Lessons from a Fundraising Insider: How our Donor Retention Rates grew to 43% | npENGAGE

Lessons from a Fundraising Insider: How our Donor Retention Rates grew to 43%

By on Apr 3, 2014


headshot_Katherie MorrisI’m a passionate philanthropist, fundraising nerd and former member of the Stock Market Club at Argyle Middle School.  I’m Katherine and I’m a small shop fundraiser.

As you know, working in fundraising isn’t easy or glamorous. The hours can be long and emotionally draining, and rarely do we get to enjoy our own parties (even though we bought a table!).

But it’s worth every minute.

Why? Because WE (collective WE) are passionate people.

I work as the Donor Relations Coordinator at Lena Pope, an agency that serves children and families through counseling and education.  We impact over 10,000 lives each year, and in 2013 we had a donor retention rate of 43% (compared to 27%).

Over a 5 year period, we’ve gone from retaining 29% of our donors to 43%.

So far, we are on track to hit our goal of 45% this year.

I’m not writing this post to tell you  the ‘5 Sure Fire Ways to Increase Your Donor Retention’. No, this isn’t another ‘Do Just as I Do and You’ll Succeed’ post. I’m writing to share with you the strategies that have worked for us, in hopes that something we’ve tried will also work for your organization.

The key is to continue trying new things, measure your results, and do what you can with the resources at your disposal.

So, what led to our above industry average donor retention rates?

1. Our database is healthy 

Before starting my fundraising gig, I had NO experience working with any sort of CRM other than Quickbooks.   My first task was understanding how to appropriately enter data in our fundraising database so that I could create easy and efficient reports. (I’m a nerd with a finance degree, so getting my hands dirty in data is sorta my thing.)

If I have to spend more than 15 minutes creating a report or query to see the info I need, I’ve done something terribly wrong.  Doing it right the first time saves a lot of time in the end!

2. We’ve become comfortable with silence

I used to take it so personally if someone didn’t respond to an email, phone call, or appeal (that I wrote a personal note on!). Then, it hit me one day- just because someone is on our mailing list does not mean they are passionate about what we do.

It’s not (always) personal.

Now, I have no qualms about sending 50-70 emails per week, making phone calls, or writing personal notes that may go straight to the trash.  If nothing else, I’m leaving a drop in the bucket so they may remember our organization and that ‘nice gal who wrote or called us that time’. Every impression matters.

3. We court new donors

I’ve tried various tactics with new donors, and I’ve found the most beneficial and  appreciated is simply inviting them out for coffee or lunch to learn more about them. These dates have nothing to do with me asking for a second gift, but the give me an opportunity to form a connection and get to know our new supporters as individuals.

Even if they don’t take me up on the offer, the invitation alone is indicative of how much we value their support.

4. A Beautiful Combination of 1 +2  =We go on A LOT of coffee dates

I use our data to strategically reach out to donors within various groups. Whether they’re recurring donors, lybunt/sybunt donors, new donors, or event sponsors, I ask them out for coffee all the time (I’m a quad grande Americano gal myself…hold the cream and sugar, please).

The hard part is getting through the ENTIRE list.  Ever get stuck at the D’s? You spend all that time personally stewarding donors with last names starting with A, B, C  or D, then your reports are due, deadlines are approaching, and the list moves further down in the pile. Sound like you?  Don’t worry you’re not alone! Mix it up, give the M, N, and O’s some love too, or shorten your list. The point is to spend some time with your donors – nurture the relationship.

5. We keep it interesting

In order to have meaningful conversations with donors, I need to be interesting. I read a lot, but also make it a point to experience life. I don’t work more than 50 hours a week. I turn work off when my husband gets home. I watch interesting documentaries. I go fun places and meet new people. I ask questions.

I say this to express how important it is to take care of yourself in order to take care of your donors. Your donors have interests, ideas, and passions beyond your organization, and you should too. Get to know your donors and allow them to get to know you. Be personal. Keep it real.

 Other key drivers to our success:

  • Incredible leadership: I’ve been very fortunate to work for a Director and Executive Director who allow me to be creative and take risks.
  • Thank you letters: Upon joining my organization,  I was tasked with creating different thank you letters. We had one letter that was sent to everyone regardless of the gift, program or purpose. Now, we have 12.
  • Action tracking: Our department  tracks everything in our CRM, Raiser’s Edge. We track everything from who got a sponsorship packet to who got a thank you note from a board member (and which board member it was), to what type of invitation everyone got: mailings, phone calls, emails, etc. This way, if I see one of my co-workers names listed as the solicitor on a lot of actions for a constituent, I may not approach them for coffee.
  • Not asking for a second gift unless asked. When I meet with donors, my goal is to share the mission of our organization, show you how we impact our community, and tell them exactly what their gift has done. At the end of the conversation a donor will either say, “that’s awesome thanks for sharing” or “wow, how can I help more?” It’s scary thinking you may spend an hour with someone, have coffee, splurge on a venti and then walk away empty handed, but I’ve found it refreshing.

As fundraisers, I feel that it’s our duty to share with each other – what’s working and what’s not – to make each other better. We’re a community, and we’re in this together. I’ve spent years testing and trying ideas passed to me by others in the field. Some have worked and others have totally failed. The point is to keep at it. Try new things. Figure out what works for you and your supporters, and then share it with us (you can connect with me on Twitter @KatOnALeash)! It’s the only way we’ll move forward together as an industry.

Want to improve your donor retention rates?

For additional insight to boost your donor retention rates, check out the latest npEXPERTS eBook!

 npEXPERTS Donor Retention


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