Donor service: central to the organisation

More and more often, fundraisers use the statement: ‘It is cheaper to keep a donor than to acquire a new one.’ There is increasing awareness that it is worth investing in that donor. What is often missing is the insight that telephone contacts with that donor are the responsibility of the entire organization, not just the donor service.

A well-known fact: donors make the organization’s mission and activities possible, including the work of all employees in that organization. Yet contact with these donors is often the exclusive domain of the donor service. The idea is: ‘they specialize in customer contact, so that’s their package’. Not an illogical thought per se, but that thought needs reconsideration. Because the donor service cannot do it alone.

Maintaining the donation starts with maintaining the relationship

A tour of the donor services web pages for a number of well-known charities leads to the following general job description for these staff:

  • Answering questions about the donation
  • Acceptance of cancellations of the donation
  • Incorporate changes in administrative data
  • Receiving and processing complaints
  • Answering other questions

Most of the associated activities are seen as relatively simple administrative actions. In addition, the most important task is often: ‘Make sure to keep as many of the phone cancellations as possible’.

If you want to keep phone cancellations, it’s important for any fundraiser to realize: ‘maintaining the donation starts with maintaining the relationship.’ It is often overlooked that the responsibility for this does not lie solely with the donor service, the other colleagues play an equally important role. The idea that it is enough to invest in good service employees is gradually becoming an outdated idea, even if the employees are offered extra training and education.

Maintaining the donation starts with maintaining the relationship

The canceler has a message

If you know the conversations that service workers have with donors, it is remarkable that behind that change of address or that request for information (yes, even behind that cancellation), there are often personal stories about the people involved. The canceler often has a heart for a good cause, and always has a message. A few practical examples:

1) A middle-aged lady cancels her donation to a health fund. When the service worker talks to her, it turns out that this lady has a son who has suffered from the disease that this foundation is fighting against since childhood. But the son is now an adult, and the lady says: ‘I have supported for so long now, I have the feeling that my task is done. I will continue to support your work, but I will pass the baton on to the next generation.’

In this conversation, this mother’s emotions are almost palpable. At the same time, she is ready: her donor days are over. Trying to keep that donation would feel like an insult. The employee also feels this and therefore makes no attempt, even though the service employee is aware of the pressure from management to always make an effort to save.

2) Another example: a gentleman cancels his donation to a nature fund and uses the words ‘but I don’t like it’. The attentive employee will click on these cue words; the donor is likely to want to share the reasons behind his decision with the organization. When asked about it, it turns out that he is a huge nature lover and that he has stood on the barricades for this in the past. Only, it’s a crisis and he’s dreading the bills landing on his doormat.

In the current situation of many funds, people like in these two examples are warmly (and sincerely) thanked for the years of support. The service worker often does not have the tools to do more than that. The contact has therefore been broken, while it should not have been necessary.

Charities exist because they have a mission. The people in both examples wholeheartedly support the mission of the respective targets. They simply cannot or do not want to remain as donors. Are they therefore no longer important to the charity’s mission? Assuming it’s not about money but about influence, these people certainly could still play a role and often will.

wealth of information

In current practice, a service worker can often mean insufficient for these people. The most used option is the e-mail newsletter. It is of course an important means of keeping the contact alive, but it is not enough. For many past donors, the digital newsletter alone does not do their commitment justice. So therein lies the challenge for those responsible for donor policy. Who develops the vision for contact with donors? The head of communications and fundraising? The director? What is the starting point for donor contact? Is it about the value supporters can bring to your organization, or is it just about their money?

If it’s not just about the money, there should be a plan with practical options to keep the contact and engagement alive.

The donor service has a wealth of information that can feed the management in this process, they talk to the supporters on a daily basis. The donor service can therefore play an important role in developing new opportunities to exploit the value of previous donors.

What practical options can you offer the canceling donor? How do you show that you take their commitment seriously, even when you cancel your donation? A nature and environmental organization will develop different plans than a health fund or an animal welfare organization. However, the central task is: think of ways to keep the contact alive, even without a donation. Invite them to meetings, ask them if and what role they still see for themselves. But above all: Be creative and think from the perspective of the former donor involved.

Conversations about cancellation

Once these opportunities to maintain the relationship are developed, it becomes easier for the service workers to keep the donation as well. Because it makes more sense that the canceler stays. Involvement is a more important motive to donate than financial leeway. So the conversation at a termination should be mainly about involvement and not directly about money. Service workers understand this because they talk to donors on a daily basis.

Commitment is a more important motive to donate than financial leeway

If the donor service has a more central role in the organisation, this also entails a number of other benefits. To give trust is to gain trust. Every fundraiser, from young or manager to senior and experienced to managers, should stop by the donor service regularly and have a chat. ‘What have you come across lately? How do the donors react? Have you had many cancellations? What did people give as an argument? Have you heard any other signals that we should respond to?’ It is even better to translate the insight into fundraising policy.

You will get to know your donors better. Why do they support us? Why do they stop? Which of our measures and activities appeal to the imagination? Are we communicating our goals in the right way? Qualitative market research may just prove redundant if you regularly listen to your donors and other relationships.

Donors are a recruiting force

In addition, it is often underestimated how much recruiting power comes from a committed and enthusiastic donor. Or any fan for that matter. The recognition that phone contact with donors is a shared responsibility will lead to a higher level of conversation. And to new forms of relationships: private initiatives, ambassadorships, inheritance. And, not to be underestimated: word of mouth. If dozens of conversations with personal interest, warmth and practical perspective are held every day, there are thousands annually. After a few years, you will no longer be able to ignore the benefits you get from high quality telephone communication.

Structural care for donor contacts strengthens your organization’s image simply because better conversations are held. This appearance creates a more positive image. But your recruiting power also grows. An important part of the motivation to support a good cause comes from a donor’s feeling that it is ‘his club’. There should be no feeling of distance, it should feel as if he can talk to a good acquaintance at any time of the day. If you then make a fundraising request to that donor, the chance that he will honor that request is naturally greater.

High quality donor contact

More and more organizations are recognizing the importance of high-quality donor contact. The next step is to intensify internal collaboration. Both those responsible for recruitment and those responsible for retention and retention would do well to give donor service a more serious role and devise new ways to maintain the relationship with cancellations. A better relationship with the followers and a higher value of the followers could just be the reward.

This article previously appeared in Fundraising Trade Magazine, Volume 24, Number 5, which was published in November 2022.

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