Retention Fundraising: adapt or die!

Published by Reinier Spruit on

moneyballbookcoverAlmost 10 years ago Roger Craver gave me the book Moneyball from Michael Lewis. I was excited, because I have played ball since I was a kid. I love baseball. The book is about the Oakland Athletics baseball team and its general manager Billy Beane.

Roger told me it could widen my horizon, that I would look at things differently and think outside the (batter’s) box. He wasn’t talking about baseball, but fundraising…

In a recent post on The Agitator Roger says:

“Beane takes on the system by challenging the fundamental tenets of the game. He looks outside baseball’s cherished dependence on the intuition of scouts and hires a brainy young number-crunching Harvard-educated economist to help him figure out a better way.

Armed with computer-driven statistical analysis long ignored by the baseball establishment, they go after players overlooked and dismissed by the business-as-usual baseball world for being too old, injured, or too much trouble, but all of whom have key skills that are universally undervalued.”

Ten years later Roger wrote his own book: Retention Fundraising.

retentionfundraisingIn this book Roger shows you key insights that should change your perspective on how to retain your donors. It’s one of those books where you immediately start underlining paragraphs.

My main take away: fundraising is not about raising funds. It’s about understanding donor motivations and building relationships. It’s about the donor, not about your nonprofit.

­­Roger explains that the basis of a donor/charity relationship is based on reliability, consistency and mutual respect. This results in trust. Trust drives commitment. And commitment drives donor behavior.

We tend to focus on short-term tactics and results but we should focus on building the best relationships. We need to ask ourselves: Why do donors stay or go? What experience will positively or negatively affect donor commitm­­­­­ent? Don’t let donations be the only variable in deciding where you put your focus.

After reading this book you will know that most of the reasons why donors leave your organization are your own fault! You could summarize it as lousy communication with your donors, no real interest in them and no acknowledgement of them either. The good news is: you are in control of this, so you can fix it!

You will also find out there are many barriers to retention. To begin with: the silos in your organization, because they are the biggest enemy of great donor communication. And here’s another one: the activities that add the most value (e.g. proper thank-you and welcome programs) are usually most ignored in your program! One more: when you fail to differentiate yourself from others, you open yourself up to the contradiction that “best practices have resulted in an undifferentiated sea of sameness”…

That last one is so true that it hurts. We need to break free from the uniformity. If you want your charity’s story to actually be remembered, something needs to change. If you pick up a stack of direct mail appeals or newsletters or see 10 e-mails next to each other, they are pretty much the same. Admit it. The logo might be different, but otherwise it’s the same. You can see the differences, but your audience can’t.

Adapt or die!

“Although data analytics is an element in the story, that’s not really what Moneyball is about. Instead, it’s a real-life story of innovating, of changing your mindset to succeed. Or as Billy Beane puts it in the movie, ‘Adapt or die’.”

donorsurveyRoger explains there are certain donor experiences, so-called drivers of commitment, which really matter to donors. Some experiences don’t matter at all, and some even have a negative effect. Once you’ve identified their importance you can reprioritize them. Why would you want to spend too much time on crafting that special appeal, while your donor service desk, or a simple newsletter is actually what truly matters to donors?

By doing surveys we can also construct a donor commitment score per donor. This score is projecting future performance. That’s why we want to spend our time and energy on the donors with a higher commitment.

By combining transactional data and qualitative research Roger concludes that in general there are 7 key drivers of donor commitment.

(1) The donor perceives your organization to be effective in trying to achieve its mission.

(2) The donor knows what to expect from you with each interaction.

(3) The donor receives timely thank-you’s.

(4) The donor has the opportunity to make their views known.

(5) The donor is given the feeling that he or she is part of an important cause.

(6) The donor feels her involvement is appreciated.

(7) The donor receives information that shows who is being helped.

Do you realize what you can do with this kind of information? You can shift your resources to the areas and donors that really matter for your fundraising program. It’s not rocket science. But so far only a few of us are really good at this. And they are the best fundraisers.

The book contains much more practical tips and tricks that you can easily apply in your non-profit. Many of them without additional cost. I suggest you read the entire book and apply its wisdom on your own program.

I think Roger can become the Billy Beane of fundraising.

“It took some time, but eventually most of baseball adopted the Moneyball mindset and strategy. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen in the world of fundraising.”

I hope so. With all my heart.

Assuming you are or want to be a smart fundraiser. Buy. This. Book.

(Americans here. Europeans here.)

Reinier Spruit

Reinier Spruit

Reinier is in love with fundraising since 2001. Ever since he's trying to improve his own fundraising skills and those of others. He's one of the original founders of 101fundraising. At the moment working with amazing clients through his one-man fundraising consultancy. Loves running and baseball.


Roger Craver · September 18, 2014 at 14:36


Thanks so much for your kind, incisive and spot-on review of “Retention Fundraising”..

I’m lookin’ forward to seeing you and lots of other 101Fundraising and Agitator readers at IFC in October. Doing a session there — “Agitated about attrition? Donor retention made easy.”

Again, my thanks.

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · September 18, 2014 at 15:11

    It was my pleasure Roger. And thank you for putting this work together!

    Can I ask you to join the 101fundraising community and do a blog post yourself about your Retention work? We could publish your post on Friday 10 October, just before the IFC starts…

    See you at the IFC!


      Roger Craver · September 19, 2014 at 13:56

      Delighted to do a post. Will send it on so you have it for 10 October.

      Keep up the good work.



    James Long · September 24, 2014 at 19:43

    Hi Roger and Reinier,

    It’s always great to see a new title covering specific fundraising issues so pls don’t take this as a criticism, however I wonder if the title header ‘The new art and science of keeping your donors for life’ is a little misleading.

    I thought it a shame that the book doesn’t actually go into the science and empirical evidence as much as perhaps it could have done to document the evidence behind the claims regarding the key drivers. I was looking forward to seeing Roger’s own data or his interpretation of the very many academic studies in this field that quantify the importance of donor commitment drivers.

    I would also throw into the pot that my own evidence from UK charity commitment scoring strongly suggests that the relative importance of each driver differs between charity categories – so for instance the most important driver for a environmental charity may not be the most important driver for say a disability charity – partly as the expectations of the supporter experience differ considerably.

    Just a thought


      Reinier Spruit · September 24, 2014 at 20:00

      Hi James,

      Thanks for your comment! Concerning your second remark I think that is actually explained in the book. Roger highly recommends to do your own organisation specific donor surveys, to find out your own drivers of donor commitment. However, if because of resource limitations you are not able to do your own research, he suggests that these 7 will give you good starting point.

      I don’t know why he has chosen not to include more empirical data. Personally, I would have found that interesting as well. I think it’s a combination of readability of the book and perhaps trade secrets.

      Roger… over to you!


        Roger Craver · September 24, 2014 at 20:13

        Hi James and thank you Reinier,

        Two excellent questions.

        1) As to why not more data? I’ve tried to produce a book the findings of which are both math-based and empirical. My editor and I decided that too deep a dive into data would slow down most readers.

        One of the reasons I deeded to accompany the book with a website (www.retentionfundraising.com) is to offer more data, more detail and I’ll be doing that in the weeks and months head.

        2) One size fits all. As Reinier notes, I’ve tried to be clear that the 7 ‘drivers’ outlined in the book are ‘universal’ in that they applied to the 250+ organizations we studied, but indeed the weighting/priority of different drivers does differ from organization and it’s best for each group to do a custom study.

        Of course these sorts of studies are somewhat expensive and time-consuming, thus I wanted to give readers a list of the 7 most important experiences to focus on.

        Hope this answers your question and I’ll begin posting more detail on the website as time permits.



          James Long · September 25, 2014 at 09:31

          Yes, thank you Roger (and Reinier) and I hope you didn’t take my comments as overly negative – perhaps my enthusiasm for getting deeper into the subject meant I didn’t communicate my respect and appreciation for your work properly.

          Al the best

Marcel Slenders · September 18, 2014 at 14:55

Is this really so new to fundraisers? Good thing to repeat these principles but I find that this literature provides more or less “open door” information. Let’s be frank… what has been summarized here that we do not already know?

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · September 18, 2014 at 15:10

    Hi Marcel, as long as a very strong retention focus is not implemented in every fundraising program, it’s worthwhile repeating. Over and over again.

    For you this might be obvious, but the majority of the fundraisers out there don’t realise the importance at all. Also, many people are talking the talk, but not many are walking the walk.

    I’m sure gonna take a closer look at the “Liliane Fonds” to see what you’re doing so well in this area!

    Cheers and hope to see you soon,

Rory · September 18, 2014 at 19:53

If anyone wants to win a free copy of this new amazing book – you should check out the IFC photo competition! http://www.resource-alliance.org/pages/en/international-fundraising-congress-2014-photo-competition.html

Sanjeev Gupta · September 18, 2014 at 23:25

Many thanks Reinier for sharing and to Roger for producing the book. I very much look forward to reading this. I was amused to see the comment “…what has been summarized here that we do not already know?”

The results from Roger et al on “7 key drivers of donor commitment” were shared with us all over two years ago…it was noted that most of it was common sense, but can anyone say that their organisation is not losing donors? If they are only losing them when they die and have left a legacy, then well done – you should get a pay rise!

It would be interesting to hear of any non-profits who have have 99% retention or only lose donors as a result of death, but my experience has shown that this is not the case.

Also, experience has shown that a lot of us humans have a natural instinct NOT to use common sense…so it is timely that Roger has done something to share his vast experiences in this manner so that we can consider (or reconsider) these common sense principles.


    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · September 19, 2014 at 09:21

    Thanks for your comment Sanjeev! I like your last point, that fundraisers have a natural instinct not to use common sense. In our own relationships in life we want to be treated with respect and trust. The same goes for a nonprofit-donor relationship…


Junhee · September 19, 2014 at 08:19

Many thanks for the review! I found it interesting as a retention manager in South Korea where a FR market is growing but not much attention on donor retention yet.

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · September 19, 2014 at 09:24

    Thanks Junhee, I’m glad you liked it!

    It’s common that in growing FR markets the focus is on acquisition. I would argue that your investment in building the program is worth exponentially more if at the same time you seriously invest in the Retention side of your program. Why would you not learn from what other markets have experienced already?

    Good luck in S. Korea!

Larry C Johnson · September 19, 2014 at 18:56

Great analogy with Moneyball.

One minor point. If Roger is quoted correctly, the reference to Peter Bland being a Harvard grad is inaccurate. He is a Yale grad. As an Yale alumnus myself, we take these things rather seriously. (LOL)

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · September 19, 2014 at 21:06

    Hi Larry,

    I did some further research and this is what I found:

    “The character of Brand is an invention by the filmmakers; in the excellent Michael Lewis non-fiction book upon which the movie is based, the real-life “Brand” is identified as Paul DePodesta. Unlike Brand, DePodesta is slender, fit and handsome. He’s also Harvard-educated (not a Yalie – screenwriter Aaron Sorkin‘s private joke).”


    So I guess you are both right!


Amber · September 25, 2014 at 02:28

Great work Reiner! It looks like a great book indeed!

Vikram Chowddhary · December 12, 2014 at 23:47

Anywhere you can buy the book if you are from Australia?

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