It goes without saying: donor retention is an essential component of the health of any nonprofit organization. While donor acquisition (the rate at which you grow your donor base by attracting new donors) is important for increasing revenue on a campaign-by-campaign basis, many nonprofits, especially smaller or younger ones, neglect one of the single most effective development strategies out there — focusing on retention.
According to a recent report from the , global philanthropy declined slightly over the last twelve months, with the proportion of people who give money to charitable causes falling for a second consecutive year. While such findings aren't a cause for alarm — yet — they do speak to a growing uncertainty about future economic prospects that nonprofits should be aware of and take measures to inoculate themselves against.
Boosting retention is one way to do that. A strong donor retention rate signals to the world that your nonprofit is a responsible steward of resources and speaks directly to its connection to the community. And that translates into a solid foundation for growth as your organization works to scale its programs.
At , our work with nonprofits has provided us with a number of insights into how nonprofits of all shapes and sizes can use new techniques to maintain and drive growth. Donor retention is a crucial part of the equation.
Let's walk through a few things you can do to begin boosting your retention rate:
1. Survey your donors. While your database or donor management platform should be able to generate reports that include your donor retention rate, supplementing that data with qualitative insights is the only way to develop actionable strategies for improvement.
Donor surveys are an invaluable (and direct) way to learn more about your organization's ability to attract and (importantly) retain supporters. And online donor survey platforms have made it easier than ever to reach donors and make use of the feedback they provide without drowning your team in data. So consider these survey strategies:
- Develop a yearly survey calendar. Do an annual survey of all your donors during your busiest time of the year and send more targeted surveys to smaller groups of donors on a quarterly or biannual basis.
- Decide ahead of time how you'll use the data you collect and let those decisions inform the sorts of questions you ask — i.e., don't solicit information that you don't plan to use.
- Create an online survey page and link to it in your donation confirmation emails. Responses from people who have decided to support your organization with their dollars are invaluable, especially if they happen to be a previously lapsed donor.
- Focus on measuring impact. Ask donors to reflect on why they value your organization's work and what types of programming they find the most (or least) engaging.
- Design your survey to encourage considered thought. Avoid simple "yes" or "no" questions and, instead, ask donors to write a full sentence or two for each question.
- Create multiple versions of your survey for different audiences. For instance, you might have a version for first-time donors, another for monthly donors, and a third for lapsed donors or planned giving prospects.
- Use surveys to keep your database up-to-date. Encourage donors to provide their most current contact information, employment status, and household information.
When thoughtfully integrated into your overarching donor engagement strategy, donor surveys can be incredibly useful for generating key satisfaction metrics and .
2. Focus on human-centered messaging. Nonprofits have long understood that effective storytelling is a key driver for getting new donors to engage with their work. Putting a human face on your mission and telling real stories of impact can provide both current and lapsed donors with a powerful emotional and social incentive to give.
At the same time, don't get too hung up on the type of storytelling you plan to use to attract and retain supporters. And don't forget to highlight the relevance of your work for your existing donors and their emotional connection to that work.
Here are a number of things you can do to make sure your organization's messaging supports your retention goals:
- Focus on listening. Nonprofits are great at centering their donors in their narratives, but if you don't stay up-to-date on the conversations happening in your space, you risk losing touch. Donor surveys, discussion forums, and in-person events are effective ways to make sure your donors feel heard and your message stays fresh and relevant.
- Take a collaborative approach to social media. Ask donors and other longtime supporters to share their stories directly with your social media followers. Their updates, letters, photos, and videos will say a lot more about your organization's relationship to its donors than a donor appreciation post you write yourself (although those are important, too).
- Strike the right balance of emotionally compelling and factually grounded content in your messaging with donors. That is, make sure your donors are reminded of the human-centric, emotionally resonant reasons your work is important, but don't overload them with emotion. Provide context, data, and actionable next steps whenever possible.
These and other best practices can yield amazing results for organizations that understand how to put them into practice, especially when their work is focused on social, environmental, and/or international issues.
3. Refresh your data management practices. An organization's donor database is one of its most valuable resources. This is especially true when developing donor engagement strategies and techniques to boost retention. But without strong data hygiene habits, your database can become more of a liability than an asset.
Your donor should help you accurately measure key metrics, but a poorly managed database can waste your resources and cause your strategies to lose focus. Duplicate and outdated entries are a classic example, in that doubled or misdirected communications are a serious time-waster. Which is why your organization needs clear protocols for how lapsed donor information is removed from the database.
4. Boost the impact of your volunteers. Donor retention strategies should encompass every aspect of how your supporters engage with your organization's work. Your volunteer program is a perfect example.
According to the aforementioned Charities Aid Foundation study, engagement within nonprofit volunteer programs has grown over the past year. If your organization has seen a similar increase, it's important that you begin to develop both volunteer-specific retention strategies and long-term cross-engagement strategies.
By volunteer-specific strategies, we mean ensuring that your volunteers feel as engaged and appreciated for their hard work as your donors do. And you can incentivize their continued engagement with a few reliable strategies:
- Offer rewards and benefits. Discounted memberships and tiers of perks tied to hours volunteered are great ways to ensure that volunteers volunteer more than once.
- Promote volunteer grants. Some of your volunteers are probably eligible to have their volunteer work financially matched by their employers. Explore to learn more.
- Host unique events. Thank your volunteers with events tailored just to them — for example, community dinners, awards ceremonies, and informal gatherings where you solicit their thoughts and opinions on your programming and other activities.
And don't neglect cross-engagement strategies across the organization. You need to think creatively about how you can motivate your volunteers to become donors and your donors to become volunteers.
Deepening engagement this way can go a long way to fostering meaningful relationships between your organization and its supporters, especially millennials, in that your mission becomes an important part of their lives (ideally, for an extended period of time). And given that they're generally more interested in volunteering than older cohorts, it's an excellent excuse for devoting more time and energy to in your work.
5. Strengthen your Web presence. Your organization's digital presence is one of its most important tools in maintaining relationships with donors. In the age of viral marketing strategies, every nonprofit understands (or should understand) the power of social media to boost its visibility. Few organizations, however, recognize the potential of a more comprehensive digital strategy to boost donor engagement over the long run.
It's easier than ever to open multiple digital channels of communication with your community and ensure that your efforts on each support your efforts on others. Here are some techniques you can use to help keep donors engaged with your work:
- Optimize your website to provide maximum value to donors. Well-designed sites that offer organized information, clear navigation, and mobile-responsive layouts are the most useful and appreciated.
- Create and maintain a blog on which you share updates, thought pieces and commentary, and relevant posts with your community. Targeting these posts to particular keywords and sharing them on your social media channels will boost your visibility.
- Think about the types of custom integrations you could develop between your site and your database or management software. Giving supporters an easy way to create their own mini-peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns to share with friends is a great example.
- Focus on measuring your site analytics and email metrics. Measuring website engagement and the effectiveness of your email campaigns is invaluable in terms of your ability to craft smarter strategies.
- Explore how Google AdWords can help keep your nonprofit's work top of mind for donors. Google's tools can target your online ads to people who have visited your site in the past, a perfect strategy for maintaining or improving online donor retention rates.
While every nonprofit wants to grow its base of support, retaining the donors you attract to your cause is the key to sustainable growth. By focusing on effective communication, supporter engagement, and digital strategies, your organization can take a giant step toward building a stable foundation that supports future growth.
Carl Diesing is co-founder and managing director of , where he works with nonprofits to strengthen their fundraising and build their capacity to drive social change.