Donor retention like a leaky bucket. Photo courtesy of Tobias Schlitt on FlickrEvery week, I have a conversation like this with a nonprofit leader:

  • Nonprofit Leader: “We need to find new donors.” (As though there’s a magic bullet, a secret place to find new donors.)
  • Me: “Why do you want to find new donors?”
  • NL (incredulously, like I’m an idiot): “Because we aren’t raising enough money. We need more money so we need new, better donors.”
  • Me: “How is your donor retention? Of the donors you got last year, how many do you normally keep this year?”
  • NL: “Our what?”

These are normally smart, talented leaders. But if they want to raise more this year than they did last year, they’re focusing on the wrong thing. If a farmer only focused on what his fields could yield this year, he’d slash-and-burn the field. But we now know that slash-and-burn isn’t sustainable. Neither is an exclusive focus on getting new donors. It’s always more expensive to “get” new donors then it is to grow relationships with existing donors!

Startling Facts

We need nonprofit leaders who’ll see donors as people to have longterm relationships with rather than a one-off financial transaction. Check out these facts:

  • Getting donors to give again is proven to grow revenue

    Tom Ahern shares a study from the Agitator that showed an organization with 5,000 donors keeps just 10% more, they’d raise an additional $175,000! 10% retention with 10,000 donors leads to an additional $350,000 to the bottom line. Donor retention is worth investing in.

  • Donor retention is down to 27%

    Despite donor retention being proven as the easiest way to grow fundraising, the typical nonprofit in the USA is now only keeping 27% of donors! Think of it this way: Write out a list of 20 new donors you got in 2013. Now take a Sharpie and cross out 15 of those names. As Adrian Sargeant says in his section of The Donor Retention Project, for profit businesses would go bankrupt if they only keep 5 of 20 customers!

Board members should be up in arms about this! Can you imagine losing 75% of your customers each year? Or having every stock you purchase lose 75% of it’s value each year?! That’s not just a leaky bucket. That’s like a bucket with it’s bottom rusted out!

As Blackbaud’s Chief Scientist Chuck Long says:

“…donors should be considered assets much like a nonprofit’s endowment.”

Do This One Thing

Nonprofits are now in the wonderful mess of acknowledging all the year-end gifts. Donor retention starts here! The gift is just the start of the relationship. How you communicate with the donor from now on will set the stage for future gifts.

If you do nothing else differently this year, do this one thing: make thank you phone calls. Seriously! I can already see some of you rolling your eyes. “I don’t have time for that, Marc!” Nonprofit leaders tell me these types of calls are the most uncomfortable for them. They just can’t see how it’s worth their time.

Thank you calls have no agenda other than gratitude. Than treating the giver as a human being, not an ATM. In light of the facts stated above, this is definitely worth your time! It’s increasing revenue and building stronger advocates for your organization!

How To Do A Simple 3-Minute Thank You Call [A Script]

For the last few weeks, I’ve been teaching my coaching clients how to do their thank you calls. Here’s the script I’ve been giving them.

Hi this is [your name], from [your organization]. I’m calling just to say ‘thank you’ for your gift last December. We really appreciate your helping us [mission related benefit].”

After you say that, pause. People will fill in a void of silence. If they are not interested in chatting, they’ll say something as simple as “Your welcome.” It’s perfectly fine to reiterate your thanks and end the call.

If they are interested in being conversational, go ahead and ask questions like:

  • What first got you interested in the [the nonprofit]?
  • Do you support other causes like ours?
  • Who else should do you think we should be talking to about supporting our work?

These questions work well in this order. I’ve had people share lots of their information and interests with me. The key is to being genuinely interested in them and their point of view.

It can be helpful to end with something like:

“If I can ever [be of assistance/show your our work/help you], please let me know. My number is [your phone number]. And, if email is easier, my email is [your email].”

Thank you calls only need to be about 3-minutes each. (Check the second point on Tom Ahern’s blog post.) If the donor wants to talk longer, that’s a bonus. And, you’ll leave a lot of voice mails. But those are great too.

Schedule Time Now

I’ve often heard it said that you can see what people really value by looking at their checkbook and their calendar. Ignore what they say they value and look at what they’re spending their money and their time on.

Do you say you value donors? Prove it by setting aside time each week this year to make thank you calls.

Do it now.

Want to know more on donor retention? Here are three sources:

  1. 12 Super Simple (but Effective) Donor Retention Tips: This blog post features pithy comments from a dozen of us about our best tips on donor retention.
  2. The npEXPERTS Donor Retention eBook: Blackbaud pulled together their group of “npEXPERTS” and asked us to each write on donor retention. Go to to see if it’s been released.
  3. The Donor Retention Project: We invited an ensemble of a dozen experts to share their best secrets for keeping donors giving year after year. The Donor Retention Project includes all 12 interviews and 12 detailed booklets sharing exactly how to implement each strategy. You definitely should check this out. Donor retention will definitely jazz up your fundraising effort!
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