You Had Me at Hello: The Importance of Donor Stewardship

"You had me at hello," a classic line from the movie Jerry Maguire, was in response to an extensive courting process. This wonderful one-liner is ironic for fundraisers – our donors say "HELLO" with their first gift, and yet by the 5th solicitation, those first-time donors have left. Our national retention rate is down to 39%, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals. The gold nugget here is that fundraisers need to pay attention to the core of donor relationships – appreciating that first gift as a "HELLO," listening to our donors, understanding what inspires them, and helping them achieve their best philanthropy.

"You had me at hello," a classic line from the movie Jerry Maguire, was in response to an extensive courting process. This wonderful one-liner is ironic for fundraisers—our donors say "HELLO" with their first gift, and yet by the 5th solicitation, those first-time donors have left. Our national retention rate is down to 39%, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals. The gold nugget here is that fundraisers need to pay attention to the core of donor relationships—appreciating that first gift as a "HELLO," listening to our donors, understanding what inspires them, and helping them achieve their best philanthropy.

"For centuries, we’ve known that fundraising is based on relationships."

For centuries, we’ve known that fundraising is based on relationships. Ben Franklin’s advice about raising funds was to ask your friends to contribute to your project. Legendary fundraiser Harold 'Si' Seymour said something to the effect that a cow never lets down her milk because of a letter or phone call; you’ve got to sit down with her.

Within the past few decades, we’ve heard similar messages from our thought leaders. Joyaux and Ahern in Keep Your Donors, Grace’s Beyond Fundraising, Burnett’s Relationship Fundraising, Sargeant’s Building Donor Loyalty, Burk’s Donor‐Centered Fundraising all agree: donors need to feel appreciated and valued, and that their involvement with your organization is the foundation for their philanthropy. More recently, the summit report Growing Philanthropy in the United States’ top recommendation was to enhance the quality of donor relationships. 

This past decade’s advances in technology have increased our efficiencies but may have become a distraction: we’ve allowed information technology—computers, software, and big data—to get between us and donors. Technology leads us toward what’s easy to measure—money and numbers. A worst-case scenario is the idea that technology has contributed to our treating donors like bank automatic teller machines (ATM’s).

A Return to the Personal

Today’s science may lead us back to the future to have meaningful relationships with donors, brain science, that is, verifying what we’ve known intuitively forever. Oxytocin—the ‘bonding’ hormone—is released when we relate to a personal story of triumph in an appeal letter or newsletter—how the work of the organization changed one person’s life. Not statistics, not millions, but a one-­on-­one emotional connection, and the connection is aided by oxytocin. We believe that dopamine is released when a donor receives a wonderful, ‘knock your socks off’ sense of appreciation from an organization. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is teaching us that story telling, visualizing family and friends, and setting social norms help focus a donor’s mind (Russell James).

What used to be limited to thank you letters, IRS charitable gift receipts, and annual reports on endowment funds has become a fully developed program of donor stewardship, counted more by qualitative measures than quantitative. The traditional 'thank you' concept now includes any manner of practices to increase a donor’s long-­term commitment to the organization, what Sargeant calls "lifetime value," and in doing so, maximizes philanthropy. Not a new concept by any means, more of a re­‐iteration of what we’ve known for decades, for centuries.

Burk’s research donors tell us that many of them will make another gift because of a personal thank you call. Donors are likely to give again because of the positive experience they had at a donor appreciation event. And Sargent projects than an increase in donor retention by 10% can actually result in 200% increased giving. How simple is that? It’s not rocket science.

Donors give to make the world a better place. We have a significant body of knowledge and plenty of best practices—enough to keep any of us busy for a long time with a lot of donors. These guide us toward authentic, sincere appreciation of donors and management of what messages we send them, how well we keep records, and how we manage relationships (Julia Emlen).

By making contributions to our organizations, our donors are telling us that they value the work we do, the promises we make, and the long term delivery on those promises. They tell us "You had me at hello" from their first gift and as long as we keep listening. Our work is to deepen their connections with our outcomes—the outcomes they fund—and to increase their philanthropy in making the world a better place.

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