Rubbish In : Rubbish Out

Published by Jack Ryan on

Bad Donor Retention Begins With Bad Donor Recruitment (and what you can do about it) 

Why are so many of your donors rushing for the exit?

One of my favourite Internet campaigns of the past few years is The Story of Stuff, which uses a simple but engaging animation as a way to tell the ‘Story’. It makes the obvious point that we inhabit in the same ecosphere as our environment and that when toxics are involved in the production  of our consumer goods there is a consequent toxic output that is damaging to our health, our economy and our environment. The same elementary wisdom reaches us in other nuggets of ‘common’ sense: eat too much greasy food and you’ll get spots, smoke and your lungs will turn black. To put it simply: Rubbish In = Rubbish Out.

This same maxim applies for fundraising campaigns. And in this blog I’d like to especially apply it to Face-to-Face campaigns (though it can apply equally well to any channel where we have control over the prospects we approach). The simple fact remains that if we recruit the wrong sort of donor in the beginning we will not get the sort of results we need in the longer term to achieve our organisations goals.

Rubbish (Donors) In = Rubbish (Donor Loyalty) Out.

So what can we do about it?

The good news is that the answer is: Plenty!

1. Set A Minimum Donor Age.

With a fundraising campaign like Face-to-Face you can be pretty specific in who you approach for regular giving. So it pays off to do research on which donors groups do not stick around long enough to pay for their own recruitment costs and avoid them. Those 18 – 21 year olds might be easily persuaded to sign-up but when they face a wobble in their personal economy many of them will decide that signing out is also easy. In fact I’d suspect that it’s possible that your entire group of donors younger than 25 is resulting in a net loss. Perhaps even the under 30s? Do the math and make a rule: “We don’t sign-up people younger than X”. You’ll probably get some moans from your recruiting teams as this low hanging fruit has been put out of reach. But that low hanging fruit can go rotten pretty fast.

2. DO Take ‘No’ For An Answer

Sure, we need fundraisers who are persuasive, who guide would-be-donors through their indecision and towards doing something they really want to do. What we don’t need are fundraisers who are manipulative and force the potential donor into a situation where it’s difficult for them to refuse even if they are not aligned with the organisation’s mission. I accept that it’s sometimes difficult to know where the line is on this one – but as a rule of thumb I suggest being persuasive with the ditherers (even if you get a few ‘no’s or ‘maybes’ along the way) until you get a ‘yes’  (or a very firm no!) and then stepping back and give the donor the opportunity to back out without feeling bad if they choose to (something like: “Just before I sign you up I want to check that you really do want to support financially – if it’s not a good time for you then I’ll totally understand”). Some will jump at the chance to back-out. Let them go because they’d probably cancel within the first couple of months anyway. But with the ‘ones who get away’ be sure to leave them with a positive experience – maybe it was just a bad time for them and they’ll become loyal donors sometime in the future.

3.  Don’t Set A Minimum Donation

Right about now I can hear a dozen fundraising professionals exclaim “What!!??!!

Let me explain…

Is it crazy not to have a minimum donation amount?

Rather than set a minimum donation amount for your regular giving programme communicate to your recruiters a targeted average donation. Having a minimum donation amount might seem like a good way to boost your average but believe me that insecure fundraisers will use this as a crutch and will sign up far too many donors for exactly the minimum amount.

How then to respond to the common question: “What’s the minimum I can do?” ?

I find a good response is to tell the prospect the minimum they can do is “to walk away right now”. At this point they should consider what they can really afford to give long term or simply walk away. This also saves your public facing fundraisers the pain of turning away the occasional person who genuinely cannot afford to give very much, but who genuinely wants to help out. As long as they are aware that accepting a €2 per month donation means they need to find someone who can afford a €40 per month contribution to even things out.

4. Don’t Convince On Cost

Related to having a minimum donation amount (see point above) is the problem phrase trotted out by the insecure (or lazy) fundraiser “C’mon it’s only €10 per month”. I bet not  even the keenest bargain hunter goes home to their partner bursting to tell them about the deal they just got from the charity. They should be bursting to speak about the mission, the values, and the successes that they are now a part of. It’s a question of value, not cost if we want to keep them on board as long-term loyal donors. (By the same token never, ever convince people to sign up by telling them how easy it is to cancel – share the information if you like but never make it a selling point).

5. Reward Long Term Retention With BIG Incentives

Do some calculations and figure out what improved retention is worth to your organisation over a 12-month period based on the results of a typical fundraiser (for example one who recruits 50 new donors per month). The chances are that even a small improvement in retention figures (say 4%) will result in a thousands of euro extra income.

Say for example your current 12-month retention figure for monthly donors is 45%. Set a target of getting that up to 50% and track each fundraiser to see if they reach that target. If they do reach it split the extra income with them 50:50 – it could be close to the equivalent of an extra months salary paid out as a bonus to them every 12 months. Yes, it’s a big bonus to pay out but it’s from income that you might not otherwise receive. Another point to consider (in a industry with high staff turnover like Face-to-Face) is that this is an added incentive for fundraisers to stick around for at least a year.

6. Sharpen Your Claws

Who doesn't love a cute kitten near the end of a long blog?

If a third party agency recruits your regular donors then please tell me you have a clawback agreement in your contract for donors who attrite. It’s now common practice to receive a full or partial refund for sign-ups who make zero or only one donation. It’s worth your while extending this to at least 6 months and including in it donors who downsize their gift amount very quickly after recruitment.

7. Thank You! Merci! Dhanyavaad!

No matter what language we speak the importance of a genuine and heartfelt ”thank you” cannot be overstated. Too often I have signed up to become a regular donor and received a mumbled ’thanks so much’ without any eye contact while the recruiter was completing the paperwork. This is a golden opportunity to take a moment to look into the future donors eyes, tell them how much they are appreciated and allow them to feel they are truly a part of the our mission. It’s a simple thing to do but so often overlooked.

Jack Ryan

Jack Ryan grew up in a little village in Ireland and cut his fundraising teeth at the age of 10 raising money for a new roof for the community centre. Now he lives in Stockholm and is the Head of Fundraising for Greenpeace in Sweden. Lots happened in between.


Adrian Brown · September 13, 2012 at 14:36

Nice blog Jack.

Simona Biancu · September 13, 2012 at 16:57

Very nice post, Jack!
I have just read it, taking notes about two questions I am specifically interested in. I am referring to the “comfort zone” before people sign up the donation and the “Don’t convince on cost”.
I find both them useful suggestions: avoiding the pressing to sign up something means building a sort of safety zone to potential donors, a soft and appreciated approach, connected to the second issue you mentioned. The “marriage” between the potential donor and the npo will work if the the fundraiser will be able to represent what the npo is, how it works, which are the values the npo believes in…and the cost or the low level of the donation is not the main point. I obviously agree with you: it’s a question of values, projects, a sense of belonging to a npo. On the contrary, a very few people will keep on their link with the organization. It’s a very hard but challenging and delicate job.
Thanks for sharing with us your thoughts!

Gabe S · September 13, 2012 at 19:28

Nice blog Jack. I’ve always felt like these principles got to the core of not just the donor retention and ROI issues, but also helped tremendously in terms of the public perception of F2F canvassers. For the groups that are sticking to this, they can and do actually do a lot of great community building and aren’t perceived as strictly fundraisers.

Tom Duggan · September 14, 2012 at 00:59

Awesome blog Jack.

One thing I would say though is although younger donors are more likely to cancel sooner and so shouldn’t be as financially valued as someone in their mid twenties upwards, it would be wrong to write them off alltogether.

It would be safe to say that the ones who do keep giving to you probably really like your organisation. The see a donation to you as being worth sacrificing a beer for. As they grow older, their situation is likely to improve and if you work with them correctly then their donation will increase as well.

If you can work out a way where you pay less to recruit them and keep their donation amount low, many will become great long term donors.

Heather · September 14, 2012 at 15:23

I am completely in agreement about your last point as it astounds me the number of times people don’t thank their donors or do any sort of follow up on their gift whatsoever. And then of course, wonder why people don’t sign up again! Saying thank you is quite possibly one of the most powerful ways of ensuring that people will donate in the future; one of the easiest things to do and, stunningly, one of the most overlooked.

Thanks for the post!

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