Most of us have heard the philosophical question numerous times: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Similarly, estimates of donor retention—that range from horrible to abysmal—have made me wonder, “If a direct response message lands in a person’s mailbox/inbox and they don’t pay attention, are we really communicating?

My answer: not as often as we’d like to think. We’re posting, tweeting, emailing, writing and even videotaping. We’re collecting likes, thumbs up, shares and pins. But donors and prospects aren’t impressed.

Consider these statistics from the 2015 Fundraising Effectiveness Report Donor Retention Supplement:

  • Overall donor retention is 46%.
  • Retention rate of new donors who only gave once in the last year is 25%.
  • The retention rate of donors who gave two years in a row is 65%. (What a difference!)

Reports on the dire state of retention are everywhere—kind of like news about the election and the Zika virus. But that doesn’t change the facts (above) or our obligation as fundraisers to pay attention.

Do you know your retention rate?

If not, you have to figure it out. Yes, you HAVE to. Why? Because you don’t know if you need a Band-Aid or an open heart surgery if you don’t know the scope of the problem. If you are fortunate and your retention rate is far above average, do more of what you have been doing, and do it even better; it’s clearly working. But if it is slightly above, at or below average, something needs to change—fast.

One of the keys to donor retention, according to the aforementioned FEP Supplement, is the cumulative giving of a donor over 12 months. Donors giving less than $100 had a 53.5% retention rate, while those giving $250 or more in the same period had a 76% retention rate. That’s a big deal. Need proof? If you have 1,000 donors, you are losing 24 percent of them a year (76% retention) and you are not adding any new donors, you will be down to one donor in the year 2041. But under the same circumstances except with only 53.5% retention, you will have just one donor left by the year 2025.

This gets us back to communication—or the lack thereof. With the relative ease and low-cost of online communication, many nonprofits have more messages directed at prospects and donors than ever before. But it is generally estimated that donors and prospects see more than 5,000 marketing messages a day: “Buy this soft drink. These are the right shoes for you. This charity is worthy of your support. Don’t you deserve a new car like this one?” Yes, messages from your nonprofit are mixed in with all the other messages—and it’s becoming easier and easier to miss messages, even from people and organizations you care about.

So how do we break through the noise?

We simply must make sure we consistently share messages our donors and prospects want to hear. Mark Phillips, founder and CEO of Bluefrog, diagramed “The Fundraising Paradox.” As he’s invited readers to share it, I do so here because it is an exceptionally easy way to quickly grasp of why we are failing to communicate with prospects and donors.

What a donor wants to hear[1]

Here’s my challenge. Take your last newsletter (print or online), your latest Facebook posts, your direct mail or eAppeal, and even your receipt and thank you letter. Underline everything from the blue circle in blue and everything in the purple circle in red. Go really crazy and highlight anything that shows how your organization and the donor solved a problem in yellow.

Do the same exercise with all your communication to donors and prospects in the past three months. Are you offering your donors information that they want to hear, or are you force-feeding them what you want them to hear?

If your messaging is spending most of its time in the blue circle, chances are you aren’t communicating…at least not to the donors and prospects that are the lifeblood of your organization.


Pamela Barden, CFRE, is a Direct Response Fundraising Strategist and Copywriter. With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations.  She specializes in writing fundraising copy, P.R. materials and instructional articles, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy.

As Vice President and Group Director at Russ Reid (2006–2009), she was responsible for the management of the largest single account for this marketing agency specializing in nonprofit fundraising.  Her nonprofit experience includes leading the fundraising work for International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (2001–2006); World Relief Corporation (1988–2001) and Youth for Christ/USA (1979–1988).

Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from the DMA, a Distinguished Instructor for UCLA Extension, adjunct instructor at University of La Verne and a weekly columnist for “Today in Fundraising.”

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