Good Stewardship is the Key to Donor Retention

Good Stewardship is the Key to Donor Retention

January 31, 2018 by Dan Schipp

Have you looked at your overall and new donor retention rates lately? If your organization is like most other nonprofit organizations, there is ample room for improvement.  According to the 2017 Association of Fundraising Professionals’ (AFP) 2017 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report, the average overall donor retention rate for the nearly 11,000 nonprofits participating in the study was 45%. The average new donor retention rate was 23%. 

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As noted in the AFP report, for the past 10 years, the average overall donor retention rate has been less than 50%.

How can your organization move the needle on donor retention?  A good place to start is with donor stewardship.

As the “steward” of the time, talent, and treasure entrusted to you by generous donors and volunteers, it is incumbent on your organization to appropriately acknowledge their gifts, properly use them, and transparently manage them.  Since your best prospects for future gifts are current donors, time spent in developing a more personal relationship with these donors, building their understanding of the impact they are having through their investment in your organization, and motivating them to become true champions of your organization is time well spent.

How do you do that?  It isn’t just about sending an accurate, personal thank-you note within 48 hours of receiving the gift, but it certainly starts with that timely and gracious acknowledgement of the donor’s gift. Beyond the standard practice of a prompt gift acknowledgement letter, as well as other usual actions like providing the donor with regular newsletters, sending birthday greetings, and publishing an annual report, what are other practices you might consider?  I suggest the following:

  • Have a board member call the donor within a week of the donor’s gift to thank the donor for the gift – an additional “touch” to the formal thank you letter;
  • Provide the donor with a “behind the scenes” opportunity to meet with program staff, hear a “things to know” presentation from a cast member before attending a theatrical production, sit in on a class, or take part in a field trip to see the fruits of the conservation work being done by your organization;
  • Send a card or note on the anniversary of the donor’s first gift or an exceptional gift to your organization; and
  • Share stories/updates about the people your donor is assisting with his/her support or send articles about programs you know to be of particular interest to the donor.

In the end, good donor stewardship comes down to:

  • Thanking the donor/volunteer in a thoughtful way.
  • Working to build a meaningful relationship. To grow a donor’s understanding and passion for your organization – and for you to understand her concerns and motivations, you have to engage with her . . . you have to spend time in genuine conversation with her.
  • Going beyond the expected. Organizations that excel in stewardship think and act “out of the box” when it comes to attending to and acknowledging their donors. They go the extra mile past the conventional – birthday cards, holiday greetings, etc. – and surprise their donors with kind gestures like a card on the anniversary of a loved one’s death or a cheery note in the heart of a long, dark winter.
  • Following through on commitments. Nothing can sour a donor relationship more quickly than being unreliable.  A donor has to have confidence in your (personal and organizational) willingness and ability to carry through on what you say you are going to do. 
  • Being transparent and forthright about how gifts are used and managed. Donors today, more than ever, expect transparency and accountability. An annual reporting on finances and use of philanthropic resources helps to demonstrate openness and good stewardship. 

Good stewardship practices will lead to success in retaining donors and volunteers. They are not daunting or onerous tasks, but they take time, persistence, creativity, and authenticity.