My Top Eleven and Three-Quarters Bits of Advice for Winning at Donor Communications – Part II

Tom Ahern

7. Donors aren’t forever. Mostly.

Again: Why do you need a donor acquisition program as well as a donor relationship program? Because donors come and go, like pee holes in the snow.

A couple of years ago, I polled experts around the world with the question, “How long does the average donor stick with a charity?”

There was a gawdly lot of hemming and hawing and clearing of throats and asterisks and “depends” and “sometimes” and exceptions (these were all heavily analytical experts).

But the consensus was this: if someone makes a second gift to a charity (which excludes something like 70-80% of first-time donors right there), you can expect them on average to stick around for something like 4-6 years.

If that donor is acquired as a monthly donor or converted to monthly, they’ll hang around longer, on average for 6-8 years.

In other words, the oft-proposed “wisdom” that mandates, “We must find younger donors!” is nuts … IF it’s based on the presumption that donors will stick around forever.

As veteran fundraiser Jeff Brooks commented, “It’s rare even for a long-term donor to stay longer than 7 years.”

If you’re only getting a 7-year run with the average donor, then you actually want OLDER donors. Is anyone out there listening?

Donors give from their surplus. Younger donors are generous, too … but they are building their lives and have lots of expenses. Older donors have already built their lives … and may feel they can give more away. Results vary, but as a rule.

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8. If you use the word “you” a lot, in your BIG type, you’ll raise more money.

How much more?

One children’s hospital I know began featuring the word YOU in the headlines of its donor newsletter … and saw giving soar immediately to $50,000 per issue.

This was a 1,000% improvement in giving over previous issues, which lacked YOU in the headlines.

The word “you” warms up the conversation, brings people closer, makes everything much more personal, and sends the reader’s unengaged mind into a higher state of alertness.

Please understand: “you” is far more than a pronoun. It’s a profound emotional trigger as well.

[grade level: 8.8 before rewrites]

9. Statistics are your weakest cards, when you fundraise from individuals.

Stories sell.

Statistics tell.

Stories are for everyone.

Statistics are for specialists.

Stories need no translation.

Statistics do.

Remarkably enough, Joseph Stalin said it best, “One man’s death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.”

Behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, a distinguished professor at Duke, has researched this phenomenon in philanthropy.

In one test, he shared the story of a single girl in Africa who was hungry and asked his subjects, “How much would you give?”

With a different test group, he talked about the severe problem of hunger in Africa and asked, “How much would you give?”

His finding? “People give half as much to Africa as they give to the hungry girl.”

This is all about your target audience.

  • If your target audience is a grants reviewer at a foundation, statistics are the common currency.
  • If your target audience is an individual, stories are the common currency.

By the way, if you’re NOT raising money from individuals, you’re missing out on most of the feast, at least in America.

In the 2018 Giving USA report, 79% of all donations came from individuals; 16% came from foundations; and a mere 5% came from corporations.

And it has ever been so: Giving USA has gathered its nationwide data for more than 60 years.

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10. Negative emotions are your special friends.

It started a long time ago, with something called “the lizard brain.”

Psychology Today, take it away: “Lizard brain refers to the oldest part of the brain, the brain stem, responsible for primitive survival instincts such as aggression and fear (‘flight or fight’)….”

In lay terms, you crawled from the muck with just two thoughts: (1) “Can I eat it? [Because I need nutrition.]” (2) “Will it kill me? [Because it needs nutrition.]”

That lizard-ly brain is still in your head … and it’s steering your “attention span” much of the time.

See something calming, like a child’s smile? Relax. No worries.

See something dangerous, like a typical front-page news stories? The lizard brain issues an abrupt order: PAY ATTENTION NOW!

Why does daily journalism dwell so much on disasters, murders, slaughters, catastrophes, and other insults to your peace of mind?

Because your lizard brain says YOU MUST PAY ATTENTION to this noxious, unrepresentative crap … which means, in turn, your for-profit news entity of choice can then sell your eyeballs to its advertisers. (You would do well to break this curse.)

We live in an attention economy. Don’t be duped. Read Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants.

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11. You can’t say “Thank you” enough. Corollary: Your donors will never tire of hearing how great they are.

The Agitator, reporting research in 2013: “A three-minute thank-you call will boost 1st year retention by 30%.”

First-year retention is SO MUCH all that TRULY matters financially to a growing/ambitious/struggling nonprofit.

ONE-TIME donors can clog the donor-relationship drain, like falling hair.

Peer-to-peer donors? Responding-to-today’s-top-news-natural-disaster donors?

Welcome! But they give once. Never intended to give twice. Theirs was an impulse gift, as many charitable gifts in fact are.

Nonprofits cannot thrive on one-time givers. You need to attract the truest of true believers, the 20% who give 80% of your charitable income. The people who are in it for the long run … until victory is ours! … until death do us part.

Hence the rise of monthly giving.

Hence stroking your mid-value donors toward higher amounts.

Hence the RECENT sudden apparent fascination with bequest marketing on my speaking calendar.

Are your first-time, one-time donors costing you money? Run the numbers.

According to researchers like Dr. Adrian Sargeant, the real money is in retention and conversion.

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11 3/4. It’s the donor’s story. The organization is almost irrelevant.

The following financial/psychological truth could snap the spine of many a nonprofit brand:

  • In high-performance fundraising communications, the donor counts most. The nonprofit doesn’t.

In lucrative fundraising communications, the donor’s the protagonist. The nonprofit isn’t.

The nonprofit is a prop, a means to an end, a spear the donor carries … to skewer enemies of his faith, her beliefs, his values, her hopes.

Donors give THROUGH you, not TO you.

And, yeah, get over it: you’re thinking PR, not fundraising.

Charities don’t get the donors they want; i.e., people giving for “the right reasons.”

Charities get the donors who respond … misunderstandings, bizarre rationales, obvious warts, traumas and all.

Probably the only truly useful thing in my audit for the Animal Rescue League of Boston was this recommendation, which the staff abhorred: “Add voice balloons to your animal photos.”

Why useful? “Because Walt Disney built a globe-straddling empire on anthropomorphism. You can fundraise with the same approach. Animal-lovers PRAY their pets will start talking.”

ARLB took the advice. Donated income rose.

Coda goes to Seth Godin: “We support a charity … because it gives us a chance to love something about ourselves.” I hear lucrative thunder on that horizon.

[grade level: 7.6 before rewrites]

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