Gratitude is a blessing

On the day we in the US usually stop for at least a moment to think about our blessings, I want to thank you.

Thank you to my old friends, who do me the favor of reading these posts. Thank you to my new and yet-to-be friends who do the same. If I’ve been able to bring you something of value every once in a while, I’m very happy.

On this day when we think about our blessings, I’ll be thinking of you.


May the blessing of the rain be on you—star in the night sky
the soft sweet rain.
May it fall upon your spirit
so that all the little flowers may spring up,
and shed their sweetness on the air.
May the blessing of the great rains be on you,
may they beat upon your spirit
and wash it fair and clean,
and leave there many a shining pool
where the blue of heaven shines,
and sometimes a star.

Irish blessing


Thank you.

Do you want your donors to stick around?

An example from my past


Photo courtesy of Riverfront Recapture


Donor retention continues (rightly) to be a hot topic. It risks being like the weather, though: everybody’s talking about it, but nobody’s doing anything about it.

I thought about an organization I used to work for. Riverfront Recapture built and programs a series of parks along the Connecticut River in Hartford and East Hartford, CT. Even in the worst of the recession, we had an enviable 74% retention rate. So what the heck were we doing right?

Have the right donors

Most important, I think, were our donors. We attracted exactly the kind of people likely to be loyal. They were older. Very tied to the community. Civic-minded. These people loved the idea of parks. I often heard from donors who could no longer get out to enjoy the parks themselves. But they remembered how much they loved being outdoors and wanted to be sure new generations could do so. And so they continued to give.

Now, obviously, you can’t really pick your donors. They choose you. If you’re fortunate to appeal to the kind of people likely to be loyal, don’t waste that opportunity! And if your donors aren’t there yet, give them a reason to be loyal. Better yet, give them lots of reasons.

Strong community ties can help

The organization grew from the ground up in the community. People were excited by a big vision and bought into it. They had spread a wide net and the project appealed to people from all sectors of the community. Politicians, community activists, families, athletes, business people. We celebrated 25th and 30th anniversaries while I was there. And all those years later, people were still committed to the vision.

So what if your community is a country or the world? You build it. You bring together different people interested in your cause – for a variety of reasons.

Trust matters

The Executive Director was not the founder, but he had been there a very long time. His name was publicly associated with the organization. And he knew everyone. That built trust. People knew who was taking care of their money.

Communication focused on your donors

The Executive Director was also skilled communicator. As was the development staff (including me). Letters didn’t contain a lot of back-patting. We all put the focus on our donors. You’ll never go wrong giving your donors and other supporters the credit.

Thank people well and often

Thank you letters were hand-signed. The ED included short notes. This often meant my job was to nag – because he wanted to sign every single letter. It was always a balancing act between how long it would take and how much he could write.

I did add some donor-focused communications to our mix. Print newsletters focused on the donor. (They often raised more than appeals did.) Surveys to ask what donors thought. Thank you letters “just because”, not in response to a gift. Donors loved them all.

Recognize and celebrate loyalty

Long-time donors – of any size – were prominently recognized in our annual reports. Donors wanted that designation. I’d get a call if I missed someone! We held thank you events just for them. They knew we were grateful for their loyalty and the responded with more. Are your giving groups all about dollars amounts? Do you have a loyalty group? If not, start one.

So bottom line? There’s no easy answer. It takes organization-wide commitment. It means truly focusing on donors. Measuring and valuing their loyalty. Communicating well. A consistent vision.

And gratitude. Lots of gratitude.

What, exactly, are you waiting for?

Looking at blank phone

Photo by Jonathan Velasquez

I was fortunate to view a webinar provided by Pamela Grow’s Simple Development Systems membership program. The presenter was the amazing Leah Eustace of Good Works. She talked to us about bequest fundraising for small shops.

Yes, you read that right.

As I listened to her practical advice, I realized too many smaller shops don’t even attempt some kinds of fundraising. Maybe you believe you’re too small. But if you’ve ever said, “Oh, planned giving? We can’t manage that.” or “Monthly giving? Let’s wait until we have more donors.” then you’ve been cheating your organization of the support it needs.

Many of the things we know we should be doing are possible. Too often, we allow fear or bureaucracy to get in the way.

Considering a planned giving program?

Is your first stop a big board committee and lawyers? Are they focused on your largest donors and securing complex planned gifts? Figure on that taking years…

Leah suggests you start by making sure donors know you’ll accept bequests. Get that on your website and all your fundraising materials. That wasn’t so scary, was it?

Then what if you looked for the most loyal donors on your list and sent them a simple and personal mailing? There’s a lovely example here on SOFII. I know planned giving sounds scary. You immediately think of complicated legal documents and tax maneuvers. But most legacy gifts are bequests. Bequests are not that complex. And you won’t be handling the legal work. (Read some more good advice on the topic of bequests here from my friend Michael Rosen.)

This is definitely a situation where some action is far better than doing nothing!

Monthly giving is another.

Years ago, I read an article by Harvey McKinnon about monthly gifts. (I’m pretty sure it was in Mal Warwick’s newsletter at the time, but I can’t find a link. Here’s a presentation that might help, though.)

I guess I didn’t know any better, because my first thought was “let’s do this!” It wasn’t all that complex. The biggest hurdle was selling the idea internally. 

I knew it would take time to build a program – maybe years. But I also knew any step in the right direction was positive. So I came up with a name for the program. Wrote some copy. Targeted some of our most loyal donors. And just did it. Does the organization now have hundreds of monthly donors? Nope. But the program grew every year that I solicited for it and we saw very little attrition.

What else are you putting off?

Is your website very 1995? It’s far less expensive and easier to set up a decent site now than it was then. Do a little research and push for a refresh, because you’re probably losing money every day!

Are you short on staff, but blessed with a loyal donor base? Have you ever read Mal Warwick on raising $1000 gifts by mail? I read an article he wrote on the topic years ago. (I’ve since read the book – and you should, too. As he promises, it’s “mercifully brief” and packed with good information.) Following his suggestions, I put together a very personal mailing. The early responses were great. (Unfortunately, it was the fall of 2008. And just as I started getting responses, the market crashed. Some timing, you just can’t control.)

Your smaller size shouldn’t prevent you from trying.

You can roll things out for smaller groups and see how they work. You probably don’t have to climb through layer on layer of bureaucracy before you go ahead. And you can offer donors very personal attention. That’s a huge advantage.

The things you put off aren’t likely to raise any money. So quit stalling. Pick something today and do it!

Are you ignoring your annual fund?

Red coat walking away

Don’t put the most important part of your program on autopilot! Ignore your donors and they’ll go away.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported:

Some 77 percent of organizations with an annual fund meet total fundraising goals as compared to just 55 percent of organizations without such a fund, according to a new report on the impact of annual-fund campaigns in overall fundraising.

I know you’re focused on the end of the year and all that needs to be done through December. But let me ask you to think about planning for 2015.

Your budget defines your priorities. What areas will get the most attention? Where has your funding come from in the past? Where is there room for growth?

I believe you should spend a good part of your time, money and energy on your annual giving program. By that I mean gifts from individuals, most intended to fund your general operations. You usually ask for these through the mail, personally or via email. (Social media is still more effective for relationship building than for gifts).


An annual fund is NOT a once-yearly appeal. Sending one general appeal a year is, well, stupid. Neglecting your donors throughout the year is simply asking them to find someplace better.


If you currently have a robust giving program, congratulations! You already understand people drive philanthropy. But if you depend on grants and a few major gifts, I urge you to think again.

Individuals make up almost ¾ of all giving in the U.S. Where do you think you should be focusing your investment?


A wide base of support

It’s easy to depend on a a few large grants and gifts. But what happens when you lose one? That huge hole in your budget is hard to recover from.

A thriving annual giving program will create a wide base of support for your organization. While you should work to keep every one of the donors you attract, a wide base leaves room for some attrition. (Unfortunately, even the best program will lose donors every year – people move or die).


The welcome mat

Your annual giving program is where donors begin their journey with you. A good program gives them reasons to love giving to you. That means loyalty and increased giving over time. Bloomerang reports the Fundraising Effectiveness Project’s 2013 survey found only 22.9% of first-time donors made a second gift. That’s awful! Make retention your priority. You’ll watch your base grow.


Where major donors come from

Major donors don’t arrive at your door with a big check. Most begin as annual fund donors. Major donors grow from happy average donors. Give all your donors a wonderful experience. You’ll build relationships and learn about them. Then you’ll know who’s ready for more personal cultivation and solicitation.

That’s also true for legacy donors. Loyalty is what you’re looking for here more than gift size. Give your annual donors a reason to be loyal. When you do, you seed your legacy program. That $100 a year donor may become a bequest donor – because you’ve taken the time to make her a priority.


Institutional givers are also people

Foundation and corporate giving decisions are not only based on your proposal. People staff those institutions. If decision makers know your organization as donors – or friends of donors – you’re in a better position to receive the grant.


Lifetime value not short-term thinking

Do you have to persuade someone at your organization that your annual giving program is important? Talk to them about donors’ lifetime value, not one year’s return on investment. More donor databases are building retention measurements into their reports. But if yours does not, here’s some detailed information on how to measure lifetime value.

Your annual fund is the foundation of your giving program. Smart fundraisers will make it – and their donors – a priority.


How a professional can help

We often turn to consultants for a big capital or endowment campaign. But consider the value in optimizing your annual giving program. Get that right and you’ll start in a good position for that next big campaign.

If your program isn’t at its best, here’s how a consultant could help:
• Fundraising program planning
• Copywriting and donor communications planning
• Segmentation and list analysis

Your consultant’s role should be to train you and your staff to succeed on your own. Training your staff and your board is a good investment. When they have the skills they need, they’ll be happier and more productive. And you can look forward to a more secure future for your organization!



Need some help right now with your year-end appeal? Pamela Grow, of Simple Development Systems fame, and I are teaming up to help you make the most of your appeal. Interested? Click here. But we can only take a few of these before the end of the year. Don’t wait too long!

Are your donors voting with their feet?

walking away


I’ll admit to being a political junkie. I’ll be glued to the set tonight, watching returns until I fall asleep. The drama is better than most entertainment television has to offer. And of course, the stakes are huge.

Think about all the people who don’t vote. In the US, only about 40% of people vote in mid-term elections. I never understood not voting.

But how many of our donors are quietly voting with their feet? How often do we not even notice their absence? Donor retention rates are as awful as voter turn-out. Are we even paying attention?

Political campaigning is all short-term. If you don’t win the election, it’s over. The goal is precise and immediate. Most of our organizations, however, expect to be needed for years to come. So why do we focus on today and sacrifice tomorrow?

Former Congressman Lee Hamilton offered a list of characteristics good politicians have. Maybe there’s a lesson here for our nonprofit organizations, too. This is what he says a good politician is:


Trust is so valuable and so easily lost. Don’t play around with your donors. They deserve – and want – to know about the organization’s successes and failures. And if they ever feel they’re not being treated honestly, you’ll lose them. And everyone they talk to!

Focused on the task

Yes, you should focus on your mission. But let me plead for the same focus on your donors. They should be where your energy is – not their dollars. Build relationships and the money will follow. Chase the money and you’ll waste those relationships and quickly run through the money. That’s why retention rates in the gutter are so frustrating. It’s short-term thinking and it’s terminal.


Good politicians know who they are and they know their own limits. Good organizations do, too. That’s where donors come in. If your messaging is all about your good news, there’s no room for donors. Donors need to know they’re needed. It’s ok to let them know.

Good communicators

Memorable politicians are skilled communicators. They find their message and they sell it. Showing donors how they’re needed is part of it. But you have to communicate that message repeatedly. In the US, mailboxes will replace political mail with year-end solicitations. Make sure you’re getting your message out. Worry more about your message and less about over-communicating. Here’s the truth: donors are not paying as much attention as you think to what you say. The few that are want to hear from you.

Genuinely like and are comfortable with people

We all know the aura that surrounds those politicians with true gifts in this area. Charisma isn’t so much about a person’s attractiveness as it is about how they make you feel. A great politician instinctively makes each person he or she talks to feel special. Do your donors feel that way about your organization? Do they feel special, unique, needed? Do staff members genuinely enjoy interacting with donors?

Sensitive – able to read their audience and quick to respond

Do you know how your donors are feeling? Do you know what matters to them? Do you understand how to communicate with them? Can you predict the best messaging to reach them and then use it quickly as circumstances demand?

And are you responsive? Make sure your contact information is easy to find. Respond immediately to calls or emails. Thank donors promptly and well.

Good listeners

This goes hand in hand with the two characteristics above. It’s an important skill for fundraisers, but also for organizations. How much of what you say is about your organization? How much is about your audience – your donors, prospective donors and the people you help? If you’re doing all the talking, that’s not communication.



Like politicians, nonprofit organizations can change lives for the better. That comes with responsibility. Regardless of how this election turns out, you have the chance every day to do something great. Give it your best.

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  • Mary Cahalane

    Mary Cahalane

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