Photo credit Alberta Community Profiles on flickr

If you’ve been to a fundraising conference lately, read an article or blog, or chatted with your colleagues you’ll know that retention is the current buzzword and biggest concern amongst fundraising professionals today.  And so it should be.

The number one complaint donors have is accountability.  We’re not telling them where their money goes.  And if we are telling them, we’re not doing it well or enough.

Penelope Burk’s book, Donor Centered Fundraising, reports that 84% of the donors who participated in her research study for this book voiced dissatisfaction about the quality of information they receive from nonprofits they support.

The 2012 AFP Fundraising Effectiveness Survey reports that overall, charities are losing more donors than they are attracting or retaining.

And in The Agitator article titled Retention is the New Acquisition, Roger Craver tells us nonprofits are losing 70% of their new donors before getting a second gift.

What donors would like to tell you

Donors are thinking about it too – it’s their number one complaint about the charities they support. If donors could share that complaint with you, they just might do it like this:

Dear Fundraising Professional/Charity/Nonprofit:

You moved me. Your stories inspired me. I was saddened and angry, and most of all, hopeful that I could help. You told me my donations would make a difference.

I have sent you $50 at least twice a year for the last ten years or so. Maybe I missed a few times when I was sick or when my grandson was born, but I intended to send you those gifts. I’d gladly send more money, but first I’d like to know what you’re doing with the donations I already sent. Can you just tell me that please?!

How does my $50 make a difference?

Who did I help?  What did my money buy? Beds? Food? Hope? Lives? Equipment? Care?

I enjoy your letters and emails. I believe that your organization does good work and that you’re necessary in today’s complex and challenging world. And honestly, I do want to make a difference. I want to know that I have helped humanity in some small way. I wish you were able to tell me that my gifts to you have done that.

I also wish you’d gotten back to me when I wrote you with my concerns last year.

Yesterday I sat down to go through my finances and organize my papers for my will. I’ve chosen four charities to be named in my will. I can’t even tell you how wonderful it made me feel to know that when I depart this earth, I will leave behind four distinct footprints that will help real people. My lifetime of savings will help children on the other side of the world, my local hospital, and homeless and abused women in my community.

I know exactly what my money will do because the four charities I’ve named in my will have been so helpful and open in sending me updates on their activities. I’m going to increase my annual giving to each of them.

I’m writing to you today to let you know I’m taking you off my list of charities I support. I’d like to focus my giving on the charities that make me feel good about my giving and help me understand the impact my donations have.

Wishing you all the best,

A once-loyal donor

P.S.  I got a phone call the other day from one of my favourite charities. A board member called just to say ‘thank you.’ What a beautiful idea! I’m thinking I’ll join their special program to give monthly. It makes me feel great knowing I’ll be able to give more.

Are you the charity that would get this letter if donors took the time to write to you? Are you the charity experiencing 70% attrition on first time donors or 84% dissatisfaction amongst loyal donors? Do you have fewer donors this year than you did last year? Do you even know?

This isn’t rocket science. It is important. And it should be your priority.

How to hold on to your donors

Here are eight simple steps to improving your donor retention:

  1. Know your numbers. First you have to know what your retention rates are before you can improve them. How many new/repeat donors did you have last year? How many came back this year? How many lapses reactivated?
  2. Find industry or sector benchmarks. Whatever sector you’re in, find out what the rates are for other charities doing similar work.
  3. Assess what you’re doing now. Take a long, hard and objective look at how you’re currently being accountable to your donors. If you’re unable to do this because you don’t have the time or you can’t be objective, hire someone to do it for you. If you can increase your retention rates by just a few points, the investment will be more than worth it.
  4. Talk to your donors. As a fundraiser you should be talking with donors every day. Ask how they liked the last newsletter, canvass their thoughts on how they’re being stewarded, find a way to get your finger on the pulse so you know what’s working for them and what’s not.
  5. Listen to your donors. And I don’t mean just listen to what they say (although that’s critical too). Look at your response rates. Do an upgrade/downgrade analysis.  Do your donors write notes on reply coupons? Are more asking to be removed from your mailing list? And yes, most importantly, take the time to talk with them and create that culture within your organization.
  6. Be repetitive. When you’re sick of saying something because you’ve said it a bazillion times, donors are just beginning to hear it. If you have great news on where their money is going, report it everywhere – in thank you letters, newsletters, appeal letters, on your website, in an email, on your facebook page. Put it out there and make a fuss!
  7. Celebrate and ask donors to celebrate with you. If you finally bought that piece of equipment or expanded the rooms in your shelter or whatever it is you did, if you can invite donors to see it, touch it and experience the difference their giving achieved, do it.
  8. Understand that accountability is a donor right. And therefore, it’s a charitable obligation. Remember, the institution has no needs. Fundraising is not about you or your charity – it is about the donor and the benefactor. You are simply the conduit.

This article first appeared in Hilborn: the leading provider of information to Canada’s nonprofit sector..