Donor loyalty may hinge on whether nonprofits talk with supporters, not at them.
That’s one of the findings from a new survey of donors that aims to identify what engenders long-term commitment to a charity. A nonprofit’s transparency — its effectiveness at providing information and demonstrating impact — remain critical, the survey found. More vital, however, are efforts to seek donors’ input and ensure that they feel as though their opinions are valued.
“Over the past few years, we’ve been talking about transparency and how that’s so important to the donor,” says Amanda Wasson, executive vice president for digital strategy at the RKD Group, a fundraising and marketing firm. “But sometimes you think you’ve checked that box by pushing out information or data about impact when what donors really want is to feel valued.”
RKD came to such conclusions after commissioning a survey of 1,334 donors. It conducted the research because many clients are looking for ways to retain the surge of new donors whose giving was motivated by pandemic crises, Wasson says.
Retaining donors — always a challenge for charities — is all the more important as the likelihood of an economic recession grows, says Woodrow Rosenbaum, GivingTuesday’s chief data officer.
“We might be heading for a cliff,” Rosenbaum says. “Organizations with a broad base of support are much more resilient” than those that lean heavily on wealthy donors in tough times.
Donors Want to Feel Valued
The RKD survey quizzed donors about their relationships and interactions with the nonprofits they support. Through more than two dozen questions, it gauged how participants felt on such topics as the groups’ communications, impact, and expertise.
RKD also asked participants to rate the strength of their relationships with nonprofits. Not surprisingly, donors with weak relationships gave organizations lower marks than survey participants with strong ties. But those donors with weak ties scored nonprofits even lower on questions related to their perceptions of how the organization valued them.
For instance, more than half of donors with weak ties said their nonprofit was trustworthy and had great impact. Yet only 21 percent of the same donors said the organization values their opinions. Similarly, less than a third of weakly connected donors said they believe their nonprofit appreciates them.
These numbers suggest nonprofits can improve donor loyalty by offering more opportunities for supporters to be heard and feel a part of their work. “As marketers, we tend to think in a one-way format” for communications, says Justin McCord, RKD’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “And that’s not very relational.”
Advice from RKD based on its survey results includes:
Saying “thank you” matters. The report describes them as “table stakes” for building a relationship. Nearly 95 percent of survey respondents who reported a strong relationship with their charities said they frequently or sometimes received thanks. Almost a quarter of donors with weak relationships said they never received a thank-you.
Introduce new donors to the organization almost as you would new employees. Wasson suggests doing more than sending the traditional welcome series of emails to donors. Go further, Wasson suggests, and invite newcomers to volunteer, join the group’s digital communities, and explore its work more deeply.
Treat $100 donors like $500 donors. Many organizations personalize thank-yous and responses for donors who make gifts of $500 or more. That’s too high, McCord says: Data indicates those who make a $100 contribution consider that a significant commitment and are likely candidates for a strong relationship with a group. He suggests organizing a pizza party for staff to make personal thank-you calls to such donors.
Invite supporters inside the organization. One example: Create in-person or virtual events where supporters can hear from a group’s leader and provide feedback.
Donor-retention rates have been declining in recent years. A decade ago, roughly half of donors to an organization re-upped the next year. That share is now around 43 percent, according to the Fundraiser Effectiveness Project, a research effort of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Foundation for Philanthropy and GivingTuesday.
Some experts hoped that pandemic-motivated new donors might end this trend and prove more “sticky.” But first-quarter 2022 figures suggest retention of new donors is continuing to decline.
Jon Biedermann, chair of the Fundraiser Effectiveness Project and a fundraising consultant, worries that many organizations aren’t investing enough in donor retention and may have missed the chance to transform the pandemic’s first-time givers into loyal long-term supporters.
“A nonprofit can look at its own internal systems and processes and say, ‘Hey, did we really spend the right amount of resources retaining these donors? Because if we didn’t, well, that’s the problem.’” Biedermann says.
The Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank in Ohio recognized the opportunity that the pandemic brought. About 10,000 new donors gave to the organization during 2020, about three times the number it typically acquires in a year. It considers many of these “crisis donors” and anticipated it would retain as few as 5 percent of them. Yet nearly a third gave again in 2021 after the staff, while pushed hard by Covid-19 disruptions and increased demand for their services, doubled down on its communications and stewardship of donors.
“In times of crisis, it’s very important that the entire team takes a breath, sits back, and looks at: Are we doing things in the way that our donors right now would want us to?’” says Colleen Benson, the organization’s senior director for development.
Laura MacDonald, founder of the Benefactor Group, a fundraising consultancy, is working on donor retention with the food bank and a number of other organizations. MacDonald says first-time donors often hear from groups only when it’s time for a second gift. Organizations instead should talk about the impact of that first gift and then offer donors other ways to show their support. One simple approach: Ask them to complete surveys that will help shape the organization’s message strategies.
“The next request of them should not be financial,” MacDonald says. “Give them an opportunity to lean in in a different way.”