You’ve got to make donor retention more of a priority to survive and thrive in today’s competitive nonprofit marketplace.
Research shows the average nonprofit in the U.S. loses 81% of donors after the first gift!!!!!
In and out a revolving door is too expensive to be sustainable.
To make matters worse, the probability a donor will make five consecutive gifts is only 10-15%. These numbers are just not sustainable for most organizations. By the time you’ve added a new donor most of your previous new donors are out the door.
And, by the way, did you know donor acquisition costs you money? Yup. On average, it will cost you $1.00 – $1.25 to bring in a new donor dollar. So… the value of a new donor to your organization is wrapped up in the concept of donor lifetime value. Once you have a new donor, the cost to renew them is much less expensive than the cost to acquire them. Just like in for profit marketing, keeping a current customer is easier than finding a new one. But… you have to actively engage in customer cultivation and renewal strategies.
If you don’t energetically renew and upgrade donors over time, you may as well never have recruited them.
Allow that to sink in a moment.
Might you effectively be wasting a lot of time, energy and money on acquisition? Could some of your resources be more effectively deployed to donor retention?
I’m going to go out on a limb and wager the answer is a resounding YES.
Do you know what your donor retention rate is? If you do, there’s hope for you to improve it. Read on.
If you don’t, you don’t even know there’s something that needs fixing! Read on.
You’ve got to fix the leaky bucket.
Whichever situation you’re in, I’ll bet you can do much better.
You can fix things with the power of just two words:
At least if you want repeat gifts. So… if you say you can’t afford to spend a lot of resources on a vigorous donor acknowledgment and stewardship program, I say WHAT? You can’t afford not to.
Developing a robust gratitude program is the most important thing you can do to retain and upgrade donors.
Today I’d like to talk about one of the most under-utilized ways of thanking donors. Yet it’s probably the method that has the most lasting impact.
Are your ears perked up? This is something that, if you do it, you’ll really stand out. In a good way.
And the ends will more than justify the means. You’ll raise more money. Guaranteed.
Want to know what it is?
THE FOLLOW-UP THANK YOU PHONE CALL.
It’s your secret weapon!
Sending a thank you letter for a gift may sound easier than making a call, but for many donors it may be well worth it to pick up the phone to say thank you — in addition to sending a letter before or after.
If you’re a doubter, allow me to clue you in to a famous experiment by Penelope Burk, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising. In a test with board members calling to thank donors within 48 hours, those called gave an average of 39% more than those not called – and they gave 42% more even after 14 months! Calls, it seems, have a real lasting value.
This research has been subsequently confirmed, and it’s definitely something I’d recommend you test for yourself.
Let’s break it down into a 6-step planning/execution process:
- Who to call
- Who should make the call
- When to call
- How to call
- What to say
- How to say it
- Next steps
1. WHO to call
People often ask me who should be targeted to receive these calls. After all, you can’t call everyone. Can you?
The answer to this question is: It depends. Bloomerang conducted an experiment to see how 50 randomly selected nonprofits in the Indianapolis-metro area responded to their first-time $5 gifts. Not a single nonprofit of 50 called to thank the new Bloomerang donors. In fact, only 38% asked for a phone number! Folks, you want to be able to communicate easily with your donors.
Ask for phone numbers on your response devices and donation pages!
As you can see from this experiment, you’ll definitely stand out if you call to say thank you.
If you’re a small nonprofit, calling every single donor may be your best way to begin to build your donor base. What better way to get to the point where you’ve too many donors to call all of them?!
You need to wow folks and impress upon them not just how grateful you are but how efficient and on top of things you are. The more you build trust, the more you’ll build a relationship. Then these donors will be more likely to stay with you, and you won’t simply be churning donors in and out — keeping a static mailing list.
I know, you’re thinking smaller gifts don’t merit a call; this experiment was just for a $5 gift.
Suppose it was a $100 gift. Would you call to thank then?
I always made sure first-time donors of $100+ got calls. I tested calls to a percentage of first-time donors below that amount, and would encourage you to do so as well. [Confession: I never ended up with anything definitive showing this was worth/not worth the effort. Why? Staff got busy and didn’t follow through, thinking it wasn’t that important for these small donors. Right? Wrong!]
Here’s a mantra borrowed from Penelope Burk of Donor-Centered Fundraising, with my italics added:
“Treat every donor like a major donor when you can.”
Of course, it isn’t always practical to call every donor. In that case, you can prioritize your calls in an order that makes sense for your organization.
I like to call donors at your major gift level (e.g., $1,000+), first-time donors (especially at $100+), donors who make a significant increase and donors who reach a cumulative giving milestone.
I also like to call monthly donors at least annually, just to connect and thank them for their special loyalty.
I also recommend testing a random sampling of your mid-level donors – those you wish to upgrade – to see if this results in renewals at a higher level.
ACTION TIP: If you’ve not already done so, subscribe to Clairification and grab your free “Donor Thank You Calls E-Book + Script” for a suggested order of priority for “must call” donors and some ideas of donor segments you might test.
2. WHO should make the call
Use anyone you can – provided they’ll be genuine and passionately grateful – to makes these calls. Board members love to do this, and this has the added benefit of getting them used to talking with donors – a great way to ease them into making fundraising calls.
If you can’t find board members, consider having beneficiaries make these calls. This creates a lovely tangible link between the donor’s gift and its outcome.
ACTION TIP: Be pragmatic. I’ve found folks are quite happy to receive a timely call from a staff member, as long as the caller doesn’t sound like they’re robotically checking a task off their ‘to do’ list. If this is the only way to assure your call is made within 48 hours, by all means assign the calls to donor-friendly staff. They don’t have to be development staff! In fact, donors respond really well to calls from program staff who actually will be in the trenches using the money the donors made available to create meaningful outcomes.
3. WHEN to call
It’s best to do so within a month of the gift. After that it is more likely to be perceived as an additional solicitation. For new donors and significantly upgraded gifts, I like to stick to the 48-hour rule.
ACTION TIP: Plan ahead for immediate calls from board members after an event. Remember: Penelope Burk’s research shows that a board member calling to thank a supporter within 48 hours of a donation can result in a 39% increase in giving next year. That’s all well and good, but in practice it’s hard to make that happen. The calls get assigned, but they don’t get made. Or they get made too late. So how about picking a date when you know you’ll have a lot of gifts and can plan ahead to bring your board together to make calls? For auctions, thank donors who give more than the fair market value of auction items and those who buy fund-a-need items that are really just a donation.
4. HOW to call
You can make thank you calls as an organized group endeavor — a “thankathon” (with refreshments, of course!) or you can simply make individual assignments. The benefit of the former is that you assure the calls get made, and you can conduct a training beforehand to help folks feel confident with what they should say. It’s also a fun, feel-good experience for everyone involved. The benefit of the latter is that it’s convenient – but you’ve got to follow up with your callers to find out the outcomes!
ACTION TIP: Pull together a small committee to make thank you calls on a regular basis. This can be a “Thankathon Committee” or simply a subcommittee of your development committee or volunteer guild who agree to take on regular assignments. You might even try pulling these folks all together for a Zoom Live Thankathon. Of course, folks will all need to be muted. But there’s something positive and communal about seeing your peers on the phone, chatting a way. You can even incorporate periodic break periods where folks can unmute and share some of their experiences. This can be a feel good bonding experience, spurring people on to the next round of calls. And you can use testimonials from the event to recruit volunteers for the next one a month down the line.
5. WHAT to say
Every call will be different. The core of what you say, however, will be the same.
“Hi Joe, this is Claire working for Beloved Charity, and I just called to say how much we appreciate your recent gift to support our Important Program!”
Brief and to the point. It’s a pure gratitude call. The greatest impact of this call comes from its purity. Donors are pleasantly surprised you’ve called simply to express appreciation and you don’t want anything else from them.
ACTION TIP: If you don’t reach your donor, leave a message. It’s silly to waste the time/energy you took to make the call. Try again one more time because research shows retention is better when you speak with a live person. Be pragmatic though. If you know you won’t have the time to try again within a two-day timeframe, leave a message now. Keep it short. No one wants to come home to a long, rambling voice mail. But they’ll be pleased with a brief, warm thank you message.
[Get a complete outline, including the 6 most important elements of a great thank you call, in my free “Donor Thank You Calls E-Book + Script”]
6. HOW to say it
With a smile on your face (this will put a smile in your voice). Did you know 84% of the message over a phone is your tone of voice? People on the receiving end can even tell if you’re wearing a slight smile or a wide, ear-to-ear grin! This is why customer service representatives are often taught to “Smile and Dial.”
ACTION TIP: Call while sitting or standing next to a mirror so you can see if you’re smiling. Or try pasting a happy photo next to your phone, like a cute animal, baby or anything that brings you joy.
7. NEXT STEPS
1. Make a record.
Whether you just leave a voicemail or have a live conversation with a donor, you want to make a note of the results and record them in your database. Remember, the goal of building ongoing relationships is to show donors you know them. Once they’ve told you something, they expect you to remember! If you assign the calls to volunteers or other staff, make sure they report back to you with the results of their calls. It’s your responsibility to make sure this information is captured so you can become more and more donor-centered as you build your relationships over time.
2. Do what you said you’d do, and do it NOW.
This seems obvious, but sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Maybe you got to chatting and promised to send your donor some information. Or perhaps the donor told you about someone who is recently deceased, and you know you should make a note in their donor record. If your job is to call, but it’s someone else’s job to follow up, make sure this doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
ACTION TIP: Don’t forget to record the simple fact this donor received a call, especially if you’re doing a test to determine if it’s worth devoting more time/resources to making thank you calls. Only by measuring results will you know if those who were called performed better (renewed at higher percentage rates and/or higher dollar levels) than those who were not called.
BONUS: The Spontaneous Thank You Call
Don’t confine thank you calls to just after a monetary gift is made. There are all sorts of opportunities to thank folks, and in this case more is more. You really can’t thank people too much! Think about this personally for a minute. If someone thanks you for something once it feels good. But that feeling evaporates over time. If you see the person again, and they remindyou how grateful they remain for what you did, it reinforces the good feelings for you. This probably makes you feel warm and friendly towards them.
To really boost donors’ good feelings, and overall donor retention, requires an organization-wide culture in which you channel an attitude of gratitude all year long.
Partly this means taking a moment, maybe daily, to think about what you’re grateful to your donors for. Sometimes thinking about specific people helps. This is where spontaneous phone calls come in. Think of it as planned “random acts of kindness.” In other words, you may not know in advance specifically what you’re going to do, or who you’re going to call, but you do have the ongoing intention to do something to keep the love flowing and solidify your donor relationships.
As you develop your annual strategic development plan, incorporate a number of gratitude strategies. Here’s one idea:
ACTION TIP: Set aside 15 minutes on your calendar every day just to make thank you calls. Rack your brain (if you must) to come up with someone who did something for you. It may be another person on your staff. It may be a vendor. It may be a donor’s administrative assistant. And, of course, don’t forget your donors! You can also use these calls to get to know folks and to let them get to know you. SPECIAL BONUS: The more you rock your donor acknowledgement, the better you’ll feel. Yup. There’s psychological research on gratitude that shows the benefits are reciprocal. Gratitude is contagious — in a very good way! Nothing else will keep your donors in as continually a receptive frame of mind.
Want to Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude?
If you’re among the slew of nonprofits who received a lot of new donations during the pandemic months, you owe it to yourself to develop a robust plan to convert these generous folks to ongoing supporters. Grab my Attitude of Gratitude Donor Guide. You’ll learn what donors really want from you, with specifics on precisely how to give it to them.
Remember your prompt, personal thank you builds a bridge to future support and deeper engagement. Do it well, and you are on your way to future fundraising success.
A version of this post originally appeared December, 2015 on the Network for Good blog. The advice remains just as true today as it was then, in fact more so — because donor retention has sadly decreased over the ensuing period. If you learn to rock thank you calls, and other forms of gratitude, you’ll stand out — in a very good way. These are simple, tested strategies — that too few nonprofits employ.