Solving the riddle of donor fatigue for nonprofit organizations

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For those of us who live in the universe of nonprofit fundraising, donor fatigue and donor retention are some of the biggest challenges we face. That’s particularly true when building an effective direct response program.

The issue often comes to a head in the first quarter of the year, as nonprofit managers assess the performance and impact of their year-end fundraising campaigns. December is often the best time of the year to raise money, but it is also usually the time when email unsubscribe rates are at their highest. Simply stated, the high volume of email literally drives people away. And some of those people are your donors, or could have been.

This high unsubscribe rate during December is just one symptom of the challenge of donor fatigue and ultimately of donor retention. The reality is that donor retention has been terrible for decades among U.S. nonprofits. And now nonprofit managers are more aware of the issue and are focusing on how to address it.

There are three factors that have exacerbated the issue of falling donor retention over the past few years.

What Makes Donor Fatigue Worse?

1. Trying to Get Donations in the Door Now, No Matter What

The first factor is the relentless focus by fundraising professionals on maximizing short-term revenue at any cost. They probably learned this strategy from their colleagues in retail and other for-profit industries.

It’s led to practices such as relentless year-round email messaging and fundraising campaigns, including year-end fundraising oversaturation. The recent emergence of Giving Tuesday appears to have made things worse, because it adds an even earlier start to the traditional year-end fundraising season.

2. Neglecting Cultivation and Stewardship of Donors

A second factor is neglecting basic practices of cultivation and stewardship, leading to an imbalance in communications, in favor of fundraising. I see too few organizations that strive to achieve a meaningful balance between stewardship and fundraising.

Achieving such a balance requires the will to understand your supporters and donors, to see things through their eyes, inboxes, and social media news feeds. Organizations can use surveys, events and focus groups to listen and learn from their constituents, so they can determine how best to communicate and how often.

3. Focusing on Acquiring Lists

A third factor is the relentless pursuit of list acquisition, which is achieved through both earned and paid techniques, in a variety of marketing and media channels. List acquisition has become easy and affordable in the digital age. It’s now seen as a means to replenish and replace subscribers and donors that are dropping off our lists at an increasingly alarming rate. List acquisition is increasingly viewed as a means to stem donor fatigue, by simply replacing one lost donor with one found donor.

There’s a problem with the paradigm imposed by these three factors. The churn rate imposed by low donor retention is weakening efforts by nonprofits and social causes to create deep communities of people who want to create meaningful and lasting change.

The Solution: Strengthen the Relationship with Your Existing Donors

The solution to the challenge of donor fatigue and donor retention is to understand that it’s more cost-effective in the long run to retain a donor than to acquire a new one. Donors are looking for an open door and an opportunity to engage their passions to take on a social cause. Donors want to stick around to make a difference.

Recently I’ve noticed a renewed interest by nonprofit managers to address donor fatigue and donor retention head on; I meet many who are focusing their efforts on how to address it. This is an important cultural development in the nonprofit sector that I admire and encourage.

I believe that organizations can shift their approach to communications and fundraising to build stronger relationships with constituents and donors from the start. Nonprofits can nurture those relationships to reduce the volatility of their donors’ participation.

That nurturing process includes creating a healthy balance in the type of messaging, and reducing the amount of email messaging so it doesn’t overwhelm subscribers. It includes creating meaningful on-boarding experiences, and offering subscribers a choice in the volume and types of email communications.

We need to be practicing email segmentation so we’re not emailing the whole list each time, and investing in messaging on social media channels. We also need to find ways to involve constituents and donors in critiquing and developing our communications practices.

This article was originally published on on March 21, 2017.

Michael Stein has been a writer and digital strategist to progressive social causes for over two decades, and strives to help organizations succeed with marketing and fundraising in a multichannel and multiscreen world. He is the author of three books and numerous articles chronicling the rise of digital marketing, mobile engagement, and online fundraising. He works as a consultant and coach to nonprofits, foundations and educators, and can be found on the Web at and on Twitter at @mstein63.

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