Donor Retention in Uncertain Times

For most nonprofits, 2020 was a year to remember.  With the onset of Covid-19, program services were modified, fundraising events were canceled or moved online, and regular communication with donors was reduced.  But the good news is that many nonprofits also saw surges in donations, especially those whose mission coincides with helping those less fortunate, such as a food pantry, homeless shelter or employment training center. Donor retention will be a strong factor to successful fundraising in 2021. During uncertain times, how can a nonprofit retain and grow donors?

Donor retention is the key to success for any nonprofit. Because they have already shown empathy and support for your mission, recurring donors become valuable ambassadors to the community and can bring other donors on board. Those who give regularly can often be tapped for larger donations, special gifts for particular areas of interest, or even bequests.  So how do you keep your donors coming back?

Donors support organizations for three main reasons:  1) they identify with the mission for a personal or professional reason; 2) they trust that the organization is using its donor funds wisely toward a measurable impact; and 3) their experience as a donor has been a positive one.  If you are looking to retain new donors and add even more donors in the coming year, it is important to examine all three of these areas.

Provide a clear message

People give to organizations when they feel the mission, when they can imagine themselves in the position of those needing help and they want to partner in a solution. Donors give repeatedly to an organization when the messaging on the mission and the impact of their work is strong and clear.

For example, consider the TV commercials for St. Jude Children’s  Research Hospital. As expected, they show children who are suffering from cancer, and their families who suffer with worry. But the impact of what St. Jude’s does is even stronger than these images, and together their message has resonates. They “won’t stop until no child dies of cancer;” and “no family pays…”  St. Jude’s donors feel the pain and the commitment. They also know exactly what their funds are being used for all in a message that is conveyed in just a couple of sentences.  Donors identify with the families and the mission and are impressed by the impact.

How do you keep your donors coming back?  Help them to identify with your mission and impact.  Provide regular communication about the impact of their donations:  share success stories in the words of those served; provide data on who is served and the short- and long-term results; and find ways to engage donors as volunteers, advisors or community ambassadors of your organization.

Steward Donor funds responsibly

Trust is the key to any long-term relationship and the nonprofit-donor relationship is no exception. Donors want to know that their first donation was used well and contributed to a measurable impact before making another donation. They want to know that the majority of funds are spent on the work of the organization, and not on frills or unrelated expenses.

It is important for nonprofit boards to establish funding priorities within the scope of activities that contribute to their mission.  By establishing priorities, a nonprofit narrows its focus to critical parts of its mission and then directs its funding toward activities within those areas, regardless of other types of opportunities that present themselves.  They “stay in their lane” and avoid distractions and expenses they don’t need.

Most importantly, successful stewards of donor funds communicate their funding priorities to all stakeholders.  Donors, clients, and community members know where their funding goes, and can then make informed decisions about future donations.  A monthly newsletter, annual report, phone calls, and frequent social media posts about activities help to clarify the message and build the necessary trust with donors.

Ensure a quality Donor Experience

People tend to repeat actions and behaviors that make them feel good. Philanthropy is no different. Donors who feel good about their support of an organization are likely to donate again… and again. A quality donor experience can make a first-time donor into a lifetime friend.

Here is where a little forensic research is in order.  What is it like to be a donor to your organization?  Do your donors feel valued, recognized and appreciated?  How do you acknowledge their contributions?  How much time passes before contributions are acknowledged?  Do you encourage other forms of engagement?  Do you ask regular donors to partner with you at a higher level or to become ground level supporters of a special cause within your mission?  In other words, do your donors feel like valued members of your team?

Donor relationships need to be maintained just like any friendship is maintained. Friends keep in touch, they share what is going on with themselves and ask questions about what is going on with the other. They share interests and concerns openly and they look for common ground. Nonprofits should make a point of keeping in personal touch with donors – not just to ask for more money, but to share news and special impact stories. It is also a good idea to ask donors for their input into how they might like to partner on a need or specific activity.

As always, when it comes to donor relations, communication is key. If your nonprofit had a large number of new donors in 2020, celebrate, cultivate and retain them in 2021!

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