Donor Retention is (probably) Not Your Biggest Problem.

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We talk a great deal about donor retention in our fundraising programs, and with good reason. Acquisition is an expensive and time consuming endeavor, and donors who don’t return bum everyone out. But let me throw a Hot Take: we are worried too much about donor retention, and for the wrong reasons.

Our friends at Bloomerang recently published a major study of donor retention trends, and it is a fascinating summary. The key takeaway? “Donors are up. Retention is down.”  Much angst and hand-wringing is taking place about these trends, including from my sober minded colleague Michael Rosen, who is deeply frustrated with retention rates and wonders if anything at all can be done.

To all of this I say, let’s examine our specific data and segmentation before we declare a national crisis. For most of us, the sky is not falling, and in fact, lowered retention rates for certain segments are inevitable by-product of growth, and should be expected, planned for, and embraced. Why?

Innovation, mostly via technology, is driving first time giving, and is today changing the very nature of philanthropy. This means we are attracting first-time donors in new and creative ways. Social media is only about ten years old in the world, not yet a teenager. Online fundraising is even younger.

Philanthropy and technology together is still a baby, and yet still producing amazing results. Online giving, peer to peer fundraising Facebook campaigns, text to give, Day of Giving programs, and the rest are rapidly emerging as brilliant ways to attract first time donors in ways we could not have imagined back in the days when broad base fundraising was limited to direct mail, telephone solicitation and event attendance.

These are exciting times. Donor growth is very real. But a low likelihood of a renewal is the reality of a first time donor, most of the time, since fundraising began:

  1. First time givers tend to give smaller gifts. Why? Sometimes they are responding to a critical issue or trend (see the ACLU’s rapid growth these past weeks). Other times donors want to kick the tires and try something new. Whatever.
  2. Smaller gifts make up the majority of donor pools, for most organizations. That means a broad percentage of your donors are less likely to renew support. Why? Maybe the urgency is there, or priorities change, or something else comes along.
  3. A lot of the first time smaller donors will not return, and so will need to be replaced. Is this good or bad? Neither. It is a byproduct of marketing reality, and not an existential crisis to our industry.
  4. We are attracting new donors to our causes in new ways. Good for us! Some will return, lots will not. That’s a reality of any marketing effort. We accept this reality in other sorts of business. Coca-Cola introduces some new sugar free soda via a splashy Super Bowl ad. We try it. We don’t buy it again. First rule of sales: some will, some won’t. That doesn’t mean we did anything wrong.

However. Good Stewardship (and the lack thereof) does impact retention. And this is because donors are more savvy than ever before at about how they should be treated (a rapid and accurate written thank you, for example), how often they should be solicited, and how they want to be communicated with going forward. That donors are becoming more sophisticated and demanding about their philanthropy is a good thing for our sector. My pal The Whiny Donor reminds me of this weekly.

So, what should we really worry about when it comes to donor retention? Renewing mid-size and major donors through individual cultivation and stewardship should be your chief concern, and if you aren’t retaining 70%+ or so of our $1,000 (or whatever your leadership annual giving level happens to be) you have a real problem.

Instead of worrying so much about overall retention, let us focus upon retaining and growing our mid-sized donors. Why mid-size donors? Because they are much more likely to renew.

Instead of wave after wave of direct mail do every donor from last year, at every level, how about a laser focus on incentivizing upgrades. I am not a fan of stickers or tote bags as incentive to increase my giving, but I am responsive to experiences: backstage tours, special previews, and the opportunity to learn more about an organization up close and in a special way.

So, what if my local public radio station made some effort to increase my giving (every year, the same $100, for the past ten years) with an idea above, instead of sending me at least twenty direct mail solicitations every year?

How many of your $100+ donors do you talk with regularly? Try this test. Run a report of donors who’ve made consecutive $100+ donors for two or three straight years. These are real people who’ve made a real investment in you. How many names do you recognize? How many how you connected with? Why not?

Instead of all the hand wringing, let’s get to work on upgrading our entry level donors to higher levels and developing stronger relationships. Some smaller donors (maybe the majority of initial givers) will fall away after making that first gift. That’s okay.  Not everyone is going to drink the new Coke.

Posted in Fundraising, Philanthropy | Tagged | 2 Comments

Keeping it Moving: Continuous Improvements for Good (fundraising) Health

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I was at the doctor last week, following up on some fluid checks as one must after age forty, and despite a Holiday of many sugar cookies, I had continued the positive momentum against my junky metabolism for the second straight year. Am I bikini season ready? Not quite yet. But better than last year.

Can the New Year be a spark for transformative change? I used to believe that anything is possible. But now I think, probably not, for most of us, with stretched resources and human limitations. The best most of us can manage is some better practices and continuous improvements, doing better each week, each month, and each year.

And that’s really okay. Doing it a bit better than last time is a worthy professional and personal goal, and if you do this, and nothing else this year, I expect good things will happen. Here is what I am thinking about:

  1. Perfect the Fundamentals. I love fundraising disruption as much as the next guy, but what about good application of best practices as a place to focus this year? Before you go blowing up the paradigm again after reading some thought piece on UK fundraising twitter campaigns, let’s all please commit to the consistent, the repeatable and the simple. If you are asking your board development committee to do more than three things, for example, that’s probably too complicated. Keep it simple. Develop a strong plan, and stick to that plan. Do it better, each and every time.
  1. Accentuate the Programming. I was with a group of performing arts professionals recently, and I asked them, “In ten words, what are you raising money for in 2017?” And the answer was sputters and terror. It is a difficult question, I grant you, for most of us, but especially so when we are so caught up in our fundraising world, that we don’t seek out the amazing and beautiful things happening in the day-to- day of non-profit life. Let’s talk to donors more about our good work, and how their gift makes a singular difference. Got a new elephant? Talk to donors about it. A new Barber of Seville? Talk to donors about it. A new nacho machine? You get the idea. Donors want inspiration. What does that mean for your fundraising efforts? Get in there with your program people. Hang out in the lunch room with the staff who wear name tags and uniforms. Develop trusting relationships with the people doing the actual work in your organizations. Bring them some bagels. Interesting things will happen.
  1. Seek out the Terrestrial. The internet is lovely, and I enjoy staying connected on the socials as much as anyone, but this year I am going to better connect with actual human beings more often. For me, the easiest meet up is a coffee appointment. Offer me a 20 oz. Dark Roast, and I will take your meeting. But I’ve done less of that the last couple of years, with increasing travel and family obligations. So I will do better, and spend time with more of you in person, talking, networking and sharing fellowship. As an example, I interact all the time online with my friend and colleague Steven Shattuck, the Resident Brainiac of Bloomerang, but I don’t think we’ve ever actually hung out in person, even though we both live in the same city. So I am going to fix that.

What else?  Stay Nimble. Have Fun. Ring the Bell when you win. Ask.

We work!

Posted in Philanthropy | 1 Comment

2016. Travel Postcards From an Unsettled America.

What can be said about 2016? A look back at another year of Traveling, Consulting, and Writing in the Americas:

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The signs for a challenging 2016 were evident in early January, when I was very nearly struck by a fast moving bus in Rochester, NY. With short daylight hours, wide streets, and few downtown residents, there is no more dangerous place for pedestrians than the cities upstate New York. But Rochester has a beautiful river system, ballpark, and the stately old Kodak Building. In January, dodging buses, I wrote about making Incremental Progress in your fundraising program, including making a personal commitment to your job. Decide now for 2017 if you want to stick around. Our industry needs longer tenures.

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I have been traveling regularly to Omaha for five years now, including every month in 2016, but only this spring traversed the walking bridge between Nebraska and Iowa. In February my friend and colleague Stef of Heart Project challenged me to a good old Blog Off. After walking across bridges, I questioned the notion of fundraising as a true profession and the pursuit of philanthropic purity. The consensus is that Stef won the contest with her call for organizational clarity in fundraising.

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In March I got to spend time in Belize, my 3rd trip to South America in recent years. Belize is a beautiful place with friendly, English speaking faces and good vibes. A vacation gave me time to consider sponsorship and recognition. We cannot easily compete with for profit marketers. Let’s stop trying.

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In April I took my first ever helicopter ride, a dazzling trip through the Grand Canyon. It was extraordinary to experience the desert from this vantage point. Seeing that vastness, I contemplated the common void in many fundraising programs, the lack of a dedicated focus on Mid Sized Donors.

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In late spring I began working in South Bend, Indiana, home to a beautiful Notre Dame. Walking around a campus booming with philanthropy funded construction, I appreciated the grit and determination of the fundraising professional, full of Love, Humility and Fire.

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Early summer included a business trip to one of North America’s great cities, Montreal, where I attended the Opera America conference. I was reminded of the enormous value of conference participation and other professional development in retaining fundraising staff. Send your people to a conference in 2017!

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In my travels I’ve visited at least 50 ball parks over the years, and this summer experienced Yankee Stadium for the first time. Creating a culture of excellence, as the Yankees achieved until recently, is about consistent habits and best practices. I examined the good and bad habits of fundraising programs, and again reminded everyone how much I hate fundraising staff eating lunch in the office.

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This fall I got to visit Charleston, South Carolina, a shining city full of history and hipsters, living together. During that adventure I wrote about fundraising’s biggest challenge, following up opportunities and promised next steps. We must do better.

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Huntsville, Alabama is home to our rocket industry, and is a town full of quiet engineers and scientists doing brilliant things and leading strong non-profits. I was inspired by the power of introverted fundraisers to get the job done. This was my most widely read essay for 2016.

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This year I began working in Detroit, a beautiful and resilient city whose story is still being written. Detroit is everything you’ve heard – gritty, determined and inspiring.

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I was on 168 airplanes and 1 helicopter this year, split between client destinations in Blue and Red America, including flying over a massive forest fire in the mountains of North Carolina. The haze in the air extended over hundreds of miles in the southeast US.

What can I say about 2016? The Cubs won, but Prince died, along with Gene Wilder, David Bowie, and maybe our democracy. But we do our best, and we love each other, and we move forward.

Together, We work.

Posted in Cultural Entrepreneurship, Fundraising, Life and Travels, Philanthropy | 2 Comments

Confessions of an Introvert Fundraiser.

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Someone wiser than me said, “A fool at 40 is a fool forever” and I believe that is true. So it was one afternoon approaching my 40th birthday that I said, out loud for the first time, “I am in introvert. And I am okay.”

I had this realization after a particularly exhausting conversation with a former friend, a total blowhard who talked and talked, carrying on about this and that, never asking after me or my affairs. Every time we would hang out I’d want to hide under the bed afterwards. My Dad say that folks like this talk to hear their heads rattle.

An introvert? How could this be, as a fun loving urbanite, with many friends and busy weekends? How was this possible as a former major gift fundraiser who loved securing $5,000 commitments over lunch above all else?

So I started thinking about it. The best fundraisers I know, for the most part, are thoughtful, articulate listeners. We are people who wait for something worthwhile to say before they talk. We prefer meaningful conversation to endless small talk. We aren’t always great working a room of strangers. We need quiet time to recharge. And that’s okay.

Now, as a coach to fundraising staff and executives, I contend that introverts (almost always) make stronger fundraisers. Why is this?

Introverts listen. This is the big one. Most of quality fundraising is listening carefully to donors, learning about their interests and concerns. What I learned during this gonzo 2016 is that it is almost impossible to convince anyone of anything. Our job is to share opportunity and align with values. People who listen impatiently just to talk themselves aren’t usually strong major gift fundraisers.

Introverts stick to the plan. We have all been on the right appointment, at the right time, with the right prospect. And the Ask never happens, or we make a mess of it. This is often due either to a lack of preparation, or because someone ignores the game plan. Who goes off script the most? The Chatty Ones, who can prattle on for a full hour about this and that, leaving no time for the business at hand.

Introverts are purposeful in speaking. Asking is actually pretty easy when you do it right – by the right asker, at the right time, for the right amount and project. The work is in the cultivation. An introvert fundraiser can make the Ask, at the right time with simple words, and then start listening again.

Introverts let others talk. The best solicitations often pair staff and volunteers, each making a meaningful contribution to the Ask. Is there a secret sauce to asking for money? I don’t think that there is, but you could do worse than a board member sharing their own story with a peer, while the staff member presents a specific opportunity. But the reverse can work just as well. But when a staff member talks for an hour straight (and CEOs can be the most guilty of this), leaving the board member or volunteer to nod along, no one is going to feel good about the meeting and the outcome.

Introverts are physically capable of shutting their mouths for two seconds. I kid my extrovert colleagues. But seriously. Work on your listening. Ask active questions. When you ask, shut your mouth. Let the prospect respond first, even if it gets awkward.

The best boss I ever had was a true extrovert. Warm, charming, and an ace relationship fundraiser. We did a big endowment campaign together. She would make the case. I’d ask for the money. I told her that I would kick her under the table if she said a single word after we presented the opportunity. She learned to listen better, and learned when to stay quiet.

Together, we raised millions.

Posted in Fundraising, Leadership, Philanthropy | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

What Now? We Work.

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My life in the Arts began more than 25 years ago. As a shy and awkward teenager, new to America after living a childhood abroad, I found the backstage world of the theatre as a home and refuge. 25 years as stagehand, lighting designer, production assistant, staff member, board member, chief development officer, and now, consultant. All in the Arts.

I vote every year without fail, for whatever that is worth. But my work is in the Arts, and my true impact as a citizen, is in the Arts. So what now? Now, my friends and colleagues in the Arts, we can work, harder than ever. Because now we are needed more than ever.

What We Can Do Now:

We can embrace our singular opportunity to bring people together for greater understanding. The world needs more singing, more jazz, more creativity. People who listen to other’s stories gain understanding and empathy. Kids who sing together become friends. We can set the priority that Arts Education is critical to creativity, empathy, and future citizenship for every single one of our children. We can reach new populations in our cities, and serve those who we meet. We can see what a Hispanic audience looks like for Opera.

We can serve a wider community. Communities without Art look to Pawn Stars and Duck Dynasty as culture. Let’s no longer kid ourselves about this reality. Rural and Suburban communities bask in the banal, the simpleminded, and the shabby. We can take our programs farther out, casting a wider net, encouraging and challenging audiences with our work. We can challenge patriarchy, misogyny, xenophobia, and fear with our stories. We can show America what it is, and what it can become.

We can be catalysts for economic equity. I am done listening to non-profit leaders whine incessantly about paying overtime to lowly paid staff members, due to a change in a law designed to bring more Americans into the middle class. I’ve had quite enough of watching talented women (and men) burn out completely in our sector, with the appalling lack of flexibility for work/home balance and childcare responsibilities. We can do better than this with our precious human resources. And we can prioritize paying our Artists a living wage. Too often our Artists are the last to be compensated, and the first to be asked to accept less, and work more.

We can demand respect for all. In our incessant demands for philanthropic revenue, we too often overlook a lack of civility and mutual respect from donors, whose belief systems are sometimes deplorable and outdated. Ask any fundraiser working today how often they’ve had to sit patiently listening to the racist or bigoted rant from a donor, and you will be astonished. Ask 100% of experienced female major gift staffers about the times they’ve been hit on, diminished or treated inappropriately by men, often in terrifying ways, and you will be ashamed. Enough of this. We can walk away from those donors who do not reflect our values. And so be it.

We can give back. Those of us in the Arts need to think more about our fellow colleagues, working in smaller organizations or struggling to find audiences. We can seek out the young and marginalized artists of every background in our community, and support those efforts. We can encourage more diversity in our organizations, and we can encourage our grant making organizations and funders to partner with us for true social change. We can teach others to write grants and market programming. We can share our stages and our gallery walls with emerging Artists. We can support our most vulnerable communities in this time of fear.

It is easy, as a well-educated, well compensated, and fully enfranchised white man to say that America will be okay, but I truly believe it, Friend. I travel the country seeing our cities develop, our citizens get more engaged in the world around them, and our worldview expanding as a country. Artists and Arts organizations lead that generational progression, and that work continues. Bless all of you, and all of us, staying in the Fight.

Let’s Go.

 

Posted in Philanthropy | 5 Comments

Our Biggest Fundraising Challenge? Following Up.

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What is the magic in fundraising? Those times when the strongest connections are made, the right donor at the right time to the right project. But it is awfully hard to get there.

We can all recognize those moments: the backstage tour, the vibrant conversation with our CEO at a donor lunch that advances a key relationship, the gala speaker who brings tears to the eyes of everyone in the room telling the story of organizational impact.

These moments are amazing, of course, and worthy of celebration when we make a meaningful connection between the prospects and donors who support us, and the living, breathing good work of our organizations. For me, that’s the definition of fundraising.

Capturing a prospect’s attention is tremendously challenging in our distracting and competitive world. As fundraising staff, we spend considerable efforts engaging volunteers and board members to make connections on our behalf, cultivating current donors through conversation and opportunity, all while networking to the corporate community relentlessly.

So what happens when we get a hit? What is next when our CEO hosts a donor to that terrific cultivation lunch, or our board chair introduces us to a key corporate leader? What are our immediate action steps following another fabulous gala?

Too often, my friends, there is no proper Follow Up, and this is driving me to distraction. Wonderful conversations are started, events are held at great effort and expense, questions are asked, suggestions are made for future involvement, and creative proposals are advanced. And too often, as fundraising staff, we don’t take the required next action steps. We passively wait for something to happen, or we move on to the next flood of activity, the next event or prospecting trip. If nothing else, the role of fundraising staff needs to be the Head of Following Up.

Don’t complain to me about your Board or Development committee if you haven’t driven follow up activity and next steps to prospective donors they’ve brought to the cultivation dinner. If you, as a staffer, aren’t driving follow up action, it won’t happen.

Ask, after a successful donor cultivation move, have we:

  1. Promptly thanked the donor by email, or better yet, a simple snail mail note card? Want to demonstrate sincerity? Write an actual personal thank you note. My handwriting resembles that of an 8 year old with an attention problem, and I still send thank you notes all the time. On personalized stationary, with a stamp.
  2. Documented the activity, including what we learned about the donor’s interests, preferences, or response to a proposal? In this era of technology, the percentage of organizations who log visit reports and activity into the donor database appears to be going downward. It used to be very common ten years ago, that a donor visit would “count” towards activity expectations ONLY IF it was properly documented into the database. Now? Not so much. Why? It is only a guess but I believe most of our databases have grown so cumbersome that gift officers and staff solicitors don’t bother to learn the fundamentals. And so information, the most valuable resource, is lost. This is costing your programs dearly. Document your fundraising activity.
  3. Set clear expectations for a next step? This is the most damaging of all. Our enthusiastic board member introduces us to a corporate contact. We all sit at lunch to good conversation, including a review of a folder’s worth of organizational information, and perhaps even an initial sponsorship proposal. And then we say, “See ya soon” and thing happens. We blame our board member for not following up, and the opportunity is lost. Or we wait a month or more to reengage. Fundraising is a momentum game. A month is too long to wait.

What is the cost of this lack of follow up on our fundraising? In our push to make this year’s fundraising goal we only see the bottom line of the request that wasn’t funded in this particularly year. But it can and will cost us much more than that when we don’t follow up on our conversations and proposals. Donor interest is fleeting. Your good meeting that doesn’t go anywhere this year may not be possible again next year. Think of it from the donor’s perspective. They met you. The listened. They asked questions. They expressed some interest. And poof, you were gone.

Why in the world would your prospect have a second conversation? Lots of other organizations out there. Onward.

Posted in Annual Fund, Performing Arts, Philanthropy, Sponsorship | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Smoldering Piles: Will Philanthropy Survive the 2016 Election?

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Will America recover from this election? Whatever the result, there will be lasting impact to our society, as actual American Nazis, misogynists, and bigots of every persuasion have crawled out of their bunkers for a public hearing. This has damaged our American experiment, and the impact will be felt for years. Can you imagine eight years ago, when President Obama was elected, that we would be giving a voice to American Nazis in 2016?

Common decency and mutual respect have been on the decline, but also has the good name of Philanthropy, by extension, in this shit show. Our vital business of connecting people to good work has been pulled into the fray by very real questions about Trump’s Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, and it is in our best interests as non-profit leaders to understand the issues and defend our work.

Let’s start with Mr. Trump. Creating one’s own “Foundation” has never been easier, and it is a popular, but unfortunate, mechanism for wealth preservation. There are good family foundations, doing essential work, and there are marginal ones, focused more on tax avoidance. There are more than a few out there that do more harm than good.

Trump’s approach to philanthropy represents an absolute new low for our sector, and if you haven’t already done so, check out The Washington Post’s sensational coverage of Mr. Trump’s truly horrifying charitable shenanigans. It is some deeply, deeply shameful business. New York is aggressive in policing non-profit malfeasance, and I hope they skewer the guy for the damage he has done to the reputation of our philanthropic enterprise.

But what of the Clintons? This is more nuanced, but doesn’t reflect well on our sector. The Clinton Global Initiative does extraordinary work around the world. Like many foundations and NGOs, the CGI works nimbly on critical issues like eradicating disease, educating girls, and providing economic development opportunity. So what is the issue? The appearance of a pay to play relationship between powerful leaders (Bill and Hilary Clinton) and wealthy influencers. Even the hint of governmental actors seeking influence on American foreign policy matters doesn’t pass the sniff test, however much good the CGI does day to day. The stink of this will impact all of us working in fundraising.

Why does this matter for our Philanthropic Sector? Americans are losing faith in our institutions: government, business, and non-profits. But we who work in Philanthropy can least afford the hit. We must rebuild trust in our sector, and deal with the very real questions arising from this election:

Are Family Foundations a Force for Good? The dubious wealth management strategy of personal “foundations” should be closely examined. Ideally, we should have better guidelines to the nature, purpose, and spending minimums of these organizations. And let’s start calling them something else entirely, like a Tax Deferred Giving Fund or something. They are not truly foundations. Legitimate foundations have grant making priorities, competitive applications processes, and, most importantly, are led by experienced professionals.

Should we accept that Big Donors wield Influence? Access is a legitimate leverage point in our fundraising toolbox.  Listen, it would great if the CEO, honorary board chair/famous person, or basketball coach all had unlimited time to devote to EVERY donor EQUALLY. That’s not the world we live in, so we must prioritize somehow. Should bigger donors expect reasonable access to leadership for occasional favors, a listening ear, or special opportunity? Of course they should. Can this seem icky and unpalatable? Maybe, but this the reality of our funding system for non-profits in the United States. And the good outweighs the bad.

But we do need transparency and openness. This might mean limiting anonymous contributions and more transparent reporting. If charitable gifts are made in the public good, in place of governmental spending, we should reasonably ask, as tax payers, that donations should be made public, if the donor expects to receive tax benefit.

Are Non-Profits to be Trusted? Philanthropic institutions are under the same scrutiny and lack of faith as religious, governmental, and corporate organizations in this cynical age. Americans, and others around the world, simply have less faith in every sort of authority, and this is contributing to a slow growth of our sector, where giving as a percentage of GDP has been stagnant for many years.

Are Americans less generous than before? I don’t think so, but we in the non-profit sector need to make our cases compelling, our stewardship thoughtful, and to be confident in our Asking.

Let us use this moment to robustly defend our sector, and make the changes necessary to better regulate private foundations and anonymous giving. It is in our sector’s best interest.

And Vote. Please, please Vote.

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