What do you most need to sustain your nonprofit through thick and thin?
A steady, reliable source of income – natch!
For most nonprofits this means loyal donors.
How do you get them?
Alas, too many nonprofits act as if all they need to do is acquire the donor; then, magically, that donor will stick with them forever. Sadly, the data shows otherwise. On average only 20% of first-time donors renew; only 43% of all donors renew. And there’s a very good reason this sorry state of affairs exists.
Most nonprofits woo donors the wrong way.
It may not happen all the time. But it happens enough. Too often, in fact. Does this look at all like the trajectory of how you handle a newly acquired gift?
- You badger the donor for gifts.
- When they give, you warehouse them in your database.
- You then send a form letter (pretending it’s personal because you use their given name and indicate their gift was earmarked for a particular purpose; in reality, most of the time you don’t know them from Adam nor do you try to get to know them beyond what they wrote on the flap of the remit envelope).
- Next, they get on your newsletter list and receive mass mailings.
- Before you know it – or know much about them — they’re getting another appeal letter.
There’s a better way.
Actively show donors love and trust. This is the best way to get them to love and trust you, and the two most important aspects of donor loyalty. Relationships that last are reciprocal. Penelope Burk, the queen of donor-centered fundraising, famously found through her research that donors’ number one desire is … please, please “show me that you know me.” If you want donors to trust you and be loyal to you, you have to trust them and be loyal to them. Simple, yes? Actually, no.
To earn trust and loyalty takes strategy. And it takes work. Mark Schaefer makes a brilliant analogy using his relationship with Home Depot, his favorite store. Or at least it used to be. He tells of trying to redeem his money-back guarantee on some dead plants and having a terrible time of it. He brought in the receipt and a photo of the detritus. The clerk he dealt with didn’t trust that they were in his yard. He might be lying. After years of loyal patronage, Mark thought they should be able to look up his buying history and see what a stand-up guy he’d been. He expected more. Because to him, “Home depot is not just a brand, it’s a buddy. It’s somebody I thought I could trust.” He felt betrayed.
Sadly, we inadvertently betray our donors all the time.
Some of the mistakes below may seem obvious. But be honest in asking yourself if you commit any of these sins. Many of them come simply from being thoughtless. Let’s face it, that tends to be our default. Have you ever found yourself saying “I just want to do something mindless for a while?” That’s because being thoughtful requires energy. Actively showing donors love and trust requires energy. And wooing, absent energy, is just… boring. It’s wrong.
WARNING: 12 Wrong Ways to Woo Donors
1. You misspell their names.
Surely you know better. Nothing says “I don’t really know you, nor do I care to” more than misspelling someone’s name. But names can easily get misspelled if they’re entered incorrectly in your database. My husband Mark regularly receives mail and email addressing him as Marc. I know Stephens who get Steven. And I know a Katie who gets Katy. Here are some more common first name spelling mistakes to be on the alert for.
ACTION: Put a quality assurance system in place. Whenever you hire someone new, or bring in a temp, be sure to set aside some time to spot check their work. Also always have the donor entry person double check what the donor writes on their remit against what you have in your database. Just as donor trust must be earned, so must data entry trust be earned. This is important!
2. You send a prospect letter to a current donor.
When you fail to segment your mailing lists by different types of donor affiliations, identities and behaviors you’re going to come across like a stranger. At a bare minimum, people expect you to know if they’re donors or not. If they are, it’s good practice to begin my thanking them and reminding them they’ve already made the decision to support your cause.
ACTION: Segment your mailing list between donors and non-donors; write slightly different messages for each segment. The more segmentation you do, the more personal you’ll come across. For example, segment out board members so you can tell them how they understand the importance of your mission more than others. Or segment out volunteers so you can let them know how their monetary gift will complement their gift of time. Also consider creating segmented landing pages for donors at different giving levels. Here are other ways to segment your lists.
3. You forget to cumulate their gifts and list them in the wrong gift society.
If you publicly acknowledge donors by Donor Honor Roll by giving level, know donors will immediately look to find themselves there. Some donors will intentionally make multiple gifts during the course of the year to get to their desired level. If you don’t add their 10 $100 tribute gifts and their $500 memorial gift to their one $1,000 “annual gift,” you’ll end up listing them as a $1,000 donor rather than at the $2,500 level. If you don’t soft credit them for a $5,000 gift made through a donor advised fund, you’ll end up listing them as a $100 donor based on a single tribute gift they made. These mistakes will make your donor crabby.
ACTION: Cumulate all gifts that are the functional equivalent of annual operating support; treat your donor accordingly. Make sure when you pull database reports you include soft credits. You shouldn’t add in the non-deductible portion of event tickets or purchases of raffle tickets or auction items purchased at or below fair market value. You will probably want to track capital campaign and deferred gifts separately.
4. You send a letter promising to call in two weeks; then forget or delay.
Nothing destroys trust faster than broken promises. However, the solution is not to eschew making promises. In fact, it’s great to promise things so you can fulfill on those promises and build your donors’ trust. Just make the promises easy to keep!
ACTION: Be conscious of the promises you make; put a system in place to remind you to do whatever you promise to do. Whether you use a hard copy “tickler” file system, a calendar reminder, a database reminder or a project management system reminder, do this systematically so you can’t forget. Another simple way to fulfill on your promise is to set up auto-responder messages. For example, your first thank-you for an online gift can say “you’ll receive a list of volunteer opportunities that may be of interest next week.” In advance, you’ve set up a second auto-responder that automatically mails a week later, saying “Thank you again for your meaningful support. As promised, here is a list of other ways you may wish to become involved.”
5. You only contact them when you want something from them.
If you want gifts you must give them. A good relationship is not one-sided. Don’t make your communications all about what you need; think about what your donors need.
ACTION: Figure out what your constituents want and need; then give it to them. It doesn’t have to be expensive or tangible. It can simply be an article you’ve written with answers to frequently asked questions. Or a “how to” guide. Or “top 10 tips” to keep your aging parents safe… go a little greener… get your kid to finish their homework… communicate your concerns to your legislator… etc. Share what you know and provide little “gifts” now, to promote longer and more lasting interactions later. Strive for 3 – 7 non-ask communications (e.g., via email, newsletter, blog, social media, text) for every ask.
6. You don’t ask them how they’re feeling, what their kids are up to or how they’re planning to spend the holiday.
Again, good relationships require give and take. Commit to becoming a good listener. Generally, the more people feel heard they more they feel valued. And the more they like you. Plus people tend to trust those who show warmth and caring more than those who don’t.
ACTION: Commit to being fully present, and do your best to convey positive emotions. Merely putting a smile on your face before you pick up the phone, which comes across in the tone of your voice, can work wonders. Did you know over a phone received is due to your tone of voice?
7. You invite them to a black tie dinner when they’ve told you they hate formal events.
It’s up to you to know as much as you can about your donor’s likes/dislikes so you can treat them the way they prefer to be treated. This is especially true for loyal donors who expect you to know them by now.
ACTION: Whenever someone tells you something about a like/dislike, be sure to record it in your database. Make sure you put the information in a field where current and future staff who access the database will easily find it. If I tell you I hate something, I expect you to know! The same holds true if I tell you I only want to be asked for a gift once a year. Or I only want mail, no phone calls. Or I only want to be contacted in the afternoon, never the early morning.
8. You ask them to support children’s services when all their gifts have been earmarked for senior services.
Again, donors expect you to notice not just what they tell you but what they show you. They want you to see them as they expect to be seen. If I’ve given three years in a row to support a particular program, I may get my knickers in a twist if you suddenly ask me to support something else. In fact, I may not even realize the request is coming from the same charity I supported in the past.
ACTION: Stick with a winning formula; segment appeals according to donor interest. I’m not suggesting you never send a more expansive “rescue animals from abuse and neglect” to cat donors. But when you do you might want to add a line or two that recognizes you know they especially care about protecting cats – which you appreciate! – and wanted to let them know about some of your other programs as well. Of course, warmly welcome their gift designated either “where most needed” or for “cat rescue” or “dog rescue.”
9. You personally invite them to attend an event; then barely say hello to them when they arrive because you’re busy with ‘more important’ supporters.
This is another example of failing to follow through on your promise and, alas, it happens more often than not. Fundraisers too often get caught up in “sales mode;” then forget future sales depend on wooing mode.
ACTION: Develop a stewardship system to nurture event guests. This may mean assigning different guests to different stewards (staff and/or volunteers) to make sure every guest is met, greeted and made to feel special. Don’t forget to include a mechanism to debrief your stewards so you can add what you learn to your donor database and strategically plan next steps.
10. You tell them you want to solicit their advice; then spend most of the time you’re together talking at them about the cost of the project you hope they’ll support.
You’ve likely heard the old adage “If you want advice ask for gifts; if you want gifts ask for advice.” It’s true, but once you ask you must listen.
ACTION: You have two ears and one mouth; use them in that proportion. Prepare some open-ended questions to get your donor telling their own story. Take note when their eyes light up; this is where their true passion lies!
11. You ask them to review a donor list; then never get back to them about using their contacts.
People hate to do work that isn’t used. We consider it “make work” – something with no useful purpose other than to give folks something to do. Trust me: Giving folks assignments you don’t follow up on won’t make them love or trust you.
ACTION: Don’t check a task off your checklist until you’ve taken all the requisite next steps. Include these steps in your written plan and assign someone (even if it’s yourself) to hold you accountable for the follow-through. The fact board members give you names or feedback does not mean you’re done. Always ask: “Why did the board member do this work, and what will they expect in return?” If I’m the board member, I expect to find out if you solicited my contacts and whether or not they ended up giving.
12. You ask them to solicit a gift; then never get back to them to let them know if their assigned prospect contributed.
I’ve often asked current loyal donors to solicit their personal networks. Or I’ve assigned a major donor to make a peer ask. Simply making the assignment, then dropping the donor like a hot potato, is a particularly egregious violation of trust because it makes the solicitor feel used. Your goal should be to make them feel like a vital team player; a valued, integral member of your family. And for this to happen you must keep them in the conversation.
ACTION: Keep a record of all your assigned solicitors in some type of donor or project management system. Your database CRM may have the ability to track next steps for you and notify you when actions need to be taken. Or you can try a simple free or low-cost web-based tool like Asana, Trello, Basecamp or one of the many other tools available these days.
No doubt you can come up with many more similar examples of wrong way donor wooing. A lot of this comes from failing to think of your donor interactions as transformational, not just for your organization but for the donor as well.
Don’t Be a Transactionalist
Donors should be able to trust you to want to build a relationship with them. Why wouldn’t you want to do this? Donors are kind to you. They’re there for you when you need them. Don’t you pay lip service all the time to the fact that “we’re in this together?” That together you’re creating a more caring community and sustainable environment? That together you’re greater than we are standing alone?
You’ve got to do more than pay lip service to friendship. Friendship takes time and work. You have to be thoughtful about the interactions that will help you to form emotional bonds. You need a strategy that enables you to engage with your friends/donors in numerous ways over time.
And you can’t always be asking; sometimes you must be giving. Thoughtfully, personally and taking into consideration what different donors want and need. What you give to donors must be more than pro forma “canned” appreciation. An annual listing and recognition of years/level of giving is lovely. But it’s the bare minimum. It won’t have the impact that a real person picking up the phone and singing happy birthday will have. An analogy would be religiously receiving a birthday check from an aunt, with simply a signed Hallmark card. Nothing personal. And that’s it for the year. Your engagement with donors needs to be similar to the way you’d engage with a cherished friend with whom you wanted to build a real relationship.
Interested in Learning More about the Right Way to Woo Donors?
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