Thursday, May 2, 2013

Engagement: The Donor Retention Myth

I know all the rage currently is to discuss both communication/giving channels and engagement as key
tools for donor retention. If you've never been responsible for creating and delivering a strategy that resulted in donor retention then these items would be incredibly logical to focus on. The problem is it doesn't really work that way. You can't create something new and different with an old mindset, ie the dude on the right :-)

If donor retention is a desired outcome for you it begins with your organizational structure and culture , characteristics of your staff and the environment that is created for them to perform within. Retention is not an outcome as a result of doing X to another person. There are a couple of accounting phrases worth a closer look: FIFO and LIFO are keys to what creates extraordinary increases in both donor satisfaction, their sense of connection and ultimately their decision whether to stay longer. Retention is a direct result of the environment that is created for the workforce responsible for delivering the donor experience. What goes in is what comes out.

If you want to begin to understand what steps that you need to take in order to increase the lifetime value of a donor to your organization start with walking out of your office door. What is the environment with the staff and how is their energy? is there laughter? are people talking about getting together after work? is there any highly engaged group having a conversation about creating something extraordinary for their customers?

Suggesting that engagement is the focus of generating retention is the equivalent of suggesting you need plates in order to have a great restaurant. Of course you need engagement, just like you need plates. However, if there isn't a spirit of creativity, sense of pride and commitment to an extraordinary dining experience in the kitchen and with the wait staff that dining experience will not create a desire for the customer to return. 

Start devouring information on creating extraordinary teams and begin the process of understand the unique talents of each person that works in your fundraising operation. Dorothy put it best in the final scene when leaving the city of Oz. It really starts with understanding your own backyard and developing an appreciation for the unique talents of your team. These are the first gifts you need to cultivate in order for others to decide doing the same.


  1. Thanks for this post!

    If I'm reading this right, the message isn't that engagement and communication and cultivating donor relationships are ineffective at creating donor retention, but rather that all those things are only possible AFTER transforming your culture into a more open, dynamic, leadership-based culture. Right?

    If so, I agree that you need to fix an organization at its roots to create a culture of retention long term. But it's equally important what the resulting culture does–how they intentionally engage and use commutation channels effectively. While making your workplace a great environment is step 1, I imagine strategy has to come after that. :)

  2. Marc,

    You are on the money. Having increased donor retention by 288% over the last decade my perspective is very different than those who have an opinion about retention. If the earth can not grow the crop then any watering and fertilizing game plan is useless. This is at the root of what I had hoped we could discuss as a video series while we were in San Diego. Let me know if we can try again. j

  3. Jay: Please contact me at

  4. I'll add my appreciation for your post. I'll also encourage fundraising organizations not to overlook all avenues of public donor recognition (from plaques, to the web, to billboards) to communicate that experience of philanthropy you speak of. Donor acquisition and retention are greatly enhanced when an organization makes clear the linkages between thanking and philanthropy branding/experience. It all boils down to communicating that "experience" of philanthropy. Every viewer can learn how their giving transforms...if the message is clear and consistent.