Rant on Retention

I like to think that professionals in all fields get together and rant and complain about their profession.  I have to believe that there are forums for pipe fitters and physician’s assistants and marketers to get together and go, “They’re hiring people with no experience as experts! Nobody takes the profession seriously!  These CEOs think they can hire somebody with Fundraising experience and that’s as good as 25+ years in Marketing!”  Grumble grumble, rant rant, etc.

Because it can’t just be us.  Can it?

And every other rant lately is about Donor Retention.  It’s the most significant problem facing the profession today.

I agree.  It is.  Based on the data and reports we’ve all seen.

But . . . .

BUT . . . . . . .

First – can we just stop beating each other up?  Please?  “The worst fundraising mistake you can make!” OR “Fundraisers aren’t paying attention to the fundamentals!” or any other number of alarming headlines.

There’s a lot of fundraisers doing really great work, making great relationships and helping find the funding to tackle some of society’s toughest issues.  Should they be paying a little closer attention to their retention rates?  Sure.  But let’s praise what they ARE doing.

And just because a development officer is not measuring specific retention rate, doesn’t mean that they’re not conducting great donor stewardship, wonderful relationships and hitting goals.

Objection:  If development officers are doing great stewardship, why are renewal rates across the industry so low?!?

Me:  I haven’t seen the actual data those reports come from, but I do think they’re approached with pretty broad brushstrokes.

Second – some donors aren’t MEANT to be retained.  And most CRMs and reporting tools just take a straight, one-shot look at it on a year-to-year basis.  I have yet to see a report that said, “Retention rate was 47% for annual fund donors.”  Maybe there was a whole lot of campaign giving or specific project funding that went on last year and those donors very specifically gave a stretch gift and that CDO is already working the next gift for five years from now.  Some gifts, some giving just ISN’T multi-year.

Is a fundraiser a failure because they didn’t renew their capital campaign donors?  They are if you take a one-shot approach to measuring retention.

Third – and most important – measuring retention is not as straightforward as it seems.  The CRM that I use is possibly the #1 or #2 most popular.  It does not have an extant donor retention report, but recommends you compare the results of a query of last year’s donors to this year’s.  Just compare the counts in each query and you’ve got it.  Indeed, the instructions for this do not factor the fund/allocation of the gift – JUST the year it was given.

Another way to do it is to export the data into Excel and run a VLOOKUP (after pivot tables, the fundraiser’s most useful analysis tool, but I digress).  VLOOKUP will compare Unique IDs (or names or other fields) between two worksheets.

Hang on . . . . first is the time, here.  I’m pretty decent with Excel, but that takes me about an hour or so to do.  And so many shops don’t have a dba or analyst to run these kinds of reports, or the Excel skills to do it.

“But if you knew your retention rate and focused on retention, you wouldn’t have to work so hard acquiring new donors.”  True.  That’s truth.

But . . . let’s look at an example from real life (true story – names changed):

– In 2014, Jack Spratt made a personal $1,000 introductory gift, God love him;
– After some extended cultivation, Jack made an additional $10,000 gift from his family foundation, later in 2014;
– In early 2015, Jack’s wife Eileen leveraged a $5,000 gift from her company restricted to a specific program
– Later in 2015, Jack renewed his $10,000 and made it through a donor advised fund
– Eileen did not renew her $5,000; Jack, however, increased their support to $20,000 which he made through a mixture of soft-credit from a corporate gift and a gift from a different source . . . . .

Guess who doesn’t show up in a retention report?  Jack and Eileen, because they change the source every year and Accounting requires gift entry to be tied to the actual source of the gift and soft-credited to the donor.  Every year they look like new donors and would get “lost” in a direct unique identifier comparison.  But guess who was also the subject of intense stewardship and cultivation – isn’t that focusing on retention, too?

Unless the retention report recognizes soft-crediting OR the query/export combination you use appropriately designates soft-credited gifts to the donor . . .

Does this account for a lot of gifts?  No, not on the overall whole.  But I’ve seen situations like this be 5% – 6% of a database, so it has an impact.  And I’ve seen it – a lot – at lower levels.  One year one person in a household gives, the next it’s the spouse who writes the check.  (And householding (how a database looks at individuals in the same household, i.e. spouses, domestic partnerships, etc. ) is a massive problem in fundraising CRMs – that’s a whole other blog post.)

The point?  Donor Retention is incredibly important and we should be doing everything possible to hold on to the donors we have.  We DO need our Boards and Leadership to understand that keeping a donor is a far, far better investment than seeking new ones.  And, yes, that is our job to tell them.  More importantly, it’s our job to show them.

 

What we’re really saying is, “We – as a fundraising industry – NEED to take better care of our donors.  We need to thank them more, get our arms around them more and treat their giving with the respect and care and awe that it deserves.”  Like all things, if we focus on the metric and not the action, we miss the point.

So, yes, absolutely – focus on donor retention.  But spend less time tracking the number and more time loving on donors.

How to make (Fundraising) Data Fun

I was inspired this week by a colleague, a very talented and smart fundraiser, who was talking about some of the challeng . . . er, opportunities . . . we’re both facing and she says, “How do I make data fun?  How do I get my data person to get INTO it and really WANT to dig in, get it right and find joy in it?

And I thought . . . .

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Because you can talk about the HOW until the cows come home, but if we don’t have the WHY and we don’t find some joy in it, it won’t get done.

So, here goes . . . how do we Make Fundraising Data Fun:

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Admit that Data is (probably) your Single Biggest Opportunity

Data quality and usage have a larger impact on our fundraising outcomes than anything else.  Seriously.  If we don’t have correct addresses or phone numbers or emails, we can’t contact donors or prospects.  If we don’t have visit/call notes or prospecting information, we can’t carry the relationship forward as effectively.  If we don’t enter the gift information, we can’t track results or donor intent.

Take a good, hard assessment on your data and systems – are you getting what you want out of them?  Are they working for you?  Is your reporting accurate and helpful?  Do you feel confident going into a donor conversation?  Are you books balancing?

The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.  And let’s use the phrase “Data” to mean not only the individual points of information, but your whole infrastructure – reporting, data entry, list management, all of it.  Is it what you want and need it to be?  Is it supporting you or is it a chore?  Invest in a SWOT Analysis on your whole data construct and if it falls short, own that you have an issue.

And hold everyone accountable for their role in managing and using data.

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Make it a Part of the Culture

Forgive this soapbox moment, but we are way past the point in the industry where anybody in the shop can have a negative or lackadaisical attitude towards data.  And this includes the Chief Development Officer or VP or whoever is in charge of the department.

If there is anybody that’s part of the team who says, “I don’t deal with data, I don’t like data, I just don’t understand it” that’s a big clue to whomever is in charge of it that it’s not  a high priority and it’s not valued.  They don’t need to the key data expert, but they do need to understand it and appreciate it.  And understand the constructs and limitations of the system so that they can better manage it.

Everyone has responsibility for data hygiene, for note taking, for accuracy and for comprehension.  Everybody needs to understand what’s in the data, what it shows, how to use it and some basic level access to it.  And that means in reporting, too.  Are your reports valued?  Are they discussed and praised and reviewed?  Or are they just a rote practice some somebody spend a lot of time and energy on, but nobody really reads or uses.

Make data something everybody talks about, works to understand, uses and values.

Treat it like a Great Big Puzzlepuzzle2

This is the only way I know how to make it fun.  Data analysis does not come naturally to me; when I first started, I didn’t enjoy it, it was a chore and it was boring.  Hence the “reluctant” in the “Reluctant Data Geek” title.

But if you treat it like a puzzle, a mystery to be solved rather than a chore, it becomes a lot more interesting to a lot more people.

Don’t you want to know who your longest lapsed donors are?  Do you want to find out how many donors renewed?

It’s like a great, big Choose Your Own Adventure story.  Make it a game and keep the end goal in sight, not the steps you have to take to get there.  It’s the mindset of “I’m going to spend the next half hour ensuring I take care of my donors by entering what we discussed at lunch today” rather than “Gaaah, I’ve got to sit down and do all my notes in the CRM because the boss makes me.”  It’s “I’m going to try to find any donors that haven’t renewed this fiscal year” rather than “Yawn, I’ve got to spend the next 2 hours building complex data queries.”

Get Rid of the Fearkeep-calm-and-data-on-26

You can’t break your CRM, you can’t break your data, there is very little that you can actually do that is irreparable or catastrophically damaging.  (Assuming that you know not to hit the ‘save’ button if you do accidentally change some data.)

Unless you’re using Excel as CRM, in which case, I’m sorry.  Godspeed.  (Really, invest in a CRM – you’re losing money if you haven’t).

Get. Over. It.  Seriously.  Get in and start digging around, sign up for training with your CRM provider. (Side note: I wish every CRM developer in the world would stop this “self help” model with videos and FAQs and all that and give us free, person-to-person training.  More than any other field, data/CRM training really needs to cater to different styles of learning.  I’m a physical learner; webinars do me no good.)  Even so, if you’re completely lost on how to use your system, call your provider and tell them you need some individual training – just enough to get you going and used to it.  Do anything you can do to start getting familiar with your data and your system.

The best thing you can do is log in and start poking at it – “Hey, what does this button do?!?”  I promise you, even if you do manage to break it, it can be fixed.

Invest the Time

You don’t have time NOT to be invested in making your data fun.  Truly.  If it is, indeed, one of your biggest opportunities, invest the time for you and your team to really get it down.  Tell yourself, “I’m going to set aside 30 minutes this week and do nothing but getting familiar with data.”  Order a team pizza and everybody gather together and work on it.  Whatever route you choose, invest in learning something new about your data regularly. Take a free online Excel class – or YouTube video.

Make the time sacrosanct and see it as an investment in your opportunity.

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There are some people who love vegetables.  Others who hate them.  But, nutritional science tells us vegetables are great for us and we should eat more of them.

Data’s the same way.  But what we do know is we won’t be healthy without consuming more vegetables.  And we won’t be as effective in our fundraising if we don’t pay some attention to our data.

 

 

 

The Problem With Recurring Giving

A family I know is going through that terrible process of having to put their mother into assisted care.  She has Alzheimer’s and it’s so sad.  This is a woman who had a heart as big as all outdoors, gave to everyone she met and had an infectious laugh that lifted the whole room.  And now, more-often-than-not, she sits in her wheelchair and cries.

Go back to that giving thing . . . in going through the process, her children needed to close out her credit cards.  You see where this is going, right?  She had monthly payments to two, large national charities.  $10/$20 a month kind of thing.

The only way the family knows this is because they found the bills as they went to close out accounts.

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Guess what?  They can’t find anybody at the charities who knows what to do or can help.  So, they just canceled the credit card.  So, the charity just won’t get paid and will have no idea why this donor stopped giving.  They’ll probably try to contact the family to get a new credit card number in a few months, but the relationship is over.

There’s no phone number on the website, there’s no email address – everything just goes to the main switchboard at their national corporate office.  I offered to help and I can’t find anything on their recurring monthly donor programs.

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Now, this woman filed meticulously – she kept EVERYTHING anybody ever sent her.  Especially these charities.  She would proudly show off the new calendar every year and lay out the quarterly magazine on the coffee table.

But they can’t even find a thank you letter, an acknowledgement, nothing that indicates any level of personal engagement.  She would have saved it, pack rat that she was.

I GET IT.  Hell, I live it.  There’s a lot going on and having enough time to do everything is tough.  But, there’s the problem with recurring giving.  It is too, too easy to get the monthly gift and then just let it roll.  They’re smaller gifts, they run automatically and both the donor and the charity lose sight of them.

Wait.  No.  The donor doesn’t.

We – fundraisers – have to believe that a donor who makes a $10 monthly gift is every bit as invested as a donor who makes a $10,000 one-time donation.

These charities needed to believe that this beautiful woman was PROUD of supporting their missions.  She was.

What could they have done?

  • Sent a thank you letter acknowledging the gift and re-stating the plan – $10 a month until you tell us to stop
  • Every quarter sent a hand-written thank you note — even if it was mass-produced and simulated handwriting, it would have been SOMETHING
  • Sent a personal letter from whomever is responsible for the recurring giving program, “If you need anything, call me or email me.”
  • Regular updates on how her money was spent
  • Have a special page on the website for these recurring donors – or a private website/URL only they can access
  • Sent a welcome packet with all the above information in it
  • Acknowledged and been grateful that there was a person on the other end of that $10/$20 per month

In this day and age, all the above are easy and relatively cost-effective to do . . . even by direct mail houses and vendors.

Recurring giving is absolutely the right way to go.  It is deserving of all the hype and focus and consultation it receives.  Every charity should have a recurring giving program.

But they should also have a recurring thanking program to support it.