How to Get First-Time Donors to Give Again

Adrian Sargeant is the leading researcher of donor loyalty in the world today. His principles are the gold standard when it comes to donor retention.

Sargeant's principles for keeping donors represent the ultimate solution to a Rubik's Cube problem for nonprofits: how to keep donors coming back after making the first gift.

Although bushels of books, articles, and studies about donor retention have appeared in recent years, Sargeant's insights remain a great starting point for nonprofits puzzled about how to turn one-time donors into devoted, long-term givers.

How to Keep Your Donors From Leaving Once They Have Given

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Retention is a huge problem for nonprofits. Most donors leave after their first gift—up to 50 percent in the first year.

However, according to Sargeant's research, improving attrition rates by only 10 percent can improve the lifetime value of a donor base up to 200 percent.

Although donors and customers are not exact matches, the research from the business sector remains very relevant. Customers leave for these reasons:

  • Death: 1 percent
  • Relocation: 3 percent
  • Won by a competitor: 5 percent
  • Lower price elsewhere: 9 percent
  • Unsatisfactory complaint handling: 14 percent
  • Lack of follow-up by the business: 68 percent

Although these statistics might not be completely transferable to donors, they are surprisingly close.

For instance, we know that donors often cite these reasons for why they no longer donate to a particular cause:

  • No longer able to afford any more donations
  • No memory of ever donating
  • Still supporting the cause, but in some other way
  • Thinking that the cause no longer needs their donation
  • Moved away 
  • Never reminded to give again
  • Nonprofit did not inform donor how it used donations
  • Nonprofit's communications were inappropriate or irrelevant
  • Nonprofit asked for too much money

What is striking about the list is how many of these things are under the control of the charity itself.

How Important Is Good Customer Service for Donors?

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Customer service and the ability to resolve a complaint quickly and efficiently is far more valuable than most nonprofits think.

We know what good customer service looks like in a commercial setting, but often don't transfer that knowledge to how we work with our donors.

The failure to send a thank you letter promptly, or to handle a complaint gracefully, can result in lost donors and bad word-of-mouth about the organization.

Continually monitoring customer service is a must-do. While it is reasonably easy to set moderate levels of customer service for business, charities should reach higher. There is an enormous difference in donor commitment between those donors who are "very" satisfied and those who are "just" satisfied.

In the commercial world, the beloved company is the one that can fix problems fast. Just think of the differences between much maligned Comcast and the beloved Zappos. It is the same for nonprofits. We have just as many horror stories about poor service as does the business world.

Interestingly, someone who has a complaint and has it resolved is more loyal than those customers who never had a problem in the first place. Even having a process for managing customer complaints, whether or not they get resolved, can improve retention.

Commitment and Trust Bring Donors Back

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Trust can be key to convincing donors to come back. The relationship between cause and donor is much like a love affair. Here are some of the reasons a lover/donor might leave you:

  • You ignore them
  • You lie to them
  • You don't return calls or answer letters
  • You make promises but never follow through
  • You're rude
  • You constantly ask for more
  • You don't turn up on time

What all charities need from donors is a commitment, but that devotion can be passive or active. What you're after is the active kind, but it's possible to move passive involvement to active.

Here's what donors say about what makes them feel committed to a cause or organization:

  • I trust that you can get the mission done
  • I have had a personal experience or know someone who has benefited from your services
  • I engage with your organization frequently 
  • You communicate with me often and tell me your story convincingly
  • We believe in the same goal
  • I feel as though I know the people we both help

Paying Attention at Just the Right Time Builds Donor Loyalty

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Reinforcement for donors is critical after they make that first gift. Scores of donors never return to give again. Donor relationships, just like those with friends and lovers, build over time. 

Donors who choose to give regularly, such as monthly donors, are particularly valuable to charities but are often ignored. To keep such donors after that first gift, reach out at these critical times:

  • Right after signing up (a thank you letter, welcome packet, phone call, or email)
  • After first monthly donation (another meaningful thank you, not just a receipt)
  • Second and third months (remind the donor of what his gift makes possible)

For donors who decide to give today only, try these intervals to encourage a second gift:

  • Right after donating (a fervent thank you)
  • First four to six weeks (report on what the donation accomplished)
  • First 12 months (send something each of these months)

How you engage with the donor at these crucial times is less important than the effort you make to just do it.

You could send a welcome packet, a thank you letter, or a newsletter. You could call, email, send an invitation to an event, or invite the donor to visit. Ask them to volunteer in some small way, tell their friends about you, or even to fill out a survey. Just about any engagement counts.

The fact is that many things that affect donor retention are within your control. Take the time to follow up and make a plan for ongoing contact.

Sometimes organizations are so focused on getting new donors that they neglect the even more important task of motivating those donors to come back for the second gift and beyond.

Keeping a donor is far less expensive than getting a new one. So, turn that first date into a long-term, loving relationship.

Adrian Sargeant is Professor of Fundraising at Plymouth University and the Director of the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, and also Chief Scientist at Bloomerang, a donor software provider.