Sizing Up Sustainers

We just wrapped up an in-depth study of public radio sustainers, including primary research and multi-faceted data analysis of this fast-growing constituency. Here are a few findings that all fundraisers can think about while they expand their sustainer programs.

  1. Soliciting sustaining donors is not the same as soliciting monthly donors or offering monthly pledge fulfillment. You’re building a specific and unique kind of relationship between the organization and its donors to which giving is understood but incidental.
  2. If you present sustaining membership as merely another way to support the organization, that’s how it will be regarded by donors. This may seriously undermine your efforts to expand potential donor value.
  3. Your organization is probably not the only one they’re supporting as sustainers. So while modeling tells us sustaining donors are more generous than most, they are not exclusively yours and may resist being fast-tracked to high dollar or major donor status.
  4. Sustaining isn’t for everyone. There will always be a contingent of your donors who don’t want to support you this way. If you only offer sustainer giving, you’re turning them away.
  5. Most donors need to have some relationship already established with an organization to consider an alternate form of relationship – sustainer or mid-range donor or major donor. Once they’ve given to you for at least two years, we’ve found that donors have moved beyond the emotional appeal of their initial gifts and are ready to make a deeper commitment.
  6. Highlighting the special role sustainers have in your organization sets them apart from ordinary donors. They’re looking for more than the traditional case for support, so reflect this in your messaging.
  7. There is a downside to the convenience of sustainer support. EFT and credit cards make giving so easy, donors forget about your organization and why your work matters to them. So counter this with meaningful ways to engage your sustainers throughout the year.
  8. Success with sustainers impacts your entire fundraising program or business model. As more donors convert to sustainers, the cost and scale of non-sustainer programs will be affected, resulting in some degree of restructuring.
  9. Benefits are trumped by ease of giving and case in sustainer programs. In fact, incentives may undermine your arguments for supporting your long-term mission.
  10. Sustainers like the egalitarian community nature of sustainer giving. Although this finding deserves continued R&D, qualitative research suggests that sustainer giving increases when there is no hierarchy of named giving levels. Giving what you can afford is a powerful shared value in charity.


Monthly Donors are from Venus.

As you develop your monthly giving programs, you need to figure out the right way to talk to these remarkably committed supporters. You’d be surprised how different they are from your traditional donors.

First and foremost, regular supporters are believers. They share a deeper appreciation and familiarity for your mission. You don’t need to explain what you do. They get it already. Instead, focus your energy on expressing your value in thoughtful and interesting ways. And remember… what matters most to them isn’t the convenience of automatic donations, but the deeper values you stand for.

It’s only natural for monthly donors to set themselves apart from traditional supporters. Acknowledge their far-sightedness in your messaging and clearly demonstrate the extra impact gained through sustained giving.

The relationship dynamic also changes. One-time donors are more arms-length with the causes they support. Monthly donors are joiners, seeking a stronger bond with your organization and, to a lesser degree, other supporters who share their commitment. Keep them engaged with your news and stories, so they never worry that you’re taking them for granted.

Finally, say thank you like you mean it. They are as loyal to your cause as you are, and they’ll give more than most during the span of their support. So don’t pass them off with trite and generic messages of thanks. Remember their anniversaries, invite them to events and involve them in other areas of your work. Above all, make them feel the full force of your appreciation.


Fundraising Sits Over There

Most nonprofits do amazing things. But sometimes, I have walked away from a meeting with an organization thinking that they can’t seem to get out of their own way.

Often, the problem sits at the top, where CEOs and senior managers don’t understand fundraising or haven’t integrated fundraising strategy across the organization.

In the for-profit world, marketing and sales must be integrated for the entity’s mere survival. The same is true for nonprofits, now more than ever.

Most organizations that are successful at fund development have aligned fundraising strategies and goals with mission/program, marketing, and financial strategies and goals.  (For great insight, read Chris Dann’s recent post). Their CEOs, COOs and CFOs invite senior development professionals to strategic discussions that shape the vision and direction of the organization. Fundraising becomes part of everyone’s job, mandated from the top down.

Likewise, development professionals don’t keep information from the organization’s senior managers and other departments to avoid questions and scrutiny. Instead, they embrace opportunities to integrate fundraising across departmental silos.

This is critical to your mission’s success.

To see why, let’s look at someone adopting a dog from their local animal shelter. If the adoption experience was difficult, if the shelter wasn’t clean, if the shelter’s representative came across rude – if any of these conditions existed – you probably won’t have much success with that person as a donor.

Similarly, if an organization holds a wonderful event, but doesn’t communicate immediately with the attendees following the event, you may lose potential donors.

Or if a museum focuses solely on driving traffic to new exhibits and forgets to drive home the mission, you may miss out on potential donors.

Fundraising is an important component of the overall business strategy of any nonprofit.  Without the necessary funds, the mission cannot be accomplished and the recipients of the service suffer the most.

One thing you can do is create an internal task force to ensure strategy is integrated across all departments and fundraising is in the minds of every member of staff.  You can also develop fundraising goals for other departments, such as finding great stories to inspire your donors.

In the end, you need to take control of your organization and remember that fundraising isn’t just a department. It’s in your DNA.