Stop Trying to Retain Your Donors and Engage Them Instead

Imagine you are at a party.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s say that it’s a party you were REALLY excited to attend. You got a save the date and a fancy invitation and heard all about how great this party would be. You arrived at the party anticipating a great time, a life-changing night of fun and friendship and community. Almost instantly, you were greeted by the sounds of music and dancing and lively conversation. You came in, were greeted excitedly by the host, got a drink, and things started off with a bang.

But now, you find yourself seemingly forgotten, in a corner of the party, left out of all the lively conversation going on around you. You were told there would be food at the party, but after snagging a few hors d’oeuvres early on, you haven’t had anything to eat for hours now, and it’s been a while since you’ve even been able to get anything to drink. You are tired, hungry, and frustrated at how this party turned out. You had such high hopes, but now it seems like the host and other guests have completely forgotten about you. So, you decide to leave.

Just then, the host sees you heading for the door and asks where you are going. “Hey, friend, why don’t you stay?’ they ask. They offer to find you something to eat and get you a fresh drink, introduce you to some friends in another part of the party, if only you will stay.

Would you stay?

Probably not.

Then why treat your donors this way?

Donors make their first donation after being drawn in by your mission, your passion, and deciding that they want to be a part of it. They are excited to come to your party. You send an appeal – an invitation to join the party and become a donor — and they accept, looking forward to the experience. All too often, the response is a generic thank-you, an automatic addition to your newsletter list, and…that’s it. At least, for around 11 months or so. And then comes the appeal letter to “renew your support” or something similar. Just like the party host stopping you on the way out the door, it’s a little too late, and your donor’s excitement has fizzled.

Now, let’s go back to the party and see how things may have played out differently.

You arrive at the big party, excited for the great evening ahead. Your host greets you by name and lets you know how happy they are that you were able to attend. They make sure to get you a drink and something to eat, and then take you around, making brief introductions to other guests, and leave you with a group of people who all share a similar interest, where you end up having a great time and lots of lively conversation.

Throughout the night, the host comes through to see how things are going and make sure everyone is having a good time. They offer to refresh drinks for everyone, make sure the group has had a chance to grab some hors d’oeuvres and visit the buffet, and then have a quick conversation with everyone in the group, offering up some personal greetings and conversation starters along the way: “Jeff, I’m so glad you and Angie had a chance to get to know each other. You both have such huge collections of Hummel figurines, I knew you’d have a lot to talk about.”

You have such a great time that you don’t check your watch, or think about leaving, until well into the evening. When the party does finally start to wind down, your host is sure to say goodbye, addressing you by name, and thank you for attending. They briefly ask if you’ve had a good time and then let you know they may be hosting another party soon, and they are hoping you can come to that event as well. You leave feeling happy and looking forward to your next great experience.

That sounds an awful lot better, doesn’t it?

So…how can you make your donors feel like that?

Just like the party host, the key is to engage your donors, regularly and personally. Instead of watching the door and trying to keep them from leaving, give them a reason to stay. Small things, like showing that you know their name, can go a long way. And sending engaging communication, relevant to their interests, and offering opportunities for connecting with other donors whether virtually or in person, can keep them engaged for years.

So, what can you do to get started? I’m so glad you asked.

Assess the quality of your database

A clean, well-maintained donor database is the backbone of any successful engagement program. To begin, do you have first and last names for your donors? Any letter addressed to “Dear Friend” just screams “This is a form letter “ and, even worse, “You are not important enough for me to even know your name.” Again, think about being the host at a party. Know your guests.

Start tracking donor interests

Knowing your donors’ names is a necessary first step, but it’s not really enough. Again, think of the party host, knowing which guests to introduce to whom and matching people with like interests. Which donors are passionate about your education programs, and which are more interested in supporting your urban infrastructure initiatives? Any nonprofit database worth its salt (I happen to know a very good one) should allow for tracking of data points like this that can be used to target communication to the right audience.

Be social

Today, there are more opportunities to engage with donors online, through social media and other means. Don’t be shy! Engage with your donors, and let them engage with one another. Whether hosting small events for donors who share interests in similar causes, or engaging online and allowing your supporters to network and connect with one another, fostering a sense of community is a great way to keep donors engaged.

Be consistent

Thanking donors is absolutely vital. But then, keep up the communication! Don’t go silent until it’s time to ask for more money. One of the most common donor complaints is, “I only hear from you when you want to ask for money.” So, prove that wrong! Keep up the communication, and let your donors know they are more than just wallets with feet.

Be engaging

That said, keeping up communication doesn’t help if your communication fails to capture your donors’ interest. A cold form letter recapping your last three months might sound great to you, but have you done anything in the last three months that is specifically relevant to a certain segment of your database? If you are tracking your donors’ interests, use that data to target communication to the right recipients. For example, if you are building a new school for low-income families, send out an update to donors who contributed to the project to let them know how construction is going. Bonus points if you include some pictures. Channel that successful party host, making personable and personal small talk.

Leverage smart marketing tools

With a clean, well-maintained database and data points on donors interests, you don’t have to constantly create emails and other materials from scratch. Modern marketing automation allows you to send personalized emails to donors based on specific triggers or activities, using templates, some smart merge fields and a little technical know-how. Using tools like these can allow your mid-level donors to get the sort of personal feel that used to be reserved for higher-dollar givers, and also free up your time to focus some more personal attention on your key donors. Win-win!

Once donors show interest in you and your mission, be that great party host. Engage with them, right from the start, and keep checking in with them, letting them know that they are important to you, and maybe getting them a glass of champagne every now and then.

Stop watching the door and trying to keep them from leaving, and give them some great reasons to stay instead.

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