How Reactive & Proactive Donor Engagement Strategies Increase Retention

Responsive fundraising puts the donor at the center of your fundraising and grows giving by personalizing each donors’ journey. Before we can dive in and talk about how you can use proactive and reactive engagement strategies, we must start with what informs how your nonprofit should engage each donor: listening.

Listen First

Today, the demand for your donors’ attention is fierce. We live in a world full of distractions continuously competing for attention. This influx of messages is overwhelming. It forces us to pick a few that are most relevant and ignore the rest. Many opt out completely and retreat to personal feeds or friend recommendations when determining which brands or causes to connect with.

How can your nonprofit stand above the noise and connect with these distracted donors? The key is permission and personalization. Both require listening. Listening first earns you permission and equips you to personalize your communication. These allow you to craft messages that are personal and engagement opportunities that are relevant. Both help you build connection and trust, which helps grow donor engagement.

The Return on Listening

As Karl A. Menniger put it, “listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”

However, listening isn’t created equality and it’s important to keep in mind what Stephen R. Covey said, “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” This type of listening prevents you from fully understanding what your donors are trying to share with you or skews how you evaluate donor data and behavior.

It’s important to first ask the question, “what did they say or do and why is that?” before we ask “how should we respond to this?” True listening, as outlined in responsive fundraising, requires attention, curiosity and empathy.

Luckily, this is a skill that can be developed and should be reinforced regularly. Here are three activities I’ve seen nonprofits use to learn to listen better:

  • Host an active listening workshop with your team
  • Implement a quarterly donor NPS survey
  • Create a monthly meeting for all staff to call donors and say “thank you”

Reactive vs. Proactive Engagement

Think about your closest relationships. This might be a partner, a friend, parent or child. I imagine that this relationship is built on a dance that involves you and the other person continually responding to each other through reactive and proactive engagement.

Reactive engagement is when a donor takes an action with your organization or you observe them doing something (both listening) and then respond contextually. Think of this as times when the donor knocks on the door. Your job is to answer.

You can identify these opportunities by asking this question: what did the donor do and how should we now respond based on the expectations behind their actions?

Proactive engagement is when you respond to signals not initiated by a donor’s action. This could include inactivity by a donor, like a regular donor who suddenly stops giving for three months. And, it can also be insights understood through a donor’s collective or past activity. For example, if a donor has partnered with your organization for three years or volunteers their 100th hour, you can reach out and celebrate these milestones.

Similar to reactive engagement, you can use a series of questions to identify opportunities:

  • Based on what we know about the donor’s actions, what opportunities make the most sense to suggest to them now?
  • Based on what we know about the donor, how can we guide them to engage in actions that deepen their engagement?

These moves are the foundation of a relationship, and the depth of “responsiveness” in these moves, is what leads to connection and loyalty.

Responsive Relationships

According to the psychologist Harry Reis, what deepens individual relationships is “responsiveness”: mutual understanding, validation, and caring. Responsiveness coupled with openness leads to intimacy. It happens via “turn-taking.”

Responsiveness (in relationships) encompasses three things:

  1. Understanding: My partner knows how I see myself and what is important to me.
  2. Validation: My partner respects who I am and what I want.
  3. Caring: My partner takes active and supportive steps in helping me meet my needs.

This is why listening and proactive and reactive engagement strategies are essential as you develop your nonprofit’s responsive fundraising strategy.

Reactive Signals

Giving is deeply personal, and today’s donor expects a connection to causes they care about most. This is why it’s important for you to identify key activities and actions that donors take and create processes for how you’ll respond. This could be as simple as setting up a welcome series for new donors to ensuring each person who donates receives a prompt thank you and an impact report.

According to a study by Dr. Adrian Sargeant, the Director of the Philanthropy Centre Ltd. and a professor at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, concluded that the primary reason, outside of financially inability, that donors stop giving is due to poor service and lack of responsiveness by the nonprofit. Additionally, he observed that donors who continued giving referenced their connection and confidence in the nonprofit as key drivers of their commitment.

Your communications are the only thing that donors get in response to their support and it’s essential that you prioritize this in your donor engagement strategy for all donors and not only a select few.

Signals that spark a reactive strategy can include when a person:

  • Calls your offices and requests more information or joins your email list
  • Makes their first donation or joins your monthly giving program
  • Attends an event or donates to a friend’s peer-to-peer campaign

Proactive Signals

Similar to how a coach, partner, or boss may pull you aside to point out something you may not have even have realized (like your tone in a meeting, your sudden distance, or highlight how your discipline is paying off). This is an approach your nonprofit can use to deepen engagement with your donors. And, typically the listening you’ve done, when done right, will enable you to connect proactively and personally with your donor and make suggestions on what they can do now.

Every time you connect with your donors you should be adding value. With this, it’s essential to use proactive engagement only when it strengthens the donor’s relationship with your cause (ex.celebrating a milestone, showing impact) or suggests personal and relevant next steps (ex. giving during a crucial time, watching a video to learn more). Both of these can help you build donor loyalty and increase retention.

Signals that should spark proactive outreach include when a person:

  • Who gives regularly hasn’t given in three months
  • Visits your website and doesn’t take an action
  • Hits their third anniversary of partnership or given their 10th lifetime gift
  • Has volunteered 100 hours with your organization
  • Has given 3x in the last three months

Why Both Are Necessary

As your organization commits to listening to donor signals and using responsive fundraising to build donor loyalty, you’ll begin to see how proactive and reactive engagement work together in harmony to strengthen donor relationships.

Similar to how, a marital or friend relationship doesn’t grow through one-sided or reactive-only movements, neither do relationships with your donors. It takes both. It’s something that isn’t a one-time initiative, but rather an ongoing balance to better serve your donors and grow impact.

Different team members will focus more or less on reactive versus proactive strategies. However, establishing benchmarks for you and your team is crucial to insure time each day each week each month is calibrated appropriately. For example, you may have a Key Relationship Officer (KRO) who spends 90% of her time on proactive engagement, when your Donor Success team spends 60% of their time on reactive engagement. Both are equally important, and it’s the collective effort, not the equal effort, that helps you build lasting relationships with your donors.

This can be daunting, but it’s important to learn through doing, not planning. And, that starts out by taking small strides. Here are two steps to spark your listening:

  1. Spend 25-minutes today simply writing out reactive and proactive signals that you’d like your organization to better tune into.
  2. Now, circle two of them and make the time to implement these responsive fundraising strategies this month.

Just that will help your team get from zero to one, learn how to even do this, and ultimately set the foundation for a process to add-in additional opportunities from your list.

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