Strategies for boards and staff to keep your donors from slipping away.

Why do organizations let donor relationships lapse when it costs so much to secure new ones?  

Consider these real life scenarios:

  • Your campaign committee is reviewing a list of generous past donors: “What ever happened to (pick a name)? He was so committed to our organization, even for years after he left the board.” “We should try to connect with him again.”  
  • A long established donor retires out of state but for years maintains his allegiance. The colleague who recruited him rolls off the board and he discontinues his support, thinking that no one will notice. Turns out he’s right…
  • An ardent supporter of the organization digs deep to make a generous multi-year commitment. Fundraising staff changes and the relationship drifts. The donor wonders why. His interests have not changed; all that’s changed is the organization’s follow-through…

Top seven reasons why donor relationships wane:

  1. Leadership changes 
    As CEOs or development officers leave organizations, donor relationships inevitably transform. Strategic directions may change. Personalities may not mesh. In the worst case, fundraising may not have a place in a new CEO’s priorities — in which case donor outreach may devolve into mass appeals, email blasts, and event invitations.
  2. Budgets contract
    In periods of budget contractions, donor retention is considered a luxury. This is short sighted and organizations always regret it later. Philanthropy is viewed as a distant second to earned income revenue — until that major campaign becomes necessary…
  3. CEO and CDO performance metrics do not include donor retentionWhat gets measured gets done. Performance measurements are often based strictly on financials or campaign goal attainment. But donor good will is a tangible asset that can be measured – and squandered at an organization’s peril.
  4. Focus on the now takes precedence over the future Short-term results commonly claim the attention of leaders and boards: the current campaign or project, getting through the fiscal year, remaining viable, and myriad other reasons. Wise organizations focus their attention on tomorrow (and raise lots more money).
  5. Volunteers are not involved in donor retention Board members can be the most persuasive promoters of the organization’s mission and solid foundation. Why ask them to solely review budgets when they can positively influence revenue through outreach to the organization’s investors?
  6. Development officers are mired in management It’s easy for fundraising professionals to get bogged down behind the desk and spend less time talking to key donors and stakeholders (especially in a discipline increasingly awash in technology). Sure, keep development managers in touch…but mostly in the field.
  7. Donor divergence disrupts devotion When donors raise questions or have divergent views, they are often avoided. Leaders that place ego, political interests or even job security over donor engagement can place the organization’s financial support at risk.

Donor relationships are not forever. Some are one-time only gifts, and some donors’ interests and circumstances change over time. As with any human relationship, it’s a very special few that last a lifetime. How can you make your “special few” a “special many?

Five retention strategies to adopt today:

  1. Recruit a Donor Retention Officer Smart businesses and organizations make customer retention, member retention, student retention, patient retention a top priority. To make donor retention a high priority, put someone in charge of it. Paid professional or volunteer, hold them accountable for results. Responsibilities might include managing records, conducting basic research, choreographing retention activities of staff and board, calling donors and especially reaching out to lapsed donors before too much time passes. If you can’t carve out an FTE, spread these activities among various individuals.
  2. Blend retention into your board culture Your organization will stand above peers if your donor appreciation calls come from board members. Imagine one community leader telling another: “Do you know I received a call from the (fill in the blank)? One of their trustees called to thank me for my recent gifts and asked for my thoughts about their services. I was impressed. It’s going to be hard to turn them down in the future.”
  3. Design a fun challenge among board members and staff During a specific timeframe, create a challenge for the most calls made to donors by both board and staff. Perhaps a donor can match funds for every call successfully made and noted by the development department with future action steps.
  4. Raise expectations of donor retention among all staff Staff whose jobs are not directly related to fundraising can be given specific responsibilities for donor cultivation and retention. Donors will enjoy seeing your programs through the eyes of front line staff, program directors, curators, artistic directors, educators, caregivers and others.
  5. Think long term At some point, every organization will aspire to conduct a major campaign; don’t let your organization be one of the many that starts the conversation at the time of the feasibility study. Spend three years intensifying donor relationships. The time to cultivate donors is years prior to a major initiative – that is to say, now.

In an era where individuals’ interests and attention evolve at lightspeed, responsible donor retention requires strategy, investment and heart. Nothing else will build a development program that stands the test of time.