The Best Thing You Can Do for Your Sustainer Program in 2016 | npENGAGE

The Best Thing You Can Do for Your Sustainer Program in 2016

By on Jan 4, 2016


Credit Card Updater Services

The best thing you can do for your sustainer program, hands down, is to subscribe to a credit card updater service. Why? Because it will update your donors’ credit cards if they expire, or if the bank changes the credit card number, by mapping the old card numbers to the new card numbers.

I know what you’re thinking..“Really? Is that even legal?”

The answer is yes—it’s legal. It’s also a great idea. For-profits have been using this service for decades. Why? Because it helps them make more money.

I first learned about credit card updater back in 2007. What I learned was that this is a commercially available service from Visa and MasterCard that has been around for over 20 years (it was not yet available for Discover or American Express). Take a trip down memory lane with me: in the 1990’s, there existed “record clubs” from Columbia House and BMG? You’d pay some small amount of money and get 10 CDs, and then you’d get one CD per month for the rest of the year. The record club would charge your credit card each month. Even if your card number changed, you’d still be charged, because the record club subscribed to a credit card updater service.

The modern example is Netflix.

Have you ever noticed that your Netflix subscription doesn’t expire? Netflix is also using a credit card updater service. Fun fact: back in the early days of Netflix when I used to pay via American Express, I did get a notice that my card had expired and I needed to update the card. When I re-subscribed to Netflix, I used my Visa, and it’s been updated seamlessly ever since.

When a customer makes a payment and checks a box to say “It’s okay to charge my card monthly,” the credit card payments industry treats that recurring payment in the spirit it was intended. The idea wasn’t “I want to sign up for Netflix until this card expires or is otherwise changed.” It was “I want to sign up for Netflix, and when I want to cancel my membership, I’ll tell Netflix.

Credit card numbers change a lot—security breaches aside, banks acquire each other, companies are issuing new cards with chips in them, and so on. The credit card companies have a vested interest in making sure payments recur, because that’s how they make their money. And as a consumer, I appreciate it. I don’t want an expired card to get in the way of my ability to watch Season 3 of Orange Is The New Black.

However, after my card number changed, one of my sustaining donations to a nonprofit did not continue seamlessly. Instead, I received an email letting me know that my membership had expired. I was surprised and confused, because I knew I was a sustainer..until I remembered that I had a new card number.

I made a new sustaining donation because that’s how I roll, but how many of your sustainers would do the same?

I’m guessing not everyone would, because we know that nonprofit organizations experience sustainer attrition at a rate of about 20-30% per year. Lots of organizations put time and money into “lapsed sustainer campaigns,” where they reach out to lapsed sustainers and try to get them to re-commit to the program. So for the sustainers who do recommit,  you’ve just won back donors you used to have, rather than spending that time getting net new donors.

The majority of lapsed sustainers are due to cards expiring or the numbers changing. It doesn’t have to be this way.

What if you could make sure those sustainers never lapsed in the first place? Well, you can.

Blackbaud offers clients the ability to subscribe to Credit Card Updater (available to clients using Luminate Online and The Raiser’s Edge with Blackbaud Merchant Services for payment processing). The Planetary Society  and KPBS were able to recapture 16% and 14% of their sustainers, respectively, using the service. Those were recurring donations that would otherwise have lapsed forever, unless the organization had spent time chasing down the donors and asking them to re-enter their donation.

If you’re not spending your time chasing down lapsed sustainers, you can spend the time you save on more value-add activities, like:

  • Testing different copy, design, and ask amounts to sustainer prospects in their house file
  • Improving their segmentation to find potential sustainers
  • Creating stewardship materials for existing sustainers to make sure they continue to be sustainers, and
  • Upgrading sustainers
  • Finding brand-new donors for the organization to ask to become sustainers

Use the month of January as an opportunity to ask all your year-end one-time donors to make a New Year’s commitment to your mission by becoming a sustainer. As the 2015 Luminate Online Benchmark Report showed us, growth in online fundraising these days is driven by recurring giving. If you don’t yet have a robust sustainer program, here are several ideas for how to build and grow one. While you’re at it, make sure you future-proof your program by using Credit Card Updater.

And spend more time on your mission.


Sally Heaven is a senior client success lead at Blackbaud specializing in sustained giving, online fundraising, email marketing, and advocacy. In addition to presenting on sustained giving at last year’s bbcon, she has hosted numerous webinars and user group sessions on the subject. Prior to Blackbaud, she worked at Convio and GetActive®. She also spent seven years as the deputy field director of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.

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