Nonprofit Donor Thank You’s: What are You Doing to Stand Out? | Fund Raising

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Face it. There are lots of worthy causes for donors to support. I’m sure yours is a good one too, but… you’ve got a big problem.

Once you manage to acquire, or even renew, a , how are you going to win them back again? How are you going to upgrade them? How are you going to build a lasting relationship with them so their lifetime value is worth your investment of time, talent and treasure?


Sadly, many nonprofits spend more time on acquisition than retention. A year ago I surveyed folks to find out what held them back from taking calculated steps to keep their donors loyal. And make no mistake. A huge part of donor retention hangs on how well you say thank you.

And by “how well” I mean to say how (1) timely, (2) personal, (3) frequent and (4) meaningful your donor communications are when you’re not asking for money.

You see, many of the gobs and gobs of nonprofits out there do a lousy job of showing gratitude. So lousy, that many of their donors don’t repeat. That’s why donor retention rates are so abysmal.  

Stop trying to fit in and look like every other organization out there. Sometimes what’s touted as ‘best practice’ is really just a way to blend in with the wall paper. If you can out, in a good way, you can be the diamond in the rough. The cause that donors stick with through thick and thin.

But you have to stop making excuses and start making a plan.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

Here are what respondents to my survey reported:

  • Lack of time and talent: The number one reason organizations don’t make retention a higher priority is they can’t find sufficient hours in a day or sufficient staff to whom to assign tasks.
  • Lack of a plan: In second place was lack of a written plan.
  • Lack of knowledge, skills and resources: Next comes lack of budget and lack of knowledge and skills.
  • Leadership inertia or apathy: Failure to question the status quo also scored a reasonably high response.
  • Aging donors: Folks needing to replace donors who are dying, are making the mistake of not at least balancing acquisition with retention in order to keep the new donors being acquired.
  • Lack of ability to get thank you’s out fast enough: Folks reported the acknowledgement process takes too much time to ensure a quick turn-around.

All of these excuses are understandable. But just because they’re within reason does not mean you have permission to use them. At least not if you want to make the best – and smartest – use of your precious resources.

I’m asking you to reconsider your priorities. Please recognize I’m not suggesting you stop trying to acquire new donors. But you need a balance. Did you know every 100 donors gained in 2017 was offset by 99 lost donors through attrition? That’s why simply prioritizing acquisition is senseless.

Balance Gains Against Losses

If you don’t yet have an intentional “Stand Out” donor retention and gratitude plan, I encourage you to share this take-away from the 2018 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report with your ‘powers that be.’

“Growth in giving is increased both by maximizing gains and minimizing losses, and management and boards need to know this to make intelligent, informed, growth-oriented planning and budgetary decisions.”

Got it?

It’s all about making donors feel they belong. Like they’re members of your community… tribe… family. Otherwise, they’ll move on to another group where they feel more appreciated.

Until You’ve Renewed Someone, They’re Not a Member of Your Family

They’re just a visitor.

In article #3 of this four-part series on donor retention and gratitude we’ll take a look at what makes a donor really a donor. Because when it comes to the types of supporters you should be trying to engage further, I can count at least 10 different categories. Some are first-timers. Some are one-timers. Some are repeaters. Some are major donor prospects. And so forth. Each one deserves a tailored approach. At least to the extent you can manage it.

However, you don’t have to slice and dice everything this finely if you don’t have the bandwidth. You just have to do something to improve your results. If not, you’ll simply wither and die.

Here’s one thing you absolutely must be aware of, and it comes from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project which has been monitoring donor retention for a decade. Last year, only 23% of first-time donors made a second gift.

Donors? Or one-time visitors?

We also absolutely know from this research that if you can renew a first-time donor just once, you’ll increase their chances of giving again from 23% to 60%.

Let me put that another way.

If you prioritize getting a second gift, your donor is three times more likely to stay with you than if you don’t have a targeted second gift strategy.

The First Step to Renewal is Thank You

The best way to begin improving donor retention is with an easy-to-execute commitment – and a written plan – to say thank you more effectively.

Never acquire a donor until you also have a strategy for keeping that donor.

This is the first step in what’s often called a ‘next gift’ strategy. And if your development strategic plan does not incorporate such a strategy, you’re missing the whole point. Simply hoping donors will give again next time you ask them won’t work. The data shows clearly that “hoping” doesn’t work

Smart, effective fundraising is not about hoping, but planning and acting. It’s not about single transactions. It’s about cumulative transformation.

Your job is to transform one-time donors into loyal members of the family.

Whether donors stick with you, or not, is in your control.

So… no more excuses.

An Easy-to-Execute ‘Stand Out’ Thank You Plan

In article #1 we covered some nonprofit thank you “no-no’s” and I suggested solutions so you can overcome common pitfalls. Today I want to take this a step further with some concrete strategies to help you be seen as outstanding.

HERE’S AN OUTSTANDING GRATITUDE PLAN:

1. If donors give online, send a thank you that way. And not just an automated-looking receipt.

  • Send online donors immediately to a custom, branded donation thank you page with messaging and images tied to your appeal. This reassures them their gift was received and will be used as intended. This starts your relationship out with them feeling they can trust you, and trust is absolutely the foundation of any lasting relationship.
  • Then follow up right away with an email, text or social media thank you (depending on the platform they used to make the gift). Personalize this to the extent possible by using their first name. You can even prepare a 15-second video thank you (use your cell phone to film yourself saying thanks so much!). This shows your donor you know them, or at least would like to become their friend. Since not everyone does this, you’ll stand out!

2. If donors give via snail mail, send a thank you that way. And don’t delay!

  • Send offline donors a letter within 48 hours. Promptness today is expected. Amazon does it. You have to do it too. Sorry, but that’s life in our digitally-revolutionized, instant gratification age.
  • Consider making a phone call right away. If you can’t get your letter out right away, this at least lets your donor know their gift was received and very much appreciated. You can leave a message if you don’t get them in person. And if you can’t call everyone, pick a subset to call (e.g., all gifts over $100; all repeat donors; all first-time donors, etc.). Leah Eustace at Good Works found “A one-minute thank-you call to new donors increased conversion by over 30%.

3. No matter how donors give, think about ways to deliver planned acts of kindness throughout the year. Adopt a gratitude culture and make saying thank you part of everyone’s job, not just the fundraising staff. Here are just a few concrete suggestions:

  • Keep a stack of five note cards on your desk. Each day, write a little thank you to someone who did you a kindness that week. Perhaps a donor, or maybe a work colleague. At the end of the week, replenish your stock. Ask others on your staff to do the same.
  • Set aside 15 minutes each day for thank you calls or texts or tweets. Tailor your method to the communication preference of your recipient. You don’t have to call, text or tweet only major donors. Reach out to anyone who strikes you as deserving of a little hug that week.
  • Give your board members assignments to call and thank donors. I’ve found they love doing this, and it has the added benefit of getting them comfortable talking with donors (and on a path to becoming more comfortable with fundraising). Whenever I’ve done this, after a while folks actually asked me to give them these calls!
  • Assign responsibility for donor service.  This can be either a dedicated staff member (e.g., “Donor Services Manager”) or responsibilities can be assigned as part and parcel of one or more staff members’ job descriptions. Based on years of experience, I can guarantee you if you don’t assign wooing your supporters as a responsibility, it will fall to the back burner.
  • Make sure there is a manager overseeing the Gratitude Plan and holding folks accountable. If you’re a one-person shop, ask your board or development committee chair to hold you accountable. This means talking about the importance of donor retention at board and development committee meetings. Avoid the trap of simply talking about how to find new donors. Who cares, if you can’t keep them?

4. Develop a system to collect and save impact stories.

  • Make sharing stories a common practice within your organizational culture. Do this with staff and volunteers alike. You can find some suggestions to ‘make it so’ here.
  • Share emotional stories as a ‘gift’ to your donors. Everyone loves a good story, so this is one of the best ways to thank donors for giving those who rely on your for support the happy endings they deserve. Make donors feel like the heroes they are for contributing to your vital mission – beginning with immediately after they give, and continuing throughout the year.

5. Put all of your donor gratitude strategies into written “Donor Acknowledgement Policies and Procedures.”

  • Convene a cross-disciplinary to develop these policies. Don’t do it alone. Get together everyone who touches a donor’s gift, from the minute it enters your doors until the moment it winds up in the donor’s mailbox.  Seek input and buy-in from every stakeholder.
  • Commit together to turning these agreed-upon procedures into a written document that is incorporated into an annual work plan. Include measurable objectives and timeframes (who, what, when and where). Decide how you’ll keep this operational, and hold folks’ feet to the fire.

A Successful Fundraiser Combines “Getting” with “Keeping”

If you make thanking an afterthought… or relegate writing thank you copy to someone without demonstrated copywriting skills… or ignore the importance of creating donation thank you landing pages… or fail to prepare attentive, caring online acknowledgements… or neglect to make quick turn-around a priority… or fail to report back on positive outcomes over the course of the year… then you’re essentially bidding your hard-won donors farewell.

Take a look at your donor retention rates. Are they average or above average?  I’ll bet you can improve your results! No nonprofit is too small, or too large, to make donor retention a higher priority.

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