By Erica Waasdorp, President A Direct Solution, Sustainer Growth and Retention Consultant, Author Monthly Giving. The Sleeping Giant and other resources

Just a few points of retention can make a difference! Sustainer retention is something I personally get most excited about. It’s where the ‘rubber meets the road’ as the American saying goes. It’s also an area many F2F fundraisers typically have no control over unfortunately, but that must change!

Let’s look at some recent sustainer retention rates from the 2018 international Blackbaud donorCentrics™ Sustainer Benchmarking data. Bear in mind that this is based upon some of the largest organizations in each country.

Here are the new sustainers’ median 13-month retention rates from that report:

Australia: 40%

Canada: 55%

Germany 72%

UK: 81%

U.S.: 48%

These are just indicators. The biggest factors that play a role in these sustainer retention numbers are the source of sustainers and payment types.

Unfortunately, as a F2F or D2D partner, you often don’t have much influence on that retention. You can bring in the highest number of new sustainers from activities on the street, door or through ‘virtual canvassing’ (phone or video calls) as some companies did during these past few months, only to see them drop off just a few months later.

Some people might say, ah, it’s all because of the way they were brought on. Just remember that most F2F sourced sustainer are brand-new to the organization, so even if you keep them at a rate of 40%, that’s still double that of single gift retention!

But of course, you always want it to be better! That’s why I challenge you to look inside your nonprofit or the nonprofits you’re working with and see what’s going on.

Start inhouse. Create a sustainer process flow chart!

I’m a member of the Professional Face to Face Fundraiser’s Association, founded in the U.S. just a few years ago. As such we have a few meetings a year where nonprofits, F2F and D2D vendors and consultants like me get together and we look at trends and we brainstorm about ways to improve collaborations, retainer results and sustainer retention.

At the gathering last November, we had a nonprofit session where three other sustainer consultants (Kelly England, Katie Zweiner, Sherry Bell) and I asked those in the room to map out their cultivation process and subsequently their retention process. It was a huge eye-opener! 

This prompted us to do an anonymous follow up survey amongst nonprofits. This is being tabulated as we speak, and I hope to share the results during the F2F conference in Vienna.

Here are the two biggest takeaways from our initial gathering:

  1. Many nonprofits in the room didn’t know the sustainer retention process. It’s often done in another department. While they’re bringing in new sustainers, they can’t influence what happens afterwards.  
  2. If there are things that can be done to improve sustainer retention, a bottle neck in yet another department often prevents the fundraiser from implementing some new ideas.

That is why I’m stating that the biggest hurdle to improve sustainer retention comes from within. There’s a way to change it, but it will require some mindset and leadership changes.

From my 27+ years of experience with sustainers and some 37+ years of experience with direct marketing, the key to improving retention (and so many other things for that matter) comes from COLLABORATION and A COMMON GOAL! 

If you don’t have these, no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to improve retention. Improvement truly comes from within! Trust me. You can have the best vendor partners in the world and the best fundraising brains in the world in the room, but if there’s a bottleneck internally, it all stops there!

I learned very early on, as a young Dutch direct marketer, working in a big U.S. direct response publisher, that it takes all departments to get together to create a successful campaign.

Before every appeal, we’d gather the heads of all departments in the room: Marketing. Production. Data entry. Customer service. Systems specialist (IT). We’d walk through the intricacies of every campaign and everybody was able to provide inputs and suggestions to ensure that the campaign would go smoothly from start to finish. But it didn’t end there!

The next and probably even more important piece was that we as marketers were required to spend a few days in the mail room and data-entry to see the mail coming in, see how the scanning process worked and what other things we might be able to learn from the process.

This really took down barriers and created free flowing communication between everybody, especially with the people doing the day-to-day work. I learned so much from this process that I implemented it (or tried to) everywhere later in my career.

That is what MUST happen when it comes to improving sustainer retention. There’s no right or wrong. There is only ONE COMMON GOAL: IMPROVE SUSTAINER RETENTION!

What does that mean for you?

Start with a simple step. Map out the process. Ideally do this for sustainers brought in from all your channels. What happens when a new sustainer comes in online? What happens when a new sustainer comes in from the mail? From telemarketing?  From Face to Face? Maybe even from direct response TV or in some cases radio or events?

Map out what they receive. Do they get a premium? How soon do they get a thank you? Is that online or also offline? Is there a welcome package? Do they get a phone call? Do they get mail and how soon and how often? How soon do they make it into the system? What are the codes?  What does the reporting look like? How often do you receive it? Who takes the phone calls from sustainers calling in? Where are the changes being made and who does it?  Does someone check if there’s a discrepancy between the vendor’s report and what is downloaded? What will accounting/finance get? What does the fundraiser get? Who does what in each part of the process above?

Then map out what happens if a payment doesn’t come in? Before the card expires. After month 1. After month 2. After month 3. Do you have a credit card updater system in place? Is there an email, a phone call, a letter? Is a payment type conversion possible (for example going from credit card to EFT/ACH/Direct debit)? When is a sustainer stopped in the system? What does the reporting look like? Who tracks?

IMPORTANT: Don’t make any judgements during this. Simply make an inventory of everything you can possibly find out about tracking one new sustainer from beginning to end.  You can use this simple flow chart as a starting point.

I’ve done this with several clients and it’s simply amazing what you can find out from this one little exercise. It doesn’t have to take very long to do it. Just be curious! Pretend you’re new in your organization and you’re trying to find out what the process looks like.

Before you do this, talk to your boss, and get buy in from leadership. It’s important you get their full support! (Frankly, if they’re not willing to let you do this, they don’t appreciate a growing sustainer program and you are probably in the wrong organization!)

You are the Leader of the Sustainer Retention Improvement Process.

You should be able to talk to anybody and everybody in your organization that can help you map out this process. Just tell them how important it is to increase sustainer retention and how that will help your bottom line. You’re talking about keeping thousands of dollars, euros, pounds or which ever currency you’re working in.

I typically learn most from those people in the organization who work on bringing in the files from the F2F vendors. Ask them to look at exceptions or records that are kicked out after a file is uploaded and find out why they kicked out. Ask them for feedback. If you open the door for a conversation, they’ll be happy to help!

Then, after you’ve made the inventory of the process, schedule a meeting with all relevant departments and anybody who ‘touches’ a sustainer at any point. Again, you’ll find you’ll often get the best feedback from those on the phones with sustainers, those in operations or those dealing with exceptions and data-entry.

Remember, your goal is to improve sustainer retention, and everybody could be a helper in that process.  Make sure they’re able to play a part in it.  Improving sustainer retention comes from within!

Once you have the map, you may see something that falls through the cracks. You may see something the digital or the direct mail or the telemarketing team is doing you could implement here.

You’ll be amazed at how much can be done internally to help you keep your sustainers a lot longer! It often doesn’t take very much. Maybe an extra email or two. Maybe a video thank you. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, but it can be oh so powerful. Take the lead in the sustainer retention process and reap the rewards. After all, the more sustainers you keep, the more money can go towards the mission, but also the more money can go towards bringing in more sustainers from F2F or D2D sources.

About Erica Waasdorp, A Direct Solution

Born and raised in the Netherlands, Erica Waasdorp is President of A Direct Solution in Marstons Mills, U.S.  She lives and breathes direct response and fundraising and can be considered a Philanthropyholic. 

Erica published one of the few books on monthly giving, called Monthly Giving. The Sleeping Giant.  She co-authored the DonorPerfect Monthly Giving Starter and Marketing Kits, she created the Monthly Donor Road Map and many other resources, she blogs and she presents in person and via webinars on appeals, direct mail and monthly giving.

She works with non-profit clients all over the country, helping them with fundraising planning and strategy, appeals and monthly giving.

Erica Waasdorp is a Master Trainer for the Association of Fundraising Professionals and most recently she was the US Ambassador for the International Fundraising Congress (IFC), held in the Netherlands every October.