The Difference Between Subscribers and Sustainers
Recently, Network for Good rebranded its activities focused on recurring gifts and called it subscription giving. And as part of the subscription, you would be wise to give donors certain benefits. It indicated that benefits would make people feel more engaged.
Then, at a recent webinar, someone asked me what I thought about subscription giving versus sustainers. So here’s my take on the difference.
Sustainers care about your organization and they make a commitment to support you on a typically monthly basis with gifts that fit their budget. They want you, as an organization, to succeed and sustain, and they are invested and committed to helping the people or animals you serve. There’s no end date really.
Subscribers makes it sound much less committed. A subscription is something that you cancel when you’ve had enough of it. It feels like there’s an end to it. It can be sooner. It can be later. It will be sooner if you don’t feel you get the benefits from it. It feels like there will be something better tomorrow. It feels much more transactional, and there must be a quid pro quo. “You owe me something in exchange for my subscription.”
If I subscribe to Netflix, I expect to gain entertainment from its streaming service. And If I don’t get what I want, I can cancel it and hop to another service. Once the benefits stop being the benefits I expect, I’m no longer interested.
Not so for sustainers. If the pandemic is any indication, sustainers do not act like subscribers at all. They do not need anything in return other than the feeling that they are making a difference. There have been so many wonderful stories from nonprofits whose sustainers have stepped up (on their own) and called to increase their gifts. And when asked for extra support, they did.
Especially in March and April, there was a slight surge in sustainers contacting organizations to stop their support for financial reasons. But often they were comfortable pausing it for a few months or staying on the list to keep getting updates. They did not stop caring. They did not stop because the benefits weren’t what they expected.
Frankly, thinking of your sustainers as subscribers will only make your life as a fundraiser more difficult, and it will delay the start or growth of your monthly giving program. I see and hear it all the time!
“Oh no, we can’t start because we have to have the perfect benefit package.” “Oh no, we have to have the perfect name.“ “Oh boy, we’re so busy with the virtual events. We don’t have time to even think about all of this. This seems too big of a mountain to climb.” So what happens? NOTHING.
Please, do yourself a favor. Do not consider your sustainers subscribers. They do not need fancy benefits. All they want is the basics. They want a thank you, preferably via email and mail, and ideally by phone as well. You already have those in place, right?
Sustainers want to know their gifts are making a difference. Keep it simple. I do like having a name for recognition, but it’s not absolutely necessary right away. You can always introduce that later.
When that’s done, look at what you’re already doing for other donors and other donor groups. Can you make a simple tweak in the first two lines of an email? Send them your print newsletter.
After that, maybe you’re doing something for your major donors. A phone or video call with the CEO. A conference call with a program person. An insider update. A video update. Invite your sustainers to be part of those. It costs you nothing, and you’re already doing it.
Here are a few terms I’d love you to remember: Basics. Repurpose! Under promise. No benefits needed. Over-deliver. Surprises welcome.
If something comes your way like a special message from a client, a card from a child you helped or a great story, think about who you could send it to. Always include your sustainers in that very special group of people, who’d love to see or hear about it.
I’ll end with four final thoughts:
- Donors make sustainer (recurring/monthly) gifts because they want to support your organization in a way that’s most comfortable for them.
- Benefits they get from these recurring gifts are much less important. In fact, when given the chance to opt-out, they don’t want any premiums.
- Unless they’ve specifically indicated not to, sustainers want to continue to get updates on how their gifts are making a difference.
- They do want to know that you value their monthly gifts.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what we call it: sustainers, subscription giving, monthly giving or recurring giving. It’s about how your donor wants to support your organization and the people/animals you serve.
Let’s not worry about having subscription benefit packages ready to go. It’s just going to cause delays.
Rather, jump in, start asking your donors to give monthly using the online tools you have. Have your basics in place (which you should have anyhow) and create additional cultivation and engagements later piggybacking on other things you’re already doing.
Note: I come from a publishing subscription background, so I’m certainly familiar with the advantages and disadvantages associated with them.
I’ve just learned that for nonprofits, it’s so important not to get too focused on having to have everything in place perfectly because it’s just going to delay matters.
Trust me, even organizations that have been running sustainer programs for years and years are still continuously tweaking and improving their monthly giving programs. But at least they have a good base of sustainers they can bank on, no matter what because they got started even if it wasn’t all perfect.
Erica Waasdorp is one of the leading experts on monthly giving. She is the president of A Direct Solution, a company serving nonprofit organizations with fundraising and direct marketing needs, with a focus on monthly giving and appeals. She authored "Monthly Giving: The Sleeping Giant" and "Monthly Giving Made Easy." She regularly blogs and presents on fundraising, appeals and monthly giving — in person and through webinars. She is happy to answer any questions you may have about this great way of improving retention rates for your donors.
Erica has over 30 years of experience in nonprofits and direct response. She helped the nonprofits she works with raise millions of dollars through monthly giving programs. She is also very actively supports organizations with annual fund planning and execution, ranging from copywriting, creative, lists, print and mail execution.
When she’s not working or writing, Erica can be found on the golf course (she’s a straight shooter) or quietly reading a book. And if there’s an event with a live band, she and her husband, Patrick, can be found on the dance floor. She also loves watching British drama on PBS. Erica and Patrick have two step sons and a cat, Mientje.