Want Loyal Donors? Then Stop Recruiting Them

Published by Charlie Hulme on

IFC seriesThoughts from IFC 2013

Whichever numbers you look at, from whichever angle you look, retention rates in our sector are appalling. Why? Well have you ever thought that the way we bring people in is what’s making them go out again?

I’m not talking about the channels we use; I’m talking about the mindset with which we use them. People leave because we don’t know why they’d stay (we know why we’d like them to, but that’s far from the same thing!)

Alan Clayton’s (exquisite) session ‘Fired Up for Fundraising’ showed the best way to ask for money…

  1. Know exactly what you want
  2. Know exactly what your donor wants
  3. Gain emotional commitment
  4. Thank like you’ve never thanked before

…but we don’t have to look too far to see the only point we really focus on is the first. It’s not that we don’t think about the others, it’s just the way we think about them is wrong.

Why? Because the language we use, that shapes the thoughts we have, which dictates the actions we take is fundamentally flawed. This was the point that Tony Elischer made in his session ‘Reinventing Fundraising, Now and for the Future’.The board needs you!

The big clue to our retention problem can be found in the word we use to describe the very start of the process; ‘recruitment’. How can we possibly focus on what donors want if all we want is to ‘recruit’ them? The rigidity of the word shuts out any possibility of connecting on anything other than a transactional basis. Do we really think that’s what our donors want?

We’d all answer no; but does your organizations structure back your answer?  Is it able to see donors as individuals coming to you with their hopes, dreams, and fears or are they numbers on a spreadsheet?  If they’re just numbers there’s no emotion. If there’s no emotion there won’t be another donation (a point scientifically proven in Francesco Ambrogetti and Dan Hills session).

Some organizations are good at getting an emotional reaction; but if you want to keep your donors you need to make an emotionlemming_pledge2 (1)al connection.

There are proven methods to nurture that connection. So you’d think given as many donors are leaving by the back door as we’re ‘recruiting’ (a.k.a. shovelling) through the front, charities would grab the chance to use them. Yet few do. Why? Because we’re all waiting for someone else to do it first. The title of this year’s IFC was ‘How We Are Changing the World’; the tag line should have been ‘After You’ (as Tony Elischer said, our sectors mascot is the lemming!)

Where there is no vision, the people perish’. We can’t fix retention until we fix our outdated silos, language and ethics. Retention isn’t simply a strategic question, it’s a moral one. Unless you seriously believe your next appeal is the one that will find the cure, end the injustice, vaccinate every child, then it’s immoral not to focus on lifetime value.

Charlie Hulme

Charlie Hulme

Charlie is MD of Donor Voice. He helps charities uncover what, of all the things they do, cause relationship strength and what is harmful. Partners see a massive improvement in performance, value and retention. Voted top speaker at the Institute of Fundraising's National Convention in 2013, he writes frequently for SOFII, 101 Fundraising, the Institute of Fundraising and many others.


Claire Axelrad · October 22, 2013 at 07:34

This says it all: Unless you seriously believe your next appeal is the one that will find the cure, end the injustice, vaccinate every child, then it’s immoral not to focus on lifetime value.

It’s beyond time to focus on philanthropy, not fundraising. On transformation, not transaction. Language is funny. For some time I’ve been exhorting folks to use the terms “investors” or “givers” in lieu of “donors” or “contributors,” because the former convey a sense of something we do for life; something we stay attached to; whereas the latter are more “drop in the bucket.” I’m thoughtful about my investments and gifts. I’ll donate without much consideration, even if it’s a habitual drop in a panhandler’s cup on the way to work every morning.

Our goal should be to inspire thoughtful, passionate giving; not habitual, token contributions. I actually take no issue with the word “recruitment” as I believe many find it an honor to be asked to join a team. Just don’t forget about me after I’ve joined. That’s the key.

    Charlie Hulme · October 24, 2013 at 12:41

    Absolutley : )

Emma Jhita · October 24, 2013 at 08:41

Really great post Charlie!

I unfortunately didn’t make it to Alan Clayton’s IFC session but it sounds as though it was inspiring and thought-provoking, as always. I especially like the fact that nowhere in the four points is ‘making the ask’ mentioned. Gaining ’emotional commitment’ takes its place.

I think this is an area where many large charities can learn a lot from the smaller, grass routes ones. Charities where the donors really are brought close to and engaged with the charity’s work, their beneficiaries, and where supporters want to engage in a wide range of ways – regular gifts, generous responses to emergency appeals, volunteering, raising money via events, a gift in their will (these are the ‘numbers’ that matter when analysing our donor data)

I suppose one of the questions is scalability. How does a charity maintain this connection between cause and supporter when the donor base is in six or seven figures? How does it break out of a siloed way of working and truly focus on lifetime value (for both the charity and the donor) because, as you say, it’s immoral not to!

    Charlie Hulme · October 24, 2013 at 12:40

    Thanks : ) As for scalability the corporate world don’t seem to have a problem with it; if itunes or Amazon operated the way we do they’d have gone bankrupt ages ago! We can’t keep hemoraging support simply because ‘computer says no’

Dave Strand · February 25, 2014 at 20:13

Hi Charlie,
Intelligent article. The issue you address is the same that every business has to confront. How do we bring in more customers, and keep the ones we have?
The answer, I think, is the pitch. Not in the specifics of what is said, but the fact that one is used at all.
I own a school fundraising company, and I’ve noticed that too often, fundraising professionals (like sales professionals) talk AT their donors, instead of TO them. They’re in such a hurry to get through their script, off the phone, and on to the next call.
Sales101 – Stop Talking and Listen. The best sales people solve problems. They ask questions, and listen to the answers. The folks in fundraising should follow their lead. What’s wrong with starting off a conversation by thanking the donor for their past support, and then asking, “Do you mind if I ask – What made you decide to support us last year?” Then actually listen to the answer, and have a…
What’s the word?
Oh yes. A conversation.
Treating donors like people shouldn’t be revolutionary. But it’s a strategy that may just slow down attrition, and increase a group’s bottom line. Oh, and turn donors into lifelong supporters.

Henry Larry · February 9, 2024 at 06:47

Emphasizing emotional connections over recruitment is crucial for donor retention. Organizations must shift their mindset recognizing donors as individuals rather than mere numbers on spreadsheets to truly make a lasting impact.
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