How a Culture of Philanthropy Can Improve Donor Retention

You know this.  Sixty percent of the donors who make a first-time gift to your organization,

My Circle of Friends

never make a second.  And every year thereafter, about 35% of your donors stop giving to you. There appears to be two typical responses to these facts:

  1. Nonprofit leaders, fundraising professionals, board members simply throw up their hands, continue doing what they’ve always done and complain about how bad things are.
  2. Massively increase the number of direct mails, emails, social media outreach saying “Give to me! Give you me!”

Neither of these will have the desired outcome of building a stronger, more loyal donor base.

Loyalty happens when donors feel—strongly—that their philanthropic needs and desires are being met. Note the word “their.”  Not yours.  Not your organization’s.  Theirs.

And you do that by making your donors feel as if they matter.

They will feel that if they believe that they are seen and heard.  That means personal interactions.

Yes, I know.  You are busy—too busy to fundraise!—and there are too many donors and prospects to individually touch.

But that is why building a culture of philanthropy at your organization is so critical.

A culture of philanthropy simply states that everyone—board, staff, clients, volunteers—understands the value of those who support you.  Fundraising—the process by which you turn individuals who might care about what you into those who not only do care but support you—is everyone’s responsibility. That means that whoever answers the phone does so professionally and courteously.  He or she doesn’t tell callers that “so and so isn’t in.  Call back later!”

A culture of philanthropy means that everyone can tell your story; not just what you do but what you accomplish.  Success stories should be widely known throughout your organization, and everyone should be encouraged to share them with the wider world.

The wider world, of course, includes your donors, and they of all people must be told how their support contributed to these successes.

Yes, I know.  You are too busy.  But you have your board, your staff, perhaps your clients, who can help reach out.

Board members can be asked to spend a few minutes at each board and committee meeting to write a short note to a donor, a lapsed donor, a not-yet donor, telling them what happens because of their support.

Staff members can be recruited to make one phone call a week to a donor just to say thank you and, by the way, here’s what your gift meant.

Clients could star in a short video (and yes, it’s fine to do this on your phone, as long as you have written permission from the client or client’s family to do so) that says “thank you for what you do!”

Making donors feel valued will pay off in very large ways.  One of those ways may be that in addition to your board, staff, clients, you may be able to recruit a few of them to be a part of your culture of philanthropy and ask them to reach out to others and say “Thank you for joining me in making a difference.”

Janet Levine helps nonprofits go from mired to inspired, through training, coaching and consulting. Find out more at  While there, sign up for the newsletter and contact Janet to find out how she can inspire your organization.


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Fundraising Increases?

Online fundraising is up some percent over last year!  Giving Tuesday grew by another percent!  Headlines like this give me a headache.  The articles that accompany them usually make that headache worse.

These could be citing important information.  For example, if online fundraising is increasing, the wise nonprofit will make sure that their landing page—where the donor gets to when she clicks on donate now–is easy to use and encourages thoughtful giving.  But as proof that something is going on in fundraising and your fundraising focus should be about online asks, is fatuous.

Likewise, wonderful that Giving Tuesday is growing.  Maybe. But at most of the organizations I talk with, it is growing at the expense of the regular end of the year giving. It’s not augmenting, it’s replacing. Worse.  It is replacing at lower levels of giving.
Oh, wait—the gifts that are gotten are higher than what was given online last year; the gifts, however, are lower than they were from the regular appeal.

Reporting about fundraising makes me crazy because it is so often reporting on the wrong things.

Giving USA tends to look at fundraising trends as if they stand alone, not connected to and dependent on other things.   For example, it is wonderful that charitable giving in 2017 was higher than ever before. For the first time, giving exceeded $400 billion.

That’s the good news. The bad news was that in terms of what it means for the sector—well, heck, it was pretty much of a wash.  As it has been for over 45, giving to charities accounted for about 2% (2.1% this year) the gross domestic product.  We’re not growing.  Rather, we are stagnating.

As for the huge amount, that may be a good thing.  Or it may be a false cognate.

What do I mean?  Well, for the past several years, mega-gifts to mega-nonprofits have been proliferating.  For example, just this week, the Orange County Register reported a $20 Million gift from an anonymous donor to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Beyond wondering who ARE all these people who have this kind of money, there are some critical things to consider.

For starters, in the nonprofit sector we “book” the gift in the year it was pledged.  We have no idea how long the payout period; if the gift is current, deferred, a combination. It paints a pretty but not necessarily an accurate picture of the fundraising landscape.

This is at least equally true of bequests.  A few years ago, the Giving USA report showed a sharp uptick in gifts via bequests.  A trend?  Not likely.  None of the bequest donors are likely to make another gift.  And, in that particular case, there was one person who died and left a billion dollars in her trust to charity.

And I haven’t even mentioned how so much of this supposed increased in charitable giving was gifts to private foundations who only have to then give 5% of their assets to charity, leaving the rest invested and used for other business purposes, nor have we looked at how much was given to donor advised funds—funds that may or may not ever go out to support a charitable purpose.


Janet Levine Consulting works with nonprofits, taking them from mired to inspired.  Sign up for the monthly newsletter.  Hire Janet to move your nonprofit to a more profitable place.



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How Much is Too Much?

It’s official.  I am a Millennial.  At least as far as nonprofits who send out emails are concerned. According to a study by Grey Matter Research, millennials get 27 emails a week, while people 65 and older (my natural habitat), say they only get 15.  Grey Matter also reports that a large percentage of people actually read most or all of the emails, but I confess I don’t.  In fact, it feels as if I am getting 27 a DAY, and all of them are asking me to give.

You’d think that someone like me who is in the business of helping nonprofits to increase their fundraising capacity would applaud that.  After all, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.  But arm’s length asking—and these emails are about as personal as a direct mail appeal—are notoriously ineffective and often, if they are sent often, downright irritating.

Charitable giving is something people do when they want to right a wrong, help someone who needs that help, support a cause that resonates with them.  And, they need to feel that their gift means something.  How can it mean anything if 15 minutes after I’ve given, I’m being asked to give again?

I get it.  Nonprofits need money to do the work they do. Advocacy groups, which tend to be more responsive than proactive, probably believe that the issue du jour will garner more giving than a concentrated ask.  But I wonder.  There are issues I care passionately about, but when I am asked on a weekly—and sometimes daily—basis to give $100, $200, $400 for THIS particular crisis, I feel, well, crisis-ed out.  And so I start ignoring the emails; not responding to the appeals.

Donor fatigue, I’ve always maintained, is more a function of lousy fundraising than anything else. And lousy fundraising is when an organization keeps going back to the same old same old person, institution, group of people, asking for a gift to support this, and now this, and now again, this.

I don’t doubt that the constant appeals bring in some positive responses.  But I think this mode of fundraising is as much at fault as the lack of appropriate stewardship in our sector experiences such huge number of donor attrition.  Over all, way less than 50% of donors make repeat gifts—and remember, this includes people who give regularly because their child or children are students in a private school, or a loved one is in or just got out of the hospital.  Absent those people, attrition rates would increase even more.

While it unrealistic to expect many organizations to have the human resources to meet with every single donor and find out how he or she would like to give, it’s not hard to parse out who is responding and who is not.

How often is too much? is a question my clients and those taking my workshops often ask.  And I generally respond with a rule of thumb that you should touch a donor at least 3 times between every ask.  But not if you are already sending me 27 emails a week. Adding any amount to that goes beyond irritating to truly obnoxious.

Janet Levine Consulting works with nonprofits, taking them from mired to inspired.  Learn more at  Sign up for our free newsletter and do contact Janet for a free 30-minute consultation

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Visualizing Your (Fundraising) Future

Eleven years ago, when a new president was appointed at the university where I served as Vice President of University Advancement, I knew my days were numbered.  I also knew that I should get the word out to my networks that I was, in Susan Scott, the author of Fierce Conversations words, “available to industry.”  But I could not get my heart around the idea of going elsewhere where I would—again—have to get up every single day, drive to the same office and interact with the same people.  It was beyond me.

What, then, I thought, could I do?  Retirement really wasn’t in the cards, but at 60, I wasn’t sure I wanted to start all over again in a new career.

What to do?

I started visualizing how I would like to spend my days.

It quickly became obvious to me that (a) I needed to be my own boss, (b) I didn’t want to deal with staff and (c) I wanted to control my own time.

As a consultant, I got (a) and (b); (c) not so much, but hey, you can’t have it all.

As a fundraiser, I used to visualize what I wanted my relationships with my prospects and donors to look like—and then created plans that nurtured that.

While some donors fit into several categories, what the relationship was with an annual, major and planned gift donor, was different, and required different levels and types of cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship.

Annual donors, because I was counting on them to make gifts year after year, required touches over each and every month of the year.  As a donor myself, I knew that the key to donor attrition was to only pay attention when asking for a gift.  I needed to figure out how to reach out and educate, inform, and thank these donors on an ongoing basis.

The size of the gift did matter. Those who gave smaller gifts got more arm’s length attention.  Those whose gifts were larger got more personal attention. And those I felt were ready to move up to larger gifts, got very special, very personal care.

Major gift prospects—those I was courting for a singular gift (perhaps over a number of years) for a specific purpose—needed a plan that would engage them over the time it took to solicit the gift, and then a way to ensure that they forever felt that being a major donor was the best thing that ever happened to them.  Typically, this meant figuring out ways to make them feel that they were insiders and ensuring that they had access to the people and programs that motivated them.  Unlike annual plans, which were created once a year, major gift plans were ongoing for as long as the cultivation and solicitation lasted.  And then the focus was on stewardship—reactive, thanking them for their gift and proactive, looking forward to the next.

Planned giving was a whole different thing.  There were the annual donors who might—if educated—remember us in their trust or will.  And then there were the bigger donors who might leave us valuable personal or real property; make us the beneficiary of a remainder trust or charitable annuity.  Or they might use other planned giving vehicles to make us part of their estate planning.

For these planned giving prospects, there was ongoing marketing, educating them about the purpose, need, impact of a planned gift.  And then there were the donors who needed support as they planned how they would remember us—and we would remember them—in the future.

By visualizing how we would interact, I could see where I needed to go and what I had to do. And in that way, I could visualize and then realize, stronger support for my organization.

Janet Levine Consulting helps nonprofits to visualize and then to plan their future. Learn more at While there, sign up for the newsletter and contact Janet for a free 30-minute consultation

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A Seriously Bad Fundraising Appeal

I thought it must be spam. Surely a large and reputable nonprofit would never send such a poorly conceived and badly written email. But no. It is apparently legit. Sigh. Double sigh

It starts nicely enough. The first two words are”Thank you. “ But for what?  I am neither a current donor nor have any of former gifts—infrequent as they were—large enough to by themselves have made a difference. It’s also been at least three years since I donated  I don’t know why I am being thanked and the writer doesn’t say

The writer does go on to tell me that the organization is, and here I am quoting (including the obvious oops of something that was lost in translation) working hard to serve our communities and patients, ensuring that our doors are open to everyone – no matter what.

As I write to you today, we are nearing the end of our fundraising year on June 30.

(And here is that oops I mentioned) changes the lives of our patients, and I want to share one such story with you.

Then there is a clip about a very specific population. Whether I care about this population is beside the point—the organization very clearly does not know if I care and did nothing to tell me why this should, could, might matter to me.  In fact, it seemed clear to me that I only mattered as an ATM machine.  That was brought home to me by the P.S.:   If you have already made your gift, please disregard this email and accept our heartfelt thanks. 

Oh, okay, your message is only important if it causes me to make a gift.  

Folks, this is a poor reason to do an e (or snail) mail solicitation.

At best, this appeal will garner a 4% response rate.  But think of how many people could be influenced—perhaps not for now but for the future—with a message that had a call to action beyond “give us money.”  

Giving money is easy.  But it’s not a connection.  Instead of telling me to “disregard this email” because, I presume, what you are saying is of no import,  how about using it to show me what my gift meant.  “If you’ve already made your gift, I hope you watch the clip and see how important your support has been.”

Obviously, this appeal was not part of a well-thought out campaign.  It appears that it was an add on because the end of the fiscal year is nigh and the organization has not hit its fundraising goals.  

For fundraising, particularly transactional fundraising, to be successful, there has to be a plan.  The pieces need to support each other, reinforce key points, engage your donors, and show them why their involvement is critical to meeting the mission —the mission they care about.  Just throwing something out in the hopes that some people will respond is not just ineffectual, but it is insulting to everyone involved in your organization.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to move from mired to inspired.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for our free newsletter and contact Janet to schedule a free, 30-minute consultation.

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