This article discusses the challenging subject of “donor engagement”. It doesn’t matter what your public fundraising mix is; whether largely event-based, regular giving based, or appeal based; engaging donors is critical to retaining and upgrading them. If we as fundraising organisations invest in recruiting new supporters, then the return on that investment comes from the repeat donations that an engaged donor gives over their lifetime.
We are giving everyone we can, an opportunity to share in the mission of our organisation, the success of our organisation. Why would we not give that opportunity as often and as confidently as we can? The best way to “give everyone an opportunity to share in the mission of our organisation” is to convince them to support us financially. Studies show that someone who gives you a donation early in their engagement with you measurably becomes more engaged with your organisation across all types of possible engagement.
At Vega we observe such a wide disparity between the organisations that understand how to engage their donors and have clear strategies in place to measure this and manage it and the organisations that are clearly struggling, sometimes over years, to achieve any measurable impact. By some measures, we can see organisations with 80% engagement and organisations that never get above 4% despite high registered supporter numbers.
This means that according to one measure of engagement, 80% of the people on a database have taken some action at some time for the organisation versus another organisation that achieves 4% who have ever given money, clicked on a requested link or otherwise acted in response to a request. The organisations stuck on 4% or low engagement numbers can change those numbers and explain how is the purpose of this essay.
We start by talking about how to measure “engagement” and what do we mean by “engagement”? This speaks to purpose, your purpose. If your primary purpose is not to fundraise but perhaps to inform, then how you measure your impact may be as simple as the “open rate” for emails. A better measure might be the number of people who click on links in any digital communication. For most organisations fundraising is a vital outcome from communications and funds raised is a vital measure of success and engagement.
The simplest measure of engagement is the ratio of outbound communications containing a “call to action” to responses generated. If your supporters are engaged, they will at some time have responded to your communications. In the simplest terms, how many people have you on your database compared to the number of people who have ever given you money or ever clicked on a link that you requested.
If you can count the number of communications you send, and compare this to donations generated, and other requested actions undertaken you will have a rough measure of the level of engagement of your donor base. If we look at financial relationships, which are a good basis for all relationships, then the traditional recency, frequency and amount matrix is a good basis for looking at your supporters’ level of (financial) engagement.
This matrix is usually divided between single and multiple givers. If a name on your database is a prospect donor, then that name becomes a donor when they have given a second gift. Single donors remain prospects.
Other factors we use when generating an Engagement Ratio for all supporters are;
- Regular Giver versus General Donor
- Multiple Giver versus Single Giver
- Volunteer Status
- Social Media Supporter (Important)
- Net Promoter Score
- Event Attendance
- Links clicked in emails
- Has provided full contact details and preferences
- Lifetime Value
- 80/20 Matrix position
- Has completed a survey
Vega gives a weighted score to all factors that influence your view of a supporter’s engagement. This allows you to target different communications at different groups depending on their level of engagement.
Let’s focus on “Calls to Action” in the first instance. A “Call to Action” contained in a letter, email, SMS, newsletter or any communication is some response you wish to generate from the reader. It can be a Petition Signature, a Donation, an Event Registration or any action you wish the reader to respond to. If your communication is well structured the “Call to Action” will be the singular focus of the communication. What I mean by this is, if your purpose is to raise money, to generate donations, then no other call to action should be contained in the communication.
Your communication needs to focus on a singular action you wish the recipient to take. Every subsidiary action is offered after your primary response is achieved. For example, if you offer a financial call to action and a petition signature option of equal weight, people will naturally choose the non-financial option. If you offer a variety of options, multiple choices for everything, then you will suppress the overall response. Your communication should be Clear, Simple, to the Point and should highlight the action you wish your recipients to take.
All your communications do not need to contain a specific call to action. I would argue they should, but it is possible to send a newsletter which does not contain a specific call to action. In my opinion, every time you get a supporter to respond to your communications you “Engage” them and that is desirable. Following up that engagement with a thank you and more communications its vital. My recommendation is every communication should contain a “Call to Action”, which can as simple as promoting a social media post or a simple survey. Take every opportunity you get to thank people.
I said in a recent article that US-based research is showing that patterns of reading are changing. Millennials and younger will scan read any communication and it must be digital and designed for a phone. Millennials will donate but again the donation process must be designed for a phone transaction or a social media interaction. If people scan read your communications, they need to be as concise as a good Twitt or a good text message. Every word must earn its place and every word should sound authentic. Gen-X, Millennials and younger are very sceptical.
For the responsible generation (RG) now in their 70s and older, and for the Baby Boomers you can still communicate by letter or slightly longer email. However, Baby Boomers are closer to Gen-X than the RGs, so take that into account.
Again, have a single overriding purpose for the communication and have a pathway through the communication that highlights the desired response. Tell people what you need, why you need it and what the outcome will be.
Engagement Strategies that Work
There are so many simple strategies that work when implemented. These are and remain part of the canon of engagement and yet it is remarkable how many organisations don’t implement them.
When a person registers on your website, do you have an induction process that offers clear opportunities for the recipient to donate, that build an understanding in the recipient that your mission delivery depends on their support?
Do you have different induction strategies depending on whether the person has given a donation or not? This indicates they are more engaged.
Is everything in your communications, calls to action, landing pages and follow-up, personalised? It can be and must be.
Does your software let you create triggers, moments when the intervention or communication will make a big difference to the recipient’s engagement? The classic example here is a new regular giver about to make their third payment. If they receive a reminder of the inspirational moment when they signed up, if you remind regular donors why their donation is so important, then you will materially impact your retention rates. Find other key anniversaries or triggers and have your software help you intervene through effective communications.
Do you survey your supporters and respond to the information they give you? Does your software help with that?
Do you use all the available channels you have available to engage people? This means Letters, Emails, SMS, Phone, Social Media or other as appropriate.
Are you regularly offering opportunities for your supporters to engage in different ways with your organisation?
If managing donor engagement is vital to donor retention and donor upgrade, then measuring donor engagement is just as important in helping you understand and change the key variables that drive engagement.
I have said previously that different age cohorts within your database, using groups defined by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), react to messaging differently and have different views of themselves as actors in their own lives. Take this into account when you devise your donor journeys and the communications that drive those journeys. Use your software to help you create automated rules-based communications that deliver your messages to your community.
You will have seen many similar graphics that seek to distil out the supporter journey. I devised this circle to show that a relationship, any relationship, never stands still. You devise an ask or offer, you reach the supporters you think will be responsive, you engage and inspire them, you make it easy for them to satisfy that engagement, you maintain that feeling of engagement (retain) and seek to offer the supporter other ways to support, and then the whole process starts again.
Building and retaining engagement never stops. Your technology can help, in fact, must help. But the strategies must be yours and the inspiration must be yours.
Tony is the co-author of "Paradise Saved" the story of the New Zealand Conservation Sector. Published by Random House NZ in August 2014, and the founder of vega works limited.
He has spent his life working in the non-profit sector in New Zealand and overseas. In a long career, Tony has worked as technologist, consultant and fundraise in a diverse range of New Zealand and overseas based organisations.
Tony's first successful fundraising and political campaign was opposing the construction of a Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ireland in 1971. Today, Tony is still a practising fundraiser on behalf of vega clients.