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Your Best Donors Are Your Donors

These are the people that already stand by your side and your mission. They invest in what you do and are more likely to continue giving their support.

I am excited to share with you my first newsletter, Bess Practices. As a seasoned consultant serving dozens of nonprofit organizations every year, I gain insight into mistakes made by even the most well-run small development shops. Coincidentally, the thing that they have in common is that these mistakes are correctable.This publication is dedicated to reminding even the most resource-constrained development team that there are some simple practices that can have outsized impact on fundraising success.

I hope you enjoy reading this piece. Be sure to read the last section, "Not My First Rotary. "


Who Are Your Best Donors?

One of the best fundraisers I ever met served on the board of a nonprofit I founded during my early years. Whenever I asked Sarah about her current campaign, she seemed to have the same answer, “We reached our goal early and increased our target.” Her calm smile said it all. She felt confident they would reach it. An extra million dollars never phased her.

As an enthusiastic, but less seasoned fundraiser, I listened carefully to her advice. There was one phrase that resonated and I follow it to this day. “Remember Carolyn, your best donors are your donors.” When I first heard this advice, I scratched my head. But with more experience practicing it, I saw the wisdom of her words.

I have raised funds for most of my professional life. I understand the persistent urge to seek out new donors. Nonprofit leaders obsess about looking for new donors. Now, don't get me wrong. The pursuit of new donors is essential for a healthy nonprofit organization.

Yet, concentration on new donors can lead to taking your current donors for granted. And current donors are your best donors.

Why Are They Your Best Donors?

These are the people that already stand by your side and your mission. They invest in what you do and are more likely to continue giving their support. They often increase their gift if asked. They share your work with friends. They might even host a small event for your organization. They tell colleagues about your programs. They ask their employer to match their gift. In short, your current donors are the lifeblood of your organization.

To neglect stewarding your donors deprives your organization of important funds. And those funds are core to your annual revenue. After working so hard to acquire a donor, your organization can ill afford to let that person walk out the door. Furthermore, ongoing support can lead to them making a larger or planned gift — the ultimate in sustainability — versus a one-off gift that rarely leads to a planned gift.

Donor attrition comes from 3 primary sources:

  1. Current Donors who give less over time because they have not been well stewarded. They may eventually become a lapsed donor.

  2. Lapsed Donors who have not given in the past 12 months or more. They were probably not well stewarded and received little special outreach to bring them back.

  3. High Potential Donors who could give more if they were better stewarded. They represent “unrealized potential” and need an extra step of wealth-screening.

How Do You Keep Your Best Donors?

Many organizations struggle with donor retention. The average retention rate in the United States is 45%. Some loss of donors is natural. But best practices can reduce the impact. As a small but strong development team, you want to continually punch above your weight with the resources you have. Here are 5 actions that can help increase donor retention:

  1. Track donors in a Contributor Relationship Management system. If a board member engaged this donor, make sure they know when this person donates. Note matching gifts and remind the donor, if necessary. Attempt to convert loyal donors to monthly donors whenever practical. Data management is a complex process, but covering the basics can go far.

  2. Stay in contact with your donors on a monthly or semi-monthly basis. Write a stewardship plan. Use a variety of techniques. “Mass communication” such as a newsletter and an annual impact report work well. More individualized outreach, for high-net-worth donors, is vital. Extend invitations to an event. Create opportunities for one-on-one meetings. Learn about your donors through conversations and data analysis.

  3. Conduct wealth screenings on your annual fund donors as a regular practice. Be sure to review the results and focus on donors with high capacity. Segment donors who have greater potential. Develop smart ways that speak to their interests to create deeper engagement. Be creative, but also be patient in your approach. An individual with significant capacity is likely being asked by several organizations simultaneously. Play the long-game.

  4. Run lapsed donor reports. Discuss strategies to reactivate these people at development team meetings. For less engaged donors, develop strategies and communications that speak to them. Reach out to learn why they stopped giving. Address their concerns. Clearly show the impact of your work on the constituents you serve. A lapsed donor of greater than 3 years is likely gone, so don’t let this practice wait. Organizations literally lose hundreds of thousands of dollars each year through lapsed donors.

  5. Acknowledge and appreciate at least seven times. Use emails, letters, phone calls, video clips, and handwritten notes. The first acknowledgement should occur immediately. Others can occur over time. They should come from different people in your organization. Everyone is a fundraiser in your organization when it comes to stewardship. Engage different champions in the process. Staff, program volunteers, constituents, board leaders and even donors can say thank you.

Ongoing communication throughout the year is essential. It is the center of a relationship-oriented donor program. Acknowledgment and recognition is paramount. Connecting with your individual donors goes a long way. Why? Because it allows your donors to know and feel that they are, in fact, your best donors.


Not My First Rotary

Ever since I was a child, I have had a thing with idioms. Combining them. Misrepresenting them. Misusing them. Funny enough (no pun intended), these mistakes have ignited some good belly laughs. This corner is dedicated to promoting such laughter. Feel free to share one of your own. With your permission, you may see it in a future newsletter.

My family and I just returned from a (freezing) camping and hiking trip. While eating breakfast one morning, we got some disappointing news. I wanted to help boost our spirits, and without hesitation, looked at my family and said, “Well, when life throws lemonade in your face, you just dig in and do the best you can!”


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