Popular presenter outlines top tips for donor engagement

An American fundraising expert has warned that charities are losing more than 50 per cent of their donors every year. And what’s worse, charities were accepting this as normal.

Respected fundraising consultant, Barbara O’Reilly CFRE, drew a sizeable virtual crowd at her appearance at Fundraising Institute Australia’s recent annual conference. She told delegates that this haemorrhaging of donors would not be acceptable in the for-profit realm.

“In the corporate world, they understand customer loyalty is a metric for performance, and anything below 90 per cent retention is an alarm bell. But losing donors seems to be accepted here in the United States, and I suspect it’s the same in Australia. This is not great news for charities’ work with beneficiaries, and it’s not getting better,” she warned.

O’Reilly, who established Windmill Hill Consulting in the Metro Washington DC area 12 years ago after a successful 17-year career with various NGOs, told fundraisers to examine their retention rates to see which donors were staying, who was leaving and why. She then outlined five tips for building and strengthening donor engagement.

1.Understand what matters to your donors. A recent American study found that belief in an organisation’s mission (54 per cent of respondents) and that a gift can make a difference (44 per cent) are the critical drivers that prompt donors to give. O’Reilly suggested fundraisers look at their donors’ giving patterns to see what might be resonating with them.

Seventy-five per cent of donors are now using information about an organisation’s impact to inform their giving decisions. Fundraisers should orient all their marketing communications to focus on how their charities were making a difference, the outcomes in their communities and how partnerships through donor support helped impact.

“By doing this consistently, you will spark a donor’s sense of value and appreciation and their interest to give more,” said O’Reilly.

Given how 2020 was such a challenging year with the pandemic — and 2021 isn’t shaping up to be better — fundraisers should also communicate with donors about adjustments in service delivery, new beneficiaries, what needs are going unmet and how people can help.

“These are the things people want to know about. We saw in the United States that giving was up in the first three quarters of 2020 and probably will be in the last quarter due to the pandemic. Donors are willing to help, but you need to understand what matters most to them,” she advised.

The unicorns are in your orbit

2. Know who your donors are. Fundraisers are always looking for those “unicorn donors” who give significant gifts. But chances are you already know them, and they’re in your orbit.

“Dig deeper into your data to see who they might be and look for the lapsed donors you might re-engage. Then, refine your donor list so you can see where you should put your time and energy,’ said O’Reilly.

Surveys are an excellent way to find those unicorn donors because they help you discover what donors are interested in and what they want to know about you.

“Surveys are also good temperature checks on how donors are feeling. It’s vital that you demonstrate that you want to know more about them, not as a contribution or source of income, but as a person with interests so they can feel more connected to your cause,” she said. 

Once you have a sense of who your donors are, then it’s on to the next stage: how you’re communicating with supporters.

Connect with donors online and offline

3. How to engage and inspire donors. People will keep giving if they perceive their gift has had an impact. This stems from how fundraisers communicate, and it’s a step not to be underestimated as fundraising underperformance often results from a failure to communicate. 

“If donors don’t know they’re helping, they will go elsewhere,” warned O’Reilly.

Ways to show donor appreciation include handwritten thank-you notes, regular newsletters showcasing impact and storytelling, and video updates, including webinars tailored to specific donors and featuring program officers.

O’Reilly suggested fundraisers should use online and offline communications to connect with donors as givers connected to both worlds are three times more generous. They are also twice as likely to stick around than those who receive just one form of communication.

While there’s no magic number regarding how many communications fundraisers should send, O’Reilly recommended four to six solicitations a year along with thank-you notes and impact reports. 

“Notes and reports don’t have to be detailed, but they do need to connect the dots back about getting the gift and how it helped to make a difference,” she explained.

Getting the board on board

4. Use your board members because they have gravitas with donors. Board members had a lot more to offer charities than governance or bottom-line counsel; they also could be used for fundraising purposes. But fundraisers had to be mindful of how they approached this topic with board members.

“Board members often tense up when they’re asked about fundraising because they think it’s going to be about them using their Rolodex and asking people for money. But it doesn’t have to be that way. They can help build donor relationships in other ways,” she explained.

Directors can be used as spokespeople and ambassadors, welcoming new donors to events, writing thank-you notes or making stewardship calls. But those who have indicated they would be comfortable making and/or closing an ask should be called upon for help in this work.

Importantly, all board members should be donating to the cause they represent and involved in donor stewardship to some extent.

One way to start the process is by brainstorming at board meetings to develop a menu of activities where directors could be involved. O’Reilly suggested holding a workshop to discuss fundraising roles with board members and where there might be gaps.

It’s also critical to give board members the tools and resources they will need to succeed in fundraising and stewardship.

“Some board members will need guidance. They might require talking points for a meeting, strategy notes, meeting preparation or even role-play sessions,” said O’Reilly.

“Board members do carry gravitas with donors. It’s lovely to get a staff or CEO thank-you call, but getting a phone call from a board member makes them feel extra special from the donors’ perspective. That’s because they know board members are extremely busy people. It sends a good message,” she added.

Research backs this up. Canadian researcher Penelope Burk of Cygnus Applied Research found that board members positively influence donor retention. Her study revealed that a whopping 93 per cent of donors who had received a thank-you note or call from a board member said they would probably or give again to the cause. And 84 per cent said they would make a larger gift next time.

Time to track

5. Track, measure and iterate. While it’s been said before, it’s worth remembering this Peter Drucker mantra around tracking: “what gets measured gets improved.” O’Reilly said fundraisers should be asking themselves the following:

Are we making progress against goals? Are we setting ourselves up to meet other factors of success with donor retention? What trends are we seeing? Where are we stalling or facing challenges? What are our retention rates? What’s the average gift?

“Importantly, know what matters to your donors, know who they are, inspire them with your work and impact, get your board helping and track your progress. This will all help raise funds for your beneficiaries, and your staff will like it too,” concluded O’Reilly. 

If you were an FIA Conference 2021 delegate and missed Barbara O’Reilly’s presentation, you can login and watch her talk anytime up until 27 August. There are also many other great presentations worth watching too!