Research & Reports

What Can We Learn From the Latest FEP Report?

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The AFP Fundraising Effectiveness Project Third Quarter Report is out, and the news is mixed at best.   There are incremental gains in some categories, like a 0.4 percent rise in gifts under $250 and a 0.7 percent increase in retention.  At the same time, overall revenue is down (-4.6 percent), the overall number of donors is down. (-3.6 percent) and both mid-level and major gifts are down (-1.7 percent and -5.2% percent, respectively. 

The main takeaway?   We still have a lot of work to do, and while we know giving rises significantly in the fourth quarter, the latest report makes clear, we still have a way to go to see increased giving in 2019.  Those incremental gains are hardly reason to celebrate, especially given our sector’s year to date retention rate trending negatively overall. 

Take heart, however—it’s not December 31 yet!  Even though year-end fundraising is already underway, there are still opportunities to change for the better.

  1. Give donors a reason to give.  Have you sent a year-end appeal?  Are you excluding segments of your audience? The biggest reason donors don’t give is that they weren’t asked. It’s one thing to suppress certain individuals from broader appeals because there is another, specific strategy for engaging them. It’s another (and very foolish) thing to leave people out because you think they won’t give.  Don’t make decisions for your constituents.  Lapsed donors often don’t know that they are lapsed, for example, and year-end can be an excellent time to reconnect with them to let them know they matter. 
  2. Tell stories. They provide a great reason to give and also build personal connections. To your mission.  Research from Stanford Business School and Dr. Paul J. Zak has shown how powerful stories can be in moving people to philanthropic action and building trust.  Incorporate a story into your appeals to inspire support, and include a story in your thank-you letters to provide a real-life example of the difference a donor’s gift made.  Share stories on your website and social media outlets to help donors’ hearts connect with the heart of your mission.
  3. Have a stewardship plan. Most organizations approach year-end fundraising from a perspective of asking, with strategies rarely incorporating a stewardship plan.  We know from research by Penelope Burk and her Cygnus Applied Research, Inc. team and from Dr. Adrian Sargeant and his colleagues at The Philanthropy Centre that thanking donors in a timely and personal way matters for retention and growth. Don’t use the craziness of the year-end as an excuse for poor stewardship. Put together a plan for how donors will be thanked before their gifts arrive. Make it a donor-centered plan as well, with tailored handling for first-time donors, mid-level donors and major donors. Enlist the help of others in the organization, such as members of the leadership team or the board. 

    If you’re participating in #GivingTuesday, have a plan to follow up with donors who give in response to it. Consider a series of follow up communications, especially for new donors acquired. These might include an immediate thank-you message; a brief (no more than five questions) survey to learn more about them and their experience (which, in turn, allows you to better personalize your communications and refine your strategy); and a second thank-you message two to three months following their gift that provides a story about how their #GivingTuesday gift made a difference.

    For all your donors, the extra effort now to thank them well has a tremendous return on investment in the form of retention and lifetime value.
  4. Talk with your donors.  Don’t just talk to your donors in the form of mailed appeals or e-blasts. Engage in real two-way communication. Follow up on appeals, tell donor why they’re important to the mission, how their gifts matter and—especially—how grateful you are for them. Have real conversations.  Ask them questions.  What matters to them? Why do they give? How could you make their giving experience more meaningful? 

    Active listening communicates value and strengthens relationships, and following up on what you hear further demonstrates genuine care.  This is another form of stewardship that lets your donors know they matter to you and fosters lasting connection.

While the Fundraising Effectiveness Project Third Quarter Report gives us reason to pause and evaluate our efforts, it also provides an opportunity to learn and improve.  There’s still time this year to do better—for your donors and for your mission.

Heather R. Hill, CNM, CFRE is a member of the AFP Fundraising Effectiveness & Growth in Giving Working Group, chair of the Board of Directors for CFRE International and chair of the Board for Rogare, the international fundraising think tank.  When not providing counsel to nonprofit organizations, she runs, practices yoga and converts jelly beans to fundraising fuel.

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