10 Steps for Successful Donor Acquisition


If only it were that easy. 

I wish it was. 

But acquiring new donors is as complex, rewarding and exciting as building strong and healthy friendships. 

In 1958 – before many of us were born – Lester Wunderman “invented” the phrase: “Direct Marketing”. It means any marketing that includes a strong call to action and a specific “device” with which to  respond: an 800-number, a reply form, a website. The secret is quick and painless. 

But direct marketing has been around forever. The letter, bulletin, flyer and (age old) delivered in person offers have “sold” vegetables, wagon wheels, grandfather clocks – and so much more. The printing press blew it out of the water – suddenly ordinary people could print hundreds of copies of their message and deliver it to households in large areas. That opened the door for catalogues – enter Sears and the power of a national postal system. 

The explosion of direct mail, data and “the science of direct response” transformed the fundraising industry (yes, it’s an industry). The 70’s were the hay day of acquisition by mail and TV. World Vision Canada, with emotional television specials and an easy monthly sponsorship program, acquired hundreds of thousands of donors. 

We look back to those days with longing. 

Imagine a 4% response to a direct mail acquisition campaign. Unheard of today. 

The science took over. Data became the king of the machine we call fundraising. Today, it’s just not as easy. We see growth. Plan International, with the advent of the Girl Child Campaign, experienced significant growth in the past 20 years. Christian Blind Mission (now Hope and Healing) soared from nothing to a mid-sized charity. 

Today, especially in a COVID environment, acquiring new donors is hard work. 

But let me shed some insight into what I think are 5 (not 10) critical ingredients to successful acquisition of donors. 

1.  Know who you are

That seems so basic… of course we know who we are. But it’s not. 

It is critical to know who YOU are. People join your cause because it is compelling, inspiring and makes sense. That is the miracle about child sponsorship – it just makes sense to people. But not all organizations can promote child sponsorship. Nor should they. 

Your marketing team should see your cause with precision, understand it and be able to package it so donors can understand it quickly and clearly. Acquisition campaigns must be simple, understandable and easily accomplished. 

Don’t make it complicated. Don’t get caught in the tangle of program speak. Don’t let the complexities overwhelm you. Cut to the chase. 

People want to help. They are inspired to make a difference. When they latch on to a cause they are there for you. Generosity is natural for people. But make it accessible for them.

One of the best examples is Charity Water… they do water. You give money and they make sure a child and their family has access to safe water. It’s really just that simple. 

2.  Nurture generosity within your culture

This summer I was chatting with a colleague who was pretty pumped at the success his marketing team was having in spite of all the challenges. I asked him what changed.

He said his team caught the vision and they changed their attitude. For the first time, his team believed that people were generous and that they didn’t look on a charity as “begging for money.” 

I know you’ve heard that phrase over and over again. 

Scrub it out of your vocabulary. If you don’t believe your cause is worthy of donor’s support, you need to quit. You need to nurture a culture of generosity and stewardship throughout the organization. Until your executive director, program director, board and every single staff member and volunteer believes in the power of stewardship and the importance of every gift, you will not be successful. 

As a charity, you give a tremendous gift to your donors. You give them a chance to give back in ways they could never do without you. You give them an opportunity to cure cancer, encourage a single mom, walk alongside a child and their family living with immense challenges. Charity is human—it is an important part of our lives. Giving back, living with generosity, sharing our heart and being a part of something bigger than we are brings immense joy. 

Community is about sharing, giving when we can, benefiting from the gifts when we are walking through the shadows. Don’t get caught in the treadmill of thinking fundraising is an evil necessity. It’s not. It’s an opportunity to share the responsibility of doing good work with your community. 

3.  Understand your data

You know this. BUT do you do it? 

When’s that last time you did a deep dive into your data? What does your data tell you about your donor? What does your data show you about the best performing marketing? What does your online data show you about how people travel through your website and how they reach the donation page?

That is just the tip of the iceberg. 

A colleague shared their data on their Holiday Gift program. For some reason, it had dropped about 60%. Pretty shocking as, on the whole, Holiday Gift catalogues perform pretty well. A quick glance at the data told the story. The mailing numbers had dropped by about 60%. You see, that’s what happens. When we mail less, we will earn less. 

The mistake small organizations make is trying to mail to only the donors who will give. You can’t know that. The reason holiday catalogues work so well is that you can dig deep into your database at a time when donors have a strong penchant to give. Mailing deep gives people who haven’t given for a while a chance to give again—and, in  my experience, they do just that. 

Too often people are making decisions with their own wisdom, not using the data to support it. Years ago I was trying to beat the most successful acquisition piece at the time. The agency we used (I was in-house) had tried to beat the piece for more than 5 years—unsuccessfully. I studied the data, the trends beyond that one piece and did a comparative overview of several successful and not so successful acquisition pieces. 

I used that data to design 2 test pieces. 

Both pieces beat the agency’s piece. The success was not mine—it lived in the data. In fact, one piece did not appeal to me at all. I would never give to it. But it met the trends I had learned from the data and our test audience was very positive about it, so I decided to test it. It became the 2nd most successful piece over 3 years. 

Data tells you the secrets you need for powerful marketing. 

4.  Test…. And Learn

One of the saddest stories in the direct marketing legacy is the lack of innovation. When I see direct marketing pieces that “work” but show little reflection of the cause (a blue robin package for an international aid agency), I admit, it discourages me. On the whole, organizations are hesitant to test. 

And yes, it’s dangerous. 

But to never innovate or push the edges is a mistake. One of the best ways to test new ideas is to use thank you mailings and inserting innovative, inexpensive marketing offers. It helps you build a body of knowledge to guide you as you launch new acquisition offers. 

To be satisfied with the age-old label campaign or the nickel package is an affront to your cause.

5.  Stewardship

In the distant past, a steward was someone who made sure your journey went without a hitch. They were there to help you with your luggage, bring you food, give you directions. Their job was to care for every passenger. 

Like all things human, stewards worked at various levels of service and the public didn’t always respect their services or appreciate the importance of their job. 

We are living in an era where service is demeaning and has echoes slavery. 

But that’s not what we mean by stewardship. A great steward believes in the importance of their task. The environmentalist, a steward of the land, makes choices to celebrate the gift of nature and endeavours to protect the vulnerable state of the world for future generations. 

True stewardship begins with relationship. 

Your donor relationships team is building real relationships with real people. It has to be a give and take relationship. They are not an ATM to fund your programs. How many organizations have called their donors during COVID just to see how they’re doing? How many organizations take the time to personally thank their donors – no matter how many zeros in their gift? How many organizations invest in the person who answers the phone, empowering them to answer EVERY call with the mindset of relationship? 

We scatter relationship words within our strategic conversations, but too many organizations have forgotten the elegance of a relationship. Acquisition of a donor (not just a donation) happens inside of a relationship. 

You can go online and see a thousand “tactics” for acquisition: how to write a fundraising letter, how many times to mail a year (here’s a hint… often), how to develop a reply device, 10 easy steps to make online giving easier.

But unless you have the basics down pat, acquisition of long-term donors will fail.

To talk about your donor acquisition and stewardship programs, give us a call:
(519-575-6263) or email gayle@barefootcreative.com

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