On Dog and Donors
About 15 months ago, my husband and I adopted a rescue dog from a Best Friends Animal Society shelter. Cubbie quickly became part of our family, providing me with companionship, as I work alone most of the time, and giving us another good reason to exercise. But like anyone with an unknown past, she came with some baggage, and it has required patience to get her to fully bond with us.
As I looked at her contently sleeping in my office on her deluxe bed (one of three beds she has in the house—did I mention she’s spoiled?), I reflected on the progress she’s made over the months—and it reminded me of donors. Why is it that we forget that they, too, have some history that we don’t know? How can we expect them immediately to become our new best friends when they don’t even know yet if they can trust us? So, with some help from Cubbie, here are things to think about to make sure you have a strong onboarding process for new donors that encourages partners for life.
First, get to know them. When we acquire a new donor, our focus often seems to be on making sure he or she knows everything possible about us—our history, our board members, our programs, our results, awards we’ve won, who endorses us, key staff credentials, etc. But we often forget that donors are not a big mix of homogenized people; they are unique individuals, each of whom is looking for something different from his or her investment in our organization.
Last week I wrote about Tony Marciano’s intense effort to connect with donors—and the resulting donor-retention rate at the Charlotte Rescue Mission, of which he is the executive director. One of his goals is to treat every first-time donor like a major donor; after all, you never know what is lurking behind that $25 gift. Think how you can make “getting to know you” a two-way street with your newly acquired donors, and then determine to put as much passion into getting to know your donors as you do in making sure they know about your organization.
You can’t force-feed information. When Cubbie joined our family, she never allowed her food bowl to go empty; she always left some food “just in case.” I used to sit on the floor next to her bowl and encourage her to eat, promising that there would be more food when she finished that. It was a year before she would finish a meal and trust that I would again fill her bowl. Our donors may not have the same kind of issues (in fact, they may be more afraid of being overwhelmed by information), but they need to know they will receive information that appeals to them on a regular basis.
In the past, we sent all our donors as much information as possible, hoping that something would stick. Yes, we have a very narrow window to get the second gift—or we potentially will never hear from the donor again. But instead of focusing only on the quantity of communication, think about the variety and its appeal. Will someone who knows little about us really want to read this email, letter, newsletter or brochure? Is it screaming "Read me!," or just humming, like white noise in the world of over-communicating?
Get to know the donor. What is this donor hoping to accomplish in making this donation? Is he or she interested in the work we do, or was there another motivation for giving (i.e., a memorial gift to an organization the family of the deceased selected)? Is he or she interested in one aspect of the work we do, but not in everything? Instead of assuming that all first-time donors are infatuated by us and our every program, we need to tune in to the individual donor’s desires. If nothing else, that will keep us from mailing, for years to come, someone who really isn’t looking for a relationship—just a one-time transaction.
One simple technique to learn about the donor is to send out a series of three welcome emails (or mailed mini-newsletters) that parcel out information over a period of several weeks. By giving the donor the opportunity to respond to what he or she is more interested in, we gain insight into what kinds of future communications will be more compelling. A short survey (perhaps sent with the first receipt or in a welcome letter) can also help us get to know the donor’s interests. The key is not to be greedy; if we demand too much participation all at once, we risk losing the donor before we’ve even had a chance to build a relationship or invest in the “courtship”; after all, you want a lasting relationship, not a one-night stand.
Be patient. Donors seldom onboard at the pace we (or our bosses) would like to see. Some want to test the waters and make sure you are "for real." Many want to see the impact of the first gift before they give another. We need to be at least as committed to sharing results and stories showing impact as we are about asking for more money.
When donors had fewer choices and less reason to be skeptical of nonprofit organizations, they were, perhaps, more quick to engage over and over. But now we have to prove ourselves—again and again—and earn their confidence. It took Cubbie almost a year before I could step over her without her panicking; now she knows “Mommy” would never intentionally hurt her. Our donors need to see that we are different from the nonprofits in the negative stories they read in the press. After all, no one wants to be the fool who sent money to a scam. It will take time, but allow your new donors to fall in love with you at their own pace, providing them with engaging communications and genuine gratitude.
Back in the "old days," we gained a new donor at a fairly low cost, mailed to him or her like crazy, tried to upgrade the donor's giving right out of the gate, retained some—and kept acquiring more (still at a low cost). This old dog knows that, today, it’s much harder and much more expensive. So let’s take time to get to know our donors and build relationships with them, and, perhaps, more of them will stay around long enough to get to know and appreciate us, too.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.