Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an uneasiness lingering among fundraising professionals. Back in 2020, many of us were holding our breath to see how the shut-down would impact our revenue streams. While some organizations were forced to close doors, others quickly adapted, and it was a banner year for generosity. “Explosive growth,” as some organizations described it. And analysis confirmed it. According to Giving USA, giving increased by 8.1%, “the largest jump since 2012 and the fourth largest in the 21st century.” The education, society benefit, and international affairs sectors saw double-digit growth.
Despite our fears of inevitable declines in 2021, donors continued to show solid support and gave at the high pandemic levels. As annual campaigns played out, most of us saw few declines. The 2021 Giving USA report reflected this trend and confirmed that overall giving from the prior year was consistent with a slight decrease of 0.7%. Double-digit increases shifted to the arts and humanities sector and society benefit.
Now halfway through 2022, the uneasiness continues. Some of us are starting to see evidence of the air slowly leaking from the pandemic giving bubble. Even more concerning is that revenue is not leveling out to 2019. For some, it’s declining even below those numbers from two years ago. And disturbing reports are emerging, leaving us to shake in our proverbial boots.
The most recent? The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s 2021 report, “The Giving Environment: Understanding Pre-Pandemic Trends in Charitable Giving.” This report found that, since early 2000, fewer than half of American households are currently giving to charity. That’s equivalent to 20 million households lost. Yes, you read that correctly: twenty million households.
There are no reports pinpointing exactly what is happening but a few indicators could be contributing to this disturbing trend. More donors are drifting to support causes through crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe and DonorsChoose. Through the “Great Recession-to-Great Pandemic,“ there is an erosion of the middle class. Along with lower trust in government institutions, banks, and organized religion, we’re also struggling with post-pandemic unhappiness including the loss of vaccine optimism and the state of the nation and politics.
But besides these external impacts, the Chronicle of Philanthropy encourages us to hold up a mirror and examine our practices internally. Have we done a good job keeping up with technological advances and do we have a “feel-good” experience for our donors when they give online? Are we focused on stewardship in between our campaigns and building solid relationships with our donors to retain them? Did we shift resources from annual giving to “big-gift” operations such as grants and foundation support, thus eroding our individual acquisition and retention efforts?
Along with considering the above, I have few additional tactics that will help us grow and expand our annual giving to help get those 20 million donors back.
Donor Communication Improvements
At the very core of improving donor relations are the tasks and tactics that may be the least sexy when examining an overall development approach to improve acquisition and retention efforts. But these items are the foundation of your donor program and should receive maximum attention.
- Data cleanliness: Building a trusted relationship with your donor is crucial and the best way to do that is to ensure that your data is accurate. Your donor will be turned off immediately if you have an incorrect name or giving history. Take the time to de-dupe your file, check for missing fields, and ensure addresses are correct. Consider sending an email or letter with an option for the donor to verify their information. This is also an excellent way to collect additional interests or phone numbers.
- Personalization: In all of your communications, try to be as personable as possible. Use salutations, geographic locations, or interests to connect with your donors. It not only helps to build a deeper connection but also demonstrates your commitment to accuracy and proper record-keeping.
- Segmentation: Segment your messages and ads for improved targeting and performance. Utilize giving history for specific campaign messages (example: different copy and call-to-actions for a lapsed donor rather than a prospect). Email click-throughs will reflect active participation, hence more (or less) updates or content related to specific topics. Utilize geographic information to send community related activities to activate that hometown pride.
If you have a copy of my book, you’ll find more tactics in Chapter 8: Special Seating – Defining Audiences Through Segmentation and Personalization.
With the swift rise in digital adoption over the past two years, ensuring that your donors have a smooth online giving process is essential. Take an hour or so to do an audit of your digital tools. Here are a few basic elements to check:
- Donation form: Remove unnecessary fields. Ensure all dropdowns and checkboxes work smoothly and are mobile-optimized (check both phone and tablet screens). Utilize best practices for the thank you page and email including personalized with the donor’s name, demonstrates gratitude, conveys impact, and signed by someone in leadership. Bonus for adding “second-step” information (see growth funnel below).
- Multiple payment options: Online users are increasingly exposed to a fast method of payment for purchases including Apple Pay, Paypal or one-click. Consider expanding the options you offer to donors on your form.
- Strong value proposition: Donation form testing experiments have shown that having a strong value proposition on your donation form can increase revenue.
Need more ideas? Check out the NextAfter Online Fundraising Institute’s library of over 2,100 online experiments.
Applying the Growth Funnel
I talk about the importance of a growth funnel so frequently, those that know me are likely tired of hearing it. But there is no better way to ensure that your annual development plans and campaign activities work hand-in-hand to simultaneously acquire, convert, and steward your donors.
Take, for example, a five-week ‘Ardently Austen’ campaign that I launched in 2020 with WHYY. We intentionally crafted activities to engage and attract new audiences, included email conversion tactics, donation opportunities, and focused on member benefits to steward our existing donors. Read more about it here.
If you’d like to learn a little more about how incorporate a growth-funnel mindset in your fundraising efforts, take a peek at my “Flourishing with Funnels” article along with a Growth Funnel downloadable guide. (And this is covered in Chapter 7: The Funnel Flow – Grow Your Audience. Deepen Relationships.)
Creating an ambassador program not only offers the benefits of amplifying your mission, but also gives your donors an opportunity to be involved with the organization in a very meaningful way. You can create a very simple program with your most passionate volunteers and engage them through monthly emails and periodic, exclusive events. This foundation can be expanded year after year to include campaign participation, committee involvement, appreciation events and even awards.
For those who have my book, you can read more in Chapter 9: The Regulars – The Power of an Ambassador Program.
Of course, we won’t know what the next two or three years have in store but I think there is plenty of data to show that it could be a bit bumpy. Regardless of the outcomes, we should always be working to improve our donor stewardship while attracting new audiences. The suggestions above are part of the foundation of fundraising work.