How to Get First Time Donors to Give Again

How to Keep Your Donors From Leaving Once They Have Given

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Growing Philanthropy In the United States, authored by Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang, is still as relevant as the day it was written. It has become the gold standard for best practices in donor retention.

I was fortunate to hear Sargeant speak right after the report was published. He covered the art and science of how to keep donors committed, satisfied and returning year after year. Topics ran the gamut from donor lifetime value to donor retention and loyalty.

Here are my takeaways about how to keep your donors coming back, especially after their first gift.

Why Do They Leave?

Retention is a huge problem for nonprofits. The majority of donors leave after their first gift - up to 50% in the first year.

Sargeant said that improving attrition rates by only 10% can improve the lifetime value of a donor base up to 200%.

First up are the reasons customers leave in the first place. Sargeant cited these statistics, gleaned from experience in the commercial sector:

  • Death - 1% of customers.
  • Relocation - 3% of customers.
  • Won by a competitor - 5% of customers.
  • Lower price elsewhere - 9% of customers.
  • Unsatisfactory complaint handling - 14% of customers.
  • Lack of follow-up by the business  - 68% of customers.

Although these statistics might not be completely transferable to donors, they are surprisingly close. For instance, we know, according to Sargeant, that donors often cite these reasons for why they no longer donate to a particular cause:

  • No longer able to afford any more donations
  • No memory of ever donating  (more frequent than you might imagine!)
  • Still supporting the cause, but in some other way
  • Thinking that the cause no longer needs their donation
  • Moved away 
  • Never reminded to give again
  • Nonprofit did not inform donor how it used donations
  • Nonprofit's communications were inappropriate or irrelevant
  • Nonprofit asked for too much money

What is striking about the list is how many of these items are under the control of the charity itself.

Read on for:

How Important Is Good Customer Service for Donors?

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Donors Like Good Service as Much as Customers Do

Customer service and the ability to resolve a complaint quickly and efficiently is far more valuable than most nonprofits think. We know what good customer service looks like in a commercial setting, but often don't transfer that to how we work with our donors.

The failure to send a thank you letter promptly, or to handle a complaint gracefully, can result in lost donors and bad word-of-mouth about the organization.

Sargeant suggests that you measure donor satisfaction all the time. While it is reasonably easy to set moderate levels of customer service, charities should reach higher.  There is an enormous difference in donor commitment between those donors who are "very" satisfied and those who are "just" satisfied.

In the commercial world,  the beloved company is the one that can fix problems fast.  It is the same in a nonprofit setting. 

Interestingly, someone who has a complaint and has it resolved is more loyal than those customers who never had a problem in the first place. Sargeant pointed out that even having a process for managing customer complaints, whether or not they are ultimately resolved, can improve retention.

Commitment and Trust Bring Donors Back

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Donors Return When They Feel Committed and They Trust You

Sargeant emphasized that donor commitment and trust are crucial to keeping donors coming back. He compared the relationship between cause and donor to a love affair. Here are some of the reasons a lover/donor might leave you:

  • You ignore them
  • You lie to them
  • You fail to return calls or answer letters
  • You fail to deliver on promises
  • You're rude
  • You increase prices (ask for too much money?)
  • You don't turn up on time

According to Sargeant, commitment can be passive or active. Of course, what you're after is the active kind, but it's possible to move passive involvement to the active sort.

What do donors say about what makes them feel committed to a cause or organization?

  • I trust that you can get the mission done
  • I have had a personal experience or know someone who has benefitted from your services
  • I engage with your organization frequently 
  • You communicate with me often and tell me your story convincingly
  • We believe in the same goal
  • I feel as though I know the people we both help

Paying Attention at Just the Right Time Builds Donor Retention

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Don't Ignore Your Donor After the First Date

Reinforcement for donors is critical after they make that first donation. Large numbers of donors never return to give again. Donor relationships, just like those with friends and lovers, build over time. 

Donors who elect to give regularly, such as monthly, are especially valuable to charities, but are often ignored. To keep such donors after that first gift, Sargeant suggests reaching out at these critical times:

  • Right after signing up (a thank you letter, welcome packet, phone call, or email)
  • After first debit (another meaningful thank you, not just a receipt)
  • Second and third months (remind the donor of what his donation makes possible)

For donors who elect to give today only, try these intervals to encourage a second gift:

  • Right after donating (a fervent thank you)
  • First 4 - 6 weeks (report on what the donation accomplished)
  • First 12 months (send something each of these months)

The method you use to engage with the donor at these crucial times is less important than that you just do it. You could send a welcome packet, a thank you letter, a newsletter. You could call, email, send an invitation to an event, or invite the donor to tour your facility. Ask them to volunteer in some small way, tell their friends about you, or even to fill out a survey. Just about any engagement counts.

The ultimate lesson from Sargeant's presentation was that many of the factors that affect donor retention are within a nonprofit's control. Taking the time to follow up and make a plan for subsequent contact is the key.

Sometimes organizations are so focused on the acquisition of new donors that they neglect the even more important task of motivating those donors to come back for the second gift and beyond. Keeping a donor is far less expensive than getting a new one. So, turn that first date into a long-term, loving relationship.

There was much more to this webinar that is of great value, especially how to calculate lifetime donor value. The slides from the webinar are available here, and the recording is here.

Meanwhile, find out more about donor commitment, customer service, and thanking donors with these resources:

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