Thursday, June 6, 2013

First time donor retention

We talk a great deal about impressions here on this blog. I often discuss how we are judged, whether we like it or not. This week I'd like to touch on a specific area of donor relations, first time donors. I believe it is imperative that you build and implement a first time donor program for your organization. Most organizations have a 40-45 percent retention rate for their first time donors. This is simply unacceptable. The first question for you is what is your rate? The second is what are you doing about it? If you moved the needle on first time donor retention say 5 or 10% it would mean a great deal monetarily to your organization. In addition, it is a measurable way to tell if your donor relations program is performing well. If your retention rate is less than 60 percent, you've got work to do. Imagine if you were a restaurant and only 4 out of 10 of your customers left after their first meal. You'd be out of business within months.

So what can we do? The first step is to do something! But here are examples of a first time donor program that in three years has raise retention from 48% to 72%. This has impacted many dollars and hundreds of donors each year.

Here's the great thing about these programs, you only have to print or design these things once, after all there is only one first gift! In addition to their regular receipt and acknowledgment based on gift level and giving medium, they also receive the following. The first thing is the first time donor postcard, it is sent within 30 days of their first gift!

Within the next quarter or so they receive a phone call thanking them for their gift and specifically recognizing them as a first time donor. Then the next quarter they receive a hand written note from a student through our thank a donor week program. Finally a month before the anniversary of their first gift they receive a final impact piece telling how we used their money with a soft ask for this year's gift.  It is all coordinated and it all mentions their first gift being meaningful to us. It is done REGARDLESS of amount! You could replace any of these with a creative video or touch, maybe a link to resources on your web page. We also feature one or two first time donors a year in publications and online.
It is crucial we show that their first gift was meaningful and had an impact on our organization. Here's what we don't do: send tchotchkes or widow decals, add them to a giving society, ask them again for a gift the month after they give, and other silliness. Many first time donors are just engaging with you and see their gift as sort of a test to see how you will treat them. I once heard from a donor at an ADRP SEDRC conference (next month click here to join us!) that when he first started giving he sent out 10 $1000 checks and didn't give to those anymore that didn't write to him or treat him well. His giving is now in the millions for the organizations that did.

It's true that we want every donor to feel special and wonderful about giving, that's one of the aims of donor relations. But this first time group needs special attention when they give their money and trust to us for the first time. I hope this is something you can implement this summer before the next fiscal year begins. I would love to hear your suggestions as well. I will be covering first time donors and more in my upcoming webinar on annual giving. And I'm doing a special webinar in July on online giving website best practices, more info here, I hope you join me for any and all! As usual, I welcome your thoughts.




  1. Love this post. Love ALL of your posts. A huge Lynne Fan!

    A question. When you talk about donor retention rates in this particular scenario, are you referring specifically to retention rates of those who give a first gift to the annual fund, or a gift of any sort to the University?

  2. A gift of any sort to the University. and thank you for your kind words.

  3. Great ideas here - very thoughtful approach. I recently had an experience with a small dance company that MADE me a first-time donor. I received a beautiful card, hand-written from the ED, because I bought my first ticket for one of their performances. A great thank-you - no ask! Well, I bought a ticket for another performance and added a gift. It makes a difference.

  4. Deborah,
    Great point. What a wonderful welcome to an organization!