January 25, 2019 Douglas Shaw & Associates

Sustainers, recurring donors, monthly partners—call them what you will. It’s not the label that matters. Every successful monthly donor program contributes to an organization’s financial stability, increases long-term donor value, and expands the active donor base over time.

It can feel like a Holy Grail of sorts, but it’s no legend. A successful monthly donor program is within the grasp of any nonprofit, as long as it is set up properly to avoid several common pitfalls.

Pitfall #1—I already know what my donors care about.

Why would a donor want to become your monthly donor? Most fundraisers assume they know intuitively. And that is their first mistake.

Your insider status cannot be cloned or replicated in your donors. They do not see what you see or know what you know, which is why you need to do the due diligence of asking your donors what matters most to them.

Why do they support your organization in the first place? What value proposition do they resonate with? And for organizations whose donors and beneficiaries are one and the same, what benefits do they truly value? These insights will create a firm foundation for your program.

But there’s a catch . . . getting honest answers can be tricky. If you (the organization) are the one doing the asking, donors will skew their answers and tell you what they think you want to hear. That’s why retaining the services of a third-party research professional is worth every penny. If you craft your program based on the results of solid research, the payoff will be exponentially higher.

Pitfall #2—If we build it, they will come.

It may have worked for Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, but if you believe this you are dreaming. Very few donors will find their way into your program unprompted, which is why you have to create multi-channel pathways to invite them.

Here are a few tried-and-true tips from successful programs.

  • Strategically use every channel at your disposal to invite donors to participate.
  • Integrate the initial monthly donor ask in your welcome series and for best results, do this across multiple channels. Provide printed materials with an opportunity to sign up by mail, ask the donor by phone (but not before you’ve thanked them for their initial gift in a separate interaction), then follow-up by email and invite them to sign-up online.
  • Leverage your events. There’s nothing like the electric optimism of a great event. Saying “yes” to a monthly donor ask is an emotionally motivated decision for a donor. So, at the appropriate moment, pitch the monthly donor program and give them an incentive to sign up on the spot.
  • Conspicuously communicate the impact their monthly partnership will have and how they will personally benefit. If you’ve already done your research, this should be easy!
  • Talk through their desired communication preferences to identify any adjustments that need to be made.

Pitfall # 3—Monthly donors will appreciate it if we stop pestering them with direct mail.

The first mistake is worse than the second. Do NOT stop sending direct mail. If you do, you can kiss a significant portion of those monthly partners goodbye. They took a risk when they became your monthly partner. They invested in you. If you don’t invest in them with ongoing communication, they will feel taken for granted and abandoned.

But the second mistake, treating your monthly donors like regular rank-and-file donors, can also be fatal. If you fail to acknowledge their monthly partnership, thanking and acknowledging the difference they are making, they will intuit that you don’t really care about them.

On the other hand, if you invest in targeted communication, your monthly partners will likely stick with you at a retention rate of up to 90% or better. So go ahead and heap gratitude, recognition, and love on them—and let them know your financial needs, too! They know you have needs over and above their monthly contribution and will often give an extra gift when you give them the opportunity.

It takes significant effort to launch and sustain a successful monthly donor program, but it’s worth every ounce of effort. Among the clients we serve, monthly donor programs contribute anywhere from 20% to 60% of annual revenue. So the question is, how much of a difference would that kind of stability make for the cause you serve?

Our team is happy to help advise you on what strategy may work best for your organization, but you’ll never know unless you try.

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