Keeping Donors: Part 2. Test & Learn


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So no one thinks that losing lots of donors ever year is a good thing, right? It’s very easy for outsiders or suppliers trying to sell stuff to pontificate about all the things a charity ought to be doing better. Making that work in practice in the very imperfect world that non profit fundraisers inhabit is quite another matter.

Overstretched teams, under pressure from all sides, lacking all kinds of essential resources such as effective MIS systems or the proper support of the charity’s leaders find it difficult to carve out the time to focus properly on supporter development.  And often fundraisers don’t know where to start to tackle their donor retention problems.

Well like any problem, the first step is analysis. Work out how much of a donor retention problem you have and quantify that. On a 5 year basis, how much money are you losing from donors stopping giving. And how does this compare with your peers? This has the helpful by-product of helping focus organisational attention on the issue.

Then look at where you have the biggest issues. Where are the attrition spikes? Which groups of donors, recruited through what channels have the worst problems. Choose the area where the retention problem is costing the most money and address that first. (This is most likely to be in the immediate period after acquisition).

Having identified the area where there’s the biggest problem, look at your existing processes. How are donations acknowledged?  How long is it between sign up and first payment being taken? What communications are sent out in that period and how do they relate to the messages the donor originally responded to? In many cases, you will find some basic things which aren’t being done well or at all.  Fix those.

Add to the communications you are sending out ways to garner feedback from the donors. As I’ve said in my previous post, the aim is to move from a monologue to a dialogue but do this in steps, a few questions at a time. Only ask questions where you can use the answers to inform how you communicate with that donor.

Then do what any good direct marketer should do, develop a hypothesis and test it. What could positively impact on retention? Calling all new donors to thank them?  Sending a handwritten postcard? A picture of a cute cat?..

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Many fundraisers don’t test retention communications because of the issues involved in tracking the performance of cohorts of donors over time.  It’s tricky setting up control groups and running tests over time.

And of course there’s the time lag between making changes and knowing what impact there’s having…

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But actually, many things can be tested effectively without running something that feels like a trial of a new cancer drug. We know, for instance, that there is is usually a clear linkage between initial direct debit attrition (no show rate) and subsequent donor performance.  So something which can impact on a no show or second month attrition rate will probably also beneficially impact retention over a longer period and be tested within a fairly short time frame. The effectiveness of individual communications can be tested through engagement metrics such as open and click through rates.

Underpinned by analysis which demonstrates the financial impact of even marginal changes in early attrition rates, fundraisers can iteratively develop an armoury of effective donor retention communications and processes. And then its a question of feeding them into the whole fundraising programme to ensure that all activities are developed with donor development at the core.

It all comes back to priorities.  If you think that retaining donors isn’t that important or something that you can’t do much about then you are unlikely to make much progress.  If the main individual giving metric is number of new donors then retention is going to get neglected.  But with serious focus and management attention, there’s a huge amount that can be done.

So what’s holding you back?




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