want to build loyal, repeat donors? Talk to them! (I know some of you are saying “Duh!” but my experience says this message isn’t being heard throughout the sector.)
Two of the remaining 11 only mailed to me once. One sent a mailing in April that made a good case for a donation. The other organization sent a short letter in late October telling me what my donation helped accomplish. There was no ask, but as this was a local public radio station, I’m guessing they do their asking on-air, and this letter was a nice set-up for a membership drive. Given that they have a good means of fundraising outside of the mail, the lack of regular appeals isn’t concerning, but a mid-year report (even a postcard) could have been a nice touch.
Here’s how the other nine communicated over the year, sorted by how many mailings I received:
- Organization 1: Two newsletters (April and October), one appeal (August)
- Organization 2: One newsletter (March), one annual report (November)
- Organization 3: Three appeals (March [two] and December), one information-only mailing (October)
- Organization 4: Two magazines (August and November), one self-mailer appeal (December)
- Organization 5: One appeal (September), one apology for a data processing error on the appeal (October), one catalog of donation options (November)
- Organization 6: Two appeals (June and December), one postcard thank-you (August), one hand-written thank you note (November), one informational self-mailer with no financial ask (November)
- Organization 7: One invitation to event (May), three appeals (August, October, December), one event calendar (August), one informational brochure with remittance envelope (November), one magazine (December),
- Organization 8: Two newsletters (April, August), two appeals (May, November), one annual report (June), one event invitation (July), one survey (July)
- Organization 9: Seven appeals (March, April, May, June, August and November [two]), three newsletters (May, September and December), one calendar (October), one unique newsletter that was about a special program that had its own website
So, based on all this, what are my other takeaways?
1. When you receive a gift from a new donor, send out a newsletter or some kind of impact report as soon as possible (this can even be an evergreen mini-newsletter that goes in a receipt), and follow it up with an appeal within the first two months. I made my gifts in December, and the soonest I heard from anyone was March. By then, I’d pretty much moved on. My experience in the past was that if a first-time donor didn’t give a second gift in 90 days, the window of opportunity was pretty well closed. You have to be “courteously aggressive” with a new donor if you are hoping he or she will give again (and again).
2. A few times during the year, send some kind of “here’s what your gift did” information that isn’t couched in an ask. Yes, that’s expensive. But it makes a difference. Just like you may try on clothing before you buy it, donors want proof that they got a good deal before they invest more money in your organization.
3. For lower-level donors, skip the expensive mailings like annual reports, magazines and calendars. Yes, I know volume is what brings down the unit cost. But it just feels like excess. I used to get letters from donors saying this, and I thought they were just whiny. Now I get it. I’d rather know you used my gift to benefit your mission than get too much information about things I’m not committed enough to really care about.
4. Don’t squander the year end. While many of these organizations probably have an aggressive year-end online strategy, there is almost always a portion of your list for which you don’t have a valid email address. And even if you do have a valid email address, a portion of the list is simply ignoring your e-appeals. (Gasp!) People typically give more to charity at year-end, so save some budget and mail a donation request to your donors (at least those who have given in the last 12 months) in December.
I think my biggest takeaway is realizing how differently I feel when I’m thinking about fundraising from an organization with which I have no professional association. It was easier to dismiss donors’ comments on mail as “uninformed” when I was responsible for the mail program. So ask yourself, “After a year, do our first-time donors feel like they know more about our organization and what they made possible? Do they even remember they gave a gift to us? Does seeing or hearing the name of our organization make them feel good inside, or does it just drift past without any recognition?”
This old dog is just one donor. And yes, I think about the donor experience more than your typical donor, but take some time as the year comes to a close and think honestly about how a donor who gave a first gift to you in December 2016 will feel one year from now. That’s the place to begin to determine if changes are needed to make sure they feel appreciated, informed and willing to give again.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.