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.


When is a Donation a Contract?

This from The Star-Ledger’s, August 5, updated August 6:

Trenton — People who cut checks to charities in New Jersey to help pay for everything from a new university building to an expansion of a local dog shelter are entitled to a refund if the organization does not use the money as intended, a state appeals court ruled today.

In a precedent-setting decision that affects hundreds of organizations across the state, a three-judge panel said nonprofit groups cannot ask for money for a specific purpose and then pull a bait-and-switch, spending it on something completely different.

The news article quotes the plaintiff’s attorney: “In the end, the appellate decision relied on a very, very most basic principle of charitable giving: what was the donor’s intent?”

Ask any seasoned major gift fundraiser when a gift is a contract and the response is likely to be “always!”  In this case the gift was $50,000 and given to a community animal welfare organization. It was a major gift, and its donating couple was certainly treated as if it was.

Does the amount matter? My guess is that the three-judge panel would say it does not, even though they might not have considered hearing the case were the amount much less than $50,000.

I have been expecting this to happen for decades. In fact, I have been expecting a class action suit to emerge and am sure that is now inevitable.  Here’s why:

  • The donor marketplace is getting more and more demanding about accountability for giving, especially giving in response to broad direct response fundraising.
  • Auditors have gotten tougher and tougher about scrutinizing fundraising messages to ensure money goes to the purposes for which it has been solicited.
  • Watchdog competition has intensified and most seem to relish headlines.
  • The press, albeit not much smarter, has become more aggressive.
  • Litigation seems to be replacing baseball as the national pastime.

The New Jersey story is one of those dumb and dumber stories. First, the organization was dumb in its treatment of the donating couple. Then it proved itself dumber by not keeping the matter from going all the way to that three-judge panel.

This is a precedent that is good for the nonprofit sector.