Some rules are meant to be broken. These three aren’t. Never.
That is, unless you want to continue to lose donors hand over fist. If you’re the average nonprofit you’re retaining only 27% of first-time donors and 43% of all supporters.
The most recent Fundraising Effectiveness Report revealed the depressing data. It shows a pattern of donor acquisition and retention that’s two steps forward, three steps back. Yup.
You’re losing ground: 105 donors lost for every 100 gained.
That’s not a sustainable funding strategy. At this rate, your nonprofit will soon become extinct. But it’s not inevitable. If you’re not retaining as many donors as you’d like, you’ve no one to blame but yourself. And I’m here to tell you why.
You’re not thanking donors properly
GRANDMA ANALOGY: She gives you a blue sweater for your birthday. You can do one of three things. (1) Ignore it. (2) Say “thanks for the gift, love, Joey.” (3) Write “I adore the blue sweater! It’s my favorite color, as you know. Here’s a photo of me wearing it. I’ll think of you every time it’s keeping me cozy and warm.”
If you choose option #1, you may never get another gift. Choose option #2 and who knows? Grandma certainly won’t feel good about all the time she spend to find you the perfect gift. She may even wonder if you remember what she gave you vs. what another relative gave you. Option #3 however, will give Grandma a warm fuzzy feeling and will probably win you future thoughtful gift.
Begin to gain ground with the power of thank you.
Let’s apply the ‘Grandma’ analogy to your nonprofit’s donor acknowledgment program. This is the place to begin to stem the tide of donor attrition. And it’s pretty easy. You just need to get serious about how your handle your donor acknowledgements.
If you want to keep more donors, and see their lifetime value to you surge, you must treat your donors like you would treat your loved ones. Begin by committing to follow – and never break — these 3 Donor Thank You Rules.
3 rules for thanking nonprofit donors that should never be broken
1. Send a letter within 48 hours
Your donor needs to know, right away, that you received and appreciated their gift. If you leave them wondering, they’ll start to think either (a) you don’t care, (b) their gift never arrived (putting the burden on them to check and find out), and/or (c) you’re an inefficient steward of their gift. None of these things inspire trust. Nor do they give the donor a warm glow about what they’ve done.
This rule applies to all donors. Big ones. Little ones. Offline ones. Online ones. [Pet Peeve: I hate to see online donors treated differently than offline donors. A casually dashed off email thank you (or a dry, formal receipt, which is even worse) is just not the same thing as a thoughtful note in your own handwriting, perhaps with a donor welcome packet included (more on handwriting and mailing inserts in Rule #2, below)]. I will give you a little grace period for getting out the snail mail letter to online donors, provided you sent them a prompt email thank you. Not just an auto-generated receipt. Something you put some thought into, that maybe includes a link to a Thank You Landing Page that includes a compelling video demonstrating the impact of the donor’s gift.
I’m serious about the 48-hour turnaround. Penelope Burk, author of “Donor-Centered Fundraising,” found that when board members called donors within 48 hours of their gift, 39% more renewed than those who weren’t called; 43% gave more than donors who weren’t called. If you think this sounds impossible, I have an E-Guide on my Clairification website that shows folks how to accomplish the 48-hour turnaround.
Here’s what adherence to this rule achieves:
- It lets your donor know you received the gift.
- It lets your donor know you handled the gift efficiently.
- It lets your donor know you invested the gift effectively, as per their intention.
It lets your donor know you appreciate the gift and them.
2. Personalize your thank you with inserts, notes and handwriting
Remember, a gift is the beginning of a budding relationship; not a singular transaction. For the relationship to blossom, give and take is required. Too many nonprofits are just “takers.”
Be a “giver” and send a Welcome Packet with a few inspiring stories that reinforce the donor’s decision to invest with you. Also include information that lets folks know you welcome their involvement beyond just their monetary support (e.g., notices of upcoming events; invitation to a tour; volunteer opportunities). Include contact information for a real person who will be the donor’s personal “point person” should they ever have any questions about their gift or your programs. Make the donor feel like they’re now a special member of your family.
Add a personal note on the letter. Even if it’s just “Thanks for your support” in handwriting next to the signature, it’s a gesture showing you actually took some time signing the letter. It wasn’t all done by machine. I’ve tested this, and folks who receive personal notes renew at a much higher rate than those who do not.
HALLMARK ANALOGY: I’m not a fan of Hallmark cards sent simply with a signature. If you’re sending a card you should at least take the time to write something personal. Otherwise the message you’re sending is that you really couldn’t be bothered to think of something to say. The card was merely fulfillment of a chore. Chores are unpleasant, both for the sender and the recipient. The message received is exactly the opposite of the message intended. That you matter. That we care about you. That we want to get to know you better.
3. Pick up the phone
I already told you about Penelope Burk’s phone call experiment, and how donors responded to being called. Recently, the good folks at 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. First, that seems pretty nutty. You want to be able to communicate easily with your donors folks!
I know, you’re thinking it was just a $5 gift. Suppose it was a $100 gift. Would you call to thank then? I’ll tell you one thing. If you do call, you’ll stand out from your competitors. I’ve never called a donor, purely to say thank you, where the donor wasn’t super impressed. If you’d ever given for the first time to any nonprofit for which I worked you’d have received a phone call (I always made sure first-time donors of $100+ got calls). We’d experiment making calls to a percentage of first-time donors below that amount, but 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!
I challenge you to try this experiment for yourself. Not sure what to say? Pick up my free e-book on donor thank you calls when you subscribe to my blog. If you’re a small nonprofit, why not call every single donor? What better way to get to the point where you’ve too many donors to call all of them?!
Use anyone you can – provided they’ll be genuine and passionately grateful – to makes these calls. Board members love to do this, and it has the added benefit of getting them used to talking with donors. 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.
Whether your nonprofit survives or not is in your power. You can stem the tide of donor attrition – all with the power of thank you.
I’m serious. How you handle donor acknowledgements is that important. It’s what kickstarts a relationship with your donor.
- No kick? No contact.
- No contact. No connection.
- No connection. No relationship.
- No relationship. No commitment.
- No commitment. No loyalty.
You’re dead in the water. Unless… you begin by following the 3 Thank You Rules:
- Prompt thank you.
- Mailed letter with personal notes and inserts.
- Phone call.
If you’re not doing these three things, I want you to commit to making the changes you need to make to do so. Stoke your donor’s passion for your cause by assuring them they made a good decision when they made their first gift. Then continue to build the relationship from there.
SPECIAL BONUS: The more you rock your donor acknowledgement, the better you will 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 a continually receptive frame of mind.
Remember that 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.
This Guest Expert post was contributed by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE. Claire was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of Clairification. A sought-after coach and consultant, Claire writes monthly columns for Nonprofit Pro and Maximize Social Business. Clairification was named “Best Fundraising Blog of 2013” by FundRaising Success Magazine. A member of the California State Bar and a graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco California. Connect with Claire on Twitter, Pinterest or LinkedIn.