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Keeping the right donors
The only way we’ll ever justify today’s donor recruitment costs is if we can inspire more of them to keep giving a lot longer.



by Ken Burnett,
writer, publisher,
motivational speaker and occasional fundraising consultant.

Blog 4 June 2014.

It’s not the mystery shopping tests that shame our organisations, it’s the reality of inadequate, shoddy, casual, under-resourced donor service that they consistently reveal. This false economy is the biggest indictment of professional fundraising today.

Part 1 of this feature.

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In this second of two articles marking the launch of the Institute of Fundraising’s Proud to be a fundraiser campaign Ken Burnett explains why success for the campaign should be judged by our sector’s ability to improve the donor experience.

George Smith quote

What George says, above, is undoubtedly true. He goes on to suggest that the majority of today’s supporters are different from the traditional kind for the simple reason that they’ve been recruited. They’ve not come forward themselves as volunteers. Instead fundraisers have used a variety of techniques to push them into their support of our causes. Given the superficiality and artlessness of so much donor acquisition these days it’s hardly surprising that we lose many of them so soon after they join us.

People recruited in these ways need very special treatment to encourage them to stay and become real donors. Being a donor is voluntary, a matter of free choice. Stopping a stranger, bending his or her ear then pressing him or her to sign a commitment on the spot was always going to lead to high turnover. Even the inertia of direct debits (EFT) can’t save us if a donor isn’t inspired to stay.

Two intimately-connected aspects of our fundraising affect donor retention more than any others.

  • The experiences our donors get, particularly in the early stages of the relationship.
  • The influence of the people who deliver those experiences.

Which explains why retention levels vary so widely from organisation to organisation. Some get this very much better than others.

The case for retention fundraising
We all have to shell out, up front, to acquire donors, even if just to replace those we’ve lost. For fundraisers, spiralling acquisition costs are a cast iron certainty in an uncertain world. The danger for the future of our sector is that acquisition costs have escalated to such a height they’re now really hard to justify. The main reason for this is that, averagely, fundraisers don’t keep their donors long enough to recover that original outlay with sufficient margin or certainty.

So what does it cost these days to acquire a new donor?
Such is the diversity of methods and circumstances that the only valid answer is, ‘how long is a piece of string?’ Two things can be said with certainty. It’s too much. And it’s getting more expensive by the day. Meanwhile the so-expensively acquired existing donor file atrophies steadily too, as donors are leaving all the time.

Recently I asked some fundraising friends to share their current costs of new donor acquisition from a range of sources. The results were varied, none were great and few were improving. The cost to recruit a regular donor face-to-face seems to have shot up recently from around £120 to upwards of £160. Responses via mobile phone to a £5 ask can cost £90 a time. A two-step strategy to convert these to a regular donor can cost from £142 to £164. A regular £3 donor recruited by radio ads might cost anywhere from £76 to nearly double that. Tests that don’t work often cost much more, which leads to the false economy of less testing. The danger is, these are the accepted norms now.

You do the sums. With costs like these and donors giving £2, £3, or £5 per month, how long will it take before any of the donor’s money actually goes to the cause he or she thinks she’s supporting?

Yet even this commercial fact of life might not necessarily be over hard to justify as long as these so-expensively acquired donors stay long enough and give enough for the charity to recoup its investment within a time frame that a reasonable donor would consider to be reasonable too.

How that word ‘reasonable’ is defined is a moot point. Donors may well view it differently to fundraisers, or economists. For each the definition is being stretched, dangerously. For many, breaking point may not be far away. Average donation values have increased over time too, of course, but not by enough. When it gets too expensive for fundraisers to replace the donors they’re losing our organisations will have truly eaten their seed corn.

What’s this got to do with ‘Proud to be a fundraiser’?
A lot, I think. Because unless our sector can fix this it’ll be really hard for any of us to be truly proud of what we do. Unless donor service across the sector  improves massively from the experiences shown by countless ‘mystery shopping’ tests, it will be stretching the point for any of us to claim we’re proud to be fundraisers. Unless the people who deal with donors can consistently deliver the stimulating experience that donors need to keep them inspired, it’s unlikely we’ll do more than tinker at the margins of today’s costly haemorrhaging of potential lifelong donors.

And that’s just not good enough for anyone who’s proud to be a fundraiser.

Continued at column two, above top.















Continuing from column one, below.

So what can we do?
We can get heaps better at acquisition, no doubt. And at communication generally. But the real answer has to be substantial, consistent investment in retention. Plus a sector-wide commitment to not tolerate the kind of donor drop-out rates that have become the accepted norm in our industry.



First thing I’d recommend any serious fundraiser to do is to get hold of Roger Craver’s upcoming book Retention Fundraising: the new art and science of keeping your donors for life, coming soon from Emerson and Church, USA*.

Next, work on your finance director so that she or he fully gets the need for, and payback from, appropriate investment in fundraising (the free Proud to be a fundraiser toolkit we’re preparing for the IoF Convention will be a great help for this). Then you’ll be free to invest in a level of contact and service for your donors that will keep them emotionally happy and your fundraising colleagues hugely proud of what they do.

And then perhaps the kind of results obtained time after time from those so-called ‘mystery shopping’ tests (see my 1996 book Friends for Life and SOFII, here) will at last become a thing of the past.

It’s not the mystery shopping tests that shame our organisations, it’s the reality of inadequate, shoddy, casual, under-resourced donor service that they consistently reveal. This false economy is the biggest indictment of professional fundraising today.

Those who don’t do everything they can to change this paradigm should be fired, with enthusiasm, for they are letting down our donors, our staff and all those we seek to serve. The rest of us should be fired with enthusiasm for changing this, for good. So that we can all be justly proud to be fundraisers.

© Ken Burnett 2014

* For a pre-publication discount on Retention Fundraising: The New Art and Science of Keeping Your Donors for Life, by Roger M. Craver, email here by August 20 to receive a promo code for $5.00 off the regular price of $24.95 (+ shipping).


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Ken Burnett is co-founder of Revolutionise (formerly Clayton Burnett Limited), a director of The White Lion Press Limited, a consultant to The Burnett Works agency, former chairman of the board of trustees for the international development charity ActionAid International and is currenty an independent trustee of the UK Disasters Emergency Committee. He’s author of several books including Relationship Fundraising and The Zen of Fundraising and is managing trustee of SOFII, The Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration. He is also a commissioner on the newly appointed Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing.

Inch hotel 2
The Inch Hotel, Loch Ness, inspirational setting for Clayton Burnett’s transformational events.2

Related articles
The real point about face-to-face fundraising
The ‘less cost is best’ fallacy.
Explaining better the true cost of acquisition.
• And part one of this feature, Keeping the right fundraisers.