The 3 R's of the Engage Conference: Retention, Risk and Reward
I have been with FundRaising Success in some capacity for more than five years now, and the thing that has really stood out to me more than anything is how willing the wonderful people in the fundraising sector are to talk about and share their experiences with one another. It's been invaluable to me as someone who came to this publication with no background whatsoever in fundraising prior to joining the FS team.
That sharing of knowledge, ideas, successes and failures was on full display last week at our inaugural Engage Conference held at the beautiful WHYY building here in Philadelphia. We were extremely lucky to have such a wonderful panel of speakers, including the keynote by fundraising legend Roger Craver; three case studies from Operation Smile, American Bible Society and Human Rights Campaign; and lively roundtables and a Q&A with members of our Editorial Advisory Board and more.
Listening and interacting with the presenters, I noticed that three themes seemed to emerge among all the presentations — retention, risk and reward, or the three R's.
Retention has been a buzzword for a while in the industry, and it particularly picked up steam as many organizations cut acquisition and focused on retaining their donors. As we all know, the cost to retain a current donor is much less than the cost of acquiring a new donor. We also know that without acquiring new donors, an organization's donor pool will eventually dry up, so it's important to do both.
In his keynote, Roger Craver focused a lot on retention — no surprise if you follow his posts on The Agitator. As only Roger can, he laid out his keynote by telling a fairy tale, and then — again, as only Roger can — made his feelings about the industry clear. And he continually hammered the point home about retention, and retaining donors in the right way. Proper cultivation is necessary to turn first-time donors into loyal, caring donors.
Retention was also a key trend among the three case studies. Tom Harrison, CEO of Russ Reid, made it a point that it's not incumbent upon the donor to donate to what the organization wants him or her to donate to; it's incumbent upon fundraisers to figure out what donors want and ask them — and cultivate them to retain them — appropriately. Both ABS and HRC discussed their retention practices as well.
Innovation cannot happen in any sector without risk, and fundraising is no different. However, many nonprofits are hesitant to take risks for a variety of reasons — budget constraints, old-school ideology, etc. But without risk, it's very hard to get to the third R, reward.
Both ABS and HRC shared the enormous risks they've taken over the years and what they learned from them. For starters, before Joseph Pierce came on board at ABS, the higher-ups decided to stop acquisition for three years. Obviously, that is a huge risk, but one that has not been uncommon during the turbulent economic times of the past five years.
As you would suspect, that risk did not pay off, as ABS saw a decline in its donor file, so the organization decided to aggressively acquire donors after that. That also proved tricky with the cost of acquisition until it found a happy medium, acquiring donors in a more reasonable manner.
Another risk that had the crowd gasping was the decision to let 125,000 donors on the ABS file go. After careful analysis, ABS decided that those donors simply weren't the type of loyal donors they wanted, donors committed to the cause and prospects for legacy gifts — a huge source of revenue for the organization. Those 125,000 donors were mostly premium-motivated donors, and the cost of acquiring and retaining them simply didn't fit with the mission. They tended to only respond to premiums, not mission-oriented appeals.
Many attendees could not believe any organization would let such a large contingent of donors go, but ABS stuck by its principles and took that risk. It has led to a higher percentage of loyal donors, but it also saw 125,000 donors get phased out. Talk about taking a risk!
Of course, the HRC is known for taking risks. As an advocacy organization that focuses a lot in the political space, risk-taking is at its core, and the fundraisers are not only allowed to take risks — they're encouraged to. It's an ideal that comes from the top and trickles all the way down the organization.
The panelists shared both successes and failures of that risk-taking, whether it was going out all against the Bush campaign (and "failing" when he was re-elected) or aggressively hitting the mailstream as most organizations were cutting back on direct mail during the recession (success). The key to HRC's success is its willingness to take risks, to not be afraid to fail. It was a great lesson for any fundraiser hesitant to try something new for fear it may fail. It may … but it also may propel your fundraising and your organization forward, and without taking those risks, it's extremely difficult to get your nonprofit to the next level.
The third R that kept cropping up was the reward. Fundraising is hard. It's frustrating. And it can be deflating, hearing "no" time and time again. But the reward is when you find those donors to truly connect with so your organization can accomplish such great work. It's rewarding to the fundraisers. It's rewarding to the donors. It's rewarding to the people the organization helps. And it's rewarding to the world.
Engage was such a rewarding experience for us here at FundRaising Success, and I hope it was just as rewarding for all our wonderful attendees, gracious speakers, tremendous sponsors and the generous folks at WHYY. Can't wait to do it again next year!