How nonprofits create donor fatigue and how you can do the opposite
The past several years have shown that donor attrition across nonprofits averages 55%. In other words, the majority of your new donors this year will go away next year.*
Similarly, in nonprofit communications, response rates for donors are extremely low – on average:
- Each time you send an email only 20% of your donors will open it
- Only 2.6% will click on a link in your email
- Up to 12% of all the emails you send will go to spam
What is the explanation for this high donor attrition rate and a low response rate? While there are many factors, donor fatigue is at the top of the list. Here’s the definition of donor fatigue:
“a lessening of public willingness to respond generously to charitable appeals, resulting from the frequency of such appeals.”The Oxford Language
While this definition gives only a single reason for donor fatigue, the key idea here is a “willingness to respond”. That means it’s important to pay attention to how responsive your audience is. If you can lower your donors’ fatigue and increase responsiveness, you will deepen the relationship and help them stick with you for the long-run.
In this article, we want to look at two things:
- How you can avoid donor fatigue by understanding the things that cause it
- What you can do instead to build more meaningful and connected relationships with your donors
4 Causes of Donor Fatigue
As mentioned above, the Oxford Language definition of donor fatigue only covers one part of the problem:
- Asking too often – if you communicate with donors more than they want, they will get tired of hearing from you.
I want to argue that the frequency with which you communicate is actually the smallest cause of donor fatigue. Frequency usually exacerbates a deeper problem. Let’s look at what that is with these next three causes of donor fatigue:
- Neediness vs. Partnership – the way you communicate and your attitude sets the tone for how your donors are going to feel. Do you put yourself in a needy position or do donors feel like they are partners with you on mission? Similarly, are you taking care of your donors, seeking to first help them and meet their needs? If your donors feel taken care of and valued as equals, when you ask them to support you it becomes more than a need to fill, but an opportunity to make a difference and “pay it forward.”
- Lack of vision or values – do you know your core belief and does it lead your organization forward toward an exciting vision, or are you doing the same thing year after year with no end goal in mind? If you continually connect your donors to the values you both share and if you help them get behind your long-term vision, your communications will encourage and inspire, rather than fatigue them.
- Thankfulness – how quickly and how often are donors thanked/appreciated by you? The importance of being humble and thankful–recognizing your donors’ generosity and partnership–cannot be overstated. Being grateful shows donors you do not take them for granted and helps you become a better steward of the mission entrusted to you.
Let’s go beyond avoiding donor fatigue, and look at a principle that can help you excite donors instead.
One Principle to Excite (instead of Fatigue) Donors
In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he writes about a concept called “the emotional bank account”. This idea is a metaphor for how much trust you have deposited with another person.
The higher the balance of trust you have with a donor, the safer they will feel because they know you have their interests at heart. Here’s how this concept plays out for nonprofit communications: every time you ask donors (to donate, join an event, volunteer, etc.), you withdraw from their emotional bank account.
- If your balance is low or empty, your relationship with them will be strained. They will feel emotional fatigue, perhaps even desire to stop hearing from you.
- If your balance is high, the safer they will feel and the more your appeals will become meaningful opportunities to partner together on mission.
Knowing this, I feel the important next question is this:
How can you make deposits in our donors’ emotional bank accounts?
Let’s look at some possible answers to that question for first-time website visitors to long-term donors.
Ideas to Make Deposits to Website Visitors
Unless you are offering products or services to donors directly, donors usually have to take the results of your mission in trust.
For example: if you help kids get scholarships, unless your donors meet those kids, they have to trust you’re actually helping kids get scholarships.
Similarly, if you alleviate poverty around the world, your donors have even more trust that you are helping in places they may never personally see.
Because your website is central to communicating who you are to the rest of the world, how can it effectively build this kind of trust? Here are a few of the more obvious strategies that you may have already thought about:
- Put the focus on your visitor and how they connect to your story
- Use visuals, especially video
- Connect how donations get used with your story and the results
- Provide links to your financials
- Include a page with your team, including pictures and personal touches
- Make it easy to contact you
- Be active on social media or channels where your donors/potential donors are
These are just a few of the main ways your website can build trust with people. So let’s continue to answer how you can make deposits in your donors’ emotional bank accounts, such that you know their accounts are full when it comes time to make an appeal.
If you’re working with a digital agency, make sure they know this principle, too. The best marketing agencies for nonprofits will help you serve your donors and make deposits, rather than causing them to want to leave.
Ideas to Make Deposits to Donors or Subscribers
There are many ways you can make deposits into your donors’ emotional bank accounts, but here are ideas sorted into three different areas:
- Provide content and resources that helps your donors
- Thank donors regularly, keep an attitude of humility
- Encourage donors with examples of how their partnership makes a difference
- Create and run events that deliver an emotional impact
- Send out surveys, request replies or reviews
- Call to ask for feedback to find out how you can improve as an organization
- Respect boundaries (especially “no”)
- Affirm constructive criticism and remain calm when donors are negative
- Cast an exciting vision
- Remain accountable
- Admit when things don’t go as planned
- Create backup plans
I think one of the most important things about making deposits into your donors’ emotional accounts is that you need to do this intentionally and separate from fundraising. The best time to make deposits is long before your next fundraising campaign or directly after.
Finally, here is a challenge for you: make a deposit four times for every one time you make an appeal.
If you withdraw on full emotional bank accounts, your donors will feel like you’ve earned their trust and financial support. You’ll retain far more than the average 45% of first-time donors, and your audience will be far more engaged.
The simplest (though perhaps most difficult) thing I can recommend is this: whenever you want to communicate with donors, put yourself in their shoes.
*Stats from the Fundraising Effectiveness Report by the AFP and the Urban Institute