10 Things I Learned From 30 Years in Sustainer Giving, Part 1
I recently had the pleasure to present a keynote at Sustainers Day, organized by the Direct Marketing Association of Washington. It was a packed house, filled with nonprofits of different sizes and sustainer experiences.
I always learned that rather than a how-to session, a keynote was meant to be inspirational in nature. So, I reflected on my first days in sustainer giving, as well as before I got started in fundraising.
It’s incredible what happens when you look back and that alone can be a tremendous motivator. If nothing else, I highly recommend it. You’ll be amazed as to how far you’ve come, how much money you have raised, how many monthly donors you generated, etc.
We have sure come a long way in sustainer giving. Just seven years ago, the median program had some 9% of their donors give monthly. Now, that’s closer to 18%, with some outliers at 35% to even 60%!
Since 2015, so much has changed that it's making sustainer giving much easier for donors and nonprofits. Payment platforms; donor database; smartphones; and growth in email, social media and other channels have made a huge impact.
If we look at other countries, however, the U.S. is still lagging behind when it comes to sustainer giving. As you know, I’ve made it my life’s work and focus to help nonprofits understand the importance of small ongoing support and how it’s not hard to do as long as you get started.
Every single nonprofit at one point started at zero sustainers. Those that grew followed some best practices and were willing to try new things while continuing to do the basics.
From my many years working at and with nonprofits focused on monthly giving, I created the top 10 learnings when it comes to sustainer giving. Today I’m going to focus on the first two.
1. Details Can Make and Break Your Program
I see this happen all of the time. It’s not big things, it’s the little things, the details that can make a huge difference.
For example, a few years ago, I was working with a nonprofit that saw its sustainer retention rate plummet. I mapped out its process and what we found was that, for some bizarre reason, nobody could remember why they changed a code in the donor database. Everybody who was supposed to receive a reminder about a credit card expiring was not getting a reminder at all. The organization was bleeding sustainers left and right until we figured out this code problem and were able to stop the bleeding. And, of course, we added a reminder campaign to bring back as many of those who dropped out.
One little detail had a huge impact. During the presentation, I asked for other examples.
One person shared how she had sent out an appeal asking for American Express and Discover cards even though the nonprofit was actually not yet able to offer this.
Another nonprofit added a simple update link, which lifted retention by 50%, to its emails.
I bet you have your own examples of small details that made all the difference to your sustainer growth or retention.
2. There Is No Room for Silos
I was fortunate that I was trained at Reader’s Digest, and I carried those learnings with me for the rest of my career.
At Reader’s Digest, before a mailing would go to press, we organized a meeting with everybody at the table — creative, production, customer service, data entry and postal. We would go through the mailing step by step to look at it from every angle. We knew that it didn’t matter how good the creative looked. If it wasn’t scannable or would cause delays in data entry, it would lead to trouble.
Then right after a mailing dropped, we’d put on our jeans and work in the data-entry department. Nothing is more exciting than seeing some 65 bags of direct response envelopes get delivered, organized, weighed, sorted, scanned and entered into the database. It not only taught us respect for the folks working in data entry, but it also opened the door for every single one of us to connect. Nobody was afraid to ask questions or contact someone else. There was no hierarchy, rather a joint effort to make every single mailing the most successful it could be. Everybody working together, no matter what job description.
I know it’s not as easy as it sounds, but if the powers are willing to try to focus on the overall goal — raise as much money as possible from all channels and all levels of donors — eliminating silos will benefit your sustainer program for the better.
Sustainers permeate the organization. They come in through all channels. They impact many departments and different parts of nonprofits. As long as you accept that’s the case, and you realize that nobody is taking donors away, you can work together on growing sustainers to higher levels.
And if you understand that everybody in your organization wants to succeed and grow, and you open yourself up to collaborating with others in your organization, no matter what their job description is, you’ll do much better. You’ll solve more problems, but overall, you’ll prevent many, many more.
Editor's Note: This is the first part of a five-part series, 10 Things I Learned From 30 Years in Sustainer Giving. Each part contains two lessons.
10 Things I Learned From 30 Years in Sustainer Giving
Part 1: Details Can Make and Break Your Program and No Room for Silos
Part 2: Operations Is Your Friend and Curiosity Is a Virtue
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.