Get Past the First Date With Donors
Handle things wrong, and you might end up with just a one-night stand.May 2010 By ELIZABETH RICCA
It was a great first date. Your messages were spot-on; he was interested in what you had to say; there was an immediate connection. You're off to a great start. Now what?
Nonprofits of all shapes and sizes struggle with retaining first-time donors. The first step — getting them in the door — is a big one, but all that effort will be for naught if you can't take the relationship to the next level.
Disaster fundraising: a case in point
Fundraising efforts in response to the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile have made donor retention a particularly hot topic of late. The urgency, immediacy and terrible human cost of a natural disaster are very effective at inspiring people to give. American donors have given millions and millions of dollars in the past months to support recovery in Haiti and Chile. The trick is to keep those donors — most of whom probably contribute to disaster relief when need is greatest rather than on an ongoing basis — engaged and inspired beyond the immediate crisis.
The American Red Cross' disaster fundraising and donor cultivation program is a great example for any nonprofit thinking about how to keep first-time donors on board.
My first date with the Red Cross
I made my first-ever donation to the Red Cross a few days after the Haiti earthquake. Knowing about the potential for delays acquiring mobile funds, I chose to make it online. The Red Cross' thank-you message, which arrived a few days later, spoke to the specific impact of my gift — from providing blankets to funding disaster response experts — to help me, the donor, feel that I'd made a difference. About a week later, a follow-up "Response Update" from the president and CEO of the Red Cross invited me to watch a slideshow of the relief efforts and share images with my friends.
About a month later, I received a "One Month Report" with a video update on the Red Cross' continued efforts in Haiti, which served to give me information in line with my interests and remind me of my earlier support and the ongoing need. Around the same time, on Valentine's Day, a simple e-card — no donation ask — arrived, thanking me for being a donor. The subject line read, "The heart of our mission: You." Even though I'd only given once, the message implied that I was a part of something bigger.
The most recent piece — a "One Minute Update" celebrating Red Cross month — started encouraging me to make the transition from Haiti donor (specific and one-time) to Red Cross supporter (general and ongoing). It included an update on Haiti relief, but it also featured stories about the organization's work in other parts of the world and some interesting tips. All very accessible, very high-level and well-chosen to be interesting to me, thus far a one-time donor.
All the communications I've received from the Red Cross in the two months since my original donation have been proportional to my initial commitment: simple messages; not too frequent, not too demanding; nearly all cultivations rather than asks. Its online communications team has cleverly woven targeted messages about the earthquake — the issue that brought me to the table in the first place — with messages about the Red Cross' work more generally to help me see the big picture.
Lessons for building great donor relationships
Not every nonprofit fundraises for disaster relief, but nonprofits of all stripes have the need to cultivate first-time donors. Your strategy will change based on the audience at hand, but there are a few lessons you can take from the Red Cross that are relevant for any nonprofit:
● Say thanks. All the best relationships start with a little mutual appreciation. Your new donor thinks you're doing something special; let her know that you're grateful for her support with a timely thank-you message.
● Communicate appropriately. It was a great first date, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Another dinner might be in order sometime soon, but not 20 voice mails and half a dozen text messages. Be respectful — don't bombard them with a slew of messages that will make them regret initiating the connection.
● Cultivate and educate. Know who your first-time donors are, and send them messages that are appropriate to them. Don't assume they know everything about your organization or speak your language, and don't assume they've already bought in to supporting you. New donors may need to learn a little more or interact with you in a nonfundraising context before they're comfortable and inspired to make a second donation.
● Report back. Tell your new donors what the impact of their gifts was and how you're putting all the support you get to good use. They'll be happy to know that they made a difference.
● Be consistent. Every time you communicate with new donors (and old) — be it on your Web site, in a direct-mail piece, through a text message, via video or meeting you in person — they should see and hear messages that reassure them it's you. Your organization's communications should sing with one voice so there's no possible ambiguity, no chance of them deleting your e-mail without realizing it's from you, no missed opportunities to reinforce your message.
Whatever your approach or your communications channel, don't lose the opportunity to make a connection. If you just finished a great first date, you wouldn't just leave it at that. Don't do it to your new donors either: Seize the opportunity to turn a one-time interaction into a relationship that will last a lifetime.
Oh, and Red Cross? You can call me anytime. FS