Want to keep donors coming back? Pay attention.

Are the appeal letters you send to supporters a helpful reminder or a huge turn-off?

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Flickr user Shane Adams purchased a cow through Heifer International. Photo: ishane/Creative Commons

Last week I wrote that the first thing I want when I make a donation is a simple, quick thank you. It’s the no-brainer, proven “donor retention strategy” every organization should follow.

Paying attention to what donors want in a wider sense is, though, a little more complicated.

One day I ended up sitting next to the charming ED of a large organization in my home town that I’ve supported in a small way for years.  I said to him, “You know, I send you guys a check every year, and almost before it lands in your mailbox, I get an appeal for additional support.  I’m at the point where I’d almost rather forget about making my gift if I get more than one reminder a year.”

His answer?  “Those systems are automated.  The only way I could make sure you only get one reminder would be to put your name and address in my tickler file and do it myself.”

I can’t remember my answer, but I do remember being astonished. I still get way too many reminders…and I still make a gift every year. I guess I value their services enough to put up with this familiar feeling that no one is paying attention.

Still, I’d love it if the organizations I support could operate their development departments efficiently and still pay attention to the requests that donors make about how they want to be treated in the future. Admittedly, those two goals are a little bit in conflict.  The most “efficient” way to handle the daily incoming mail is to open it immediately, record the donors’ names and gifts in some database, and deposit the checks.  The most respectful way is to examine the post-it notes and scribbles on the donor-response forms to see whether there’s any sort of message there, and then do as much as possible to honor any reasonable request.

In a busy organization, being able to honor requests depends on having systems in place that match what donors want, which takes us back to square one and then on to square two.  Say “thank you;” pay attention. That’s the “donor retention strategy” that has the greatest promise of success.

Has your development department found a way to balance both of these priorities?

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Comments (6)


  1. Idealist writes:
    March 25, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Just got this tweet from Ann P. Craig, and love it: I love the post-it notes and scribbles. Besides reasonable requests there are often words of encouragement and thanks.

    http://twitter.com/annpcraig/status/51352519619780608


  2. Julia Smith writes:
    March 25, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    It drives me crazy when I get solicitations, especially snail-mail ones, from organizations I’ve never been affiliated with. I instantly start racking my brain to think about what other orgs might have shared my mailing address with them! Put, didn’t you write a post sometime in the past about how to go about removing our names from these types of lists?


  3. kim writes:
    March 26, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    I stopped giving to the (tbd) very wonderful Christian Children’s Fund because I would get snail mail every other week. I began to wonder how could it be that ANY of my money is making it to the children? Personally I think all snail-mail should be discontinued immediately, or perhaps sent only and discriminately to those who do not provide an email address. For me it is a MAJOR turnoff.


  4. Deborah L. Drucker writes:
    March 26, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    The reality is that in an organization of any size, which may be receiving hundreds of small donations daily, it takes an incredibly sophisticated fundraising database and skilled data and gift processing staff to implement individual donor wishes on solicitation timing. Since data management and gift processing staff are considered overhead, organizations who wish to operate effectively face a dilemma – spend the money necessary to honor donor’s wishes, and be accused of “wasteful spending” by charity review organizations, or operate on a shoestring and risk being unable to respond adequately to donor’s needs.


  5. Rowyn writes:
    March 28, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    I did actually stop donating to one organization because of their constant “send moar money” pleas. They never sent thank-you notes, either. Made me wonder how well they were actually using my money. :(


  6. Karin Gerstenhaber writes:
    April 1, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    If on your smart phone, you have a selection of time frames to remind you of an upcoming event on your calendar, surely, there is some simple way to translate that technology to donor databases.


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