The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

Thank You Calls as a Donor Retention Tool: 6 Steps to Success

(Editor’s note: We’re so pleased to share today’s post from Claire Axelrad, CFRE and principal of Clairification. Want to keep more of the donors from last year? Read on for a step-by-step retention strategy that works.)

One of the greatest challenges fundraisers face is retaining donors. In fact, research shows that the average nonprofit loses 81% of donors after their first gifts and the probability that a donor will make five consecutive gifts is only 10-15%.

These statistics reinforce how important it is for fundraisers like us to improve retention rates. I’m here to tell you how you can fix things with the power of just two words: thank you.

Developing a robust gratitude program is the most important thing you can do to retain and upgrade donors. In this post, I want to focus on one of the most under-used ways to thank donors which has the most lasting impact. Want to know what it is? Follow-up thank you donor calls.

If you’re a doubter, let me tell you about an experiment by Penelope Burk, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising. When board members made thank you calls within 48 hours of receiving donations, those called gave an average of 39% more than those who weren’t called, and they gave 42% more after 14 months!

Are your ears perked up? This is something that, if you do it, you’ll really stand out. In a good way. And the ends will more than justify the means. You’ll raise more money. Guaranteed.

I’d like to share a six-step process that can help you develop and implement a successful thank you call strategy for your organization:

1. Who to call

Always ask for phone numbers! Especially if you’re a small organization, calling every single donor may be your best way to begin to build your donor base.

You may be thinking that smaller gifts don’t merit a call. Suppose it was a $100 gift. Would you call to thank then? I always made sure first-time donors of $100 or more got calls. I tested calls to a percentage of first-time donors below that amount, and would encourage you to do so as well.

Of course, it isn’t always practical to call every donor. It’s important to prioritize your calls in an order that makes sense for your organization. I like to do it for donors at your major gift level (e.g., $1,000+), first-time donors (especially at $100+), donors who make a significant increase, and donors who reach a cumulative giving milestone. I also like to call monthly donors at least annually, just to connect and thank them for their ongoing support. And I recommend testing a random sampling of your middle donors to see if this results in renewals at a higher level.

ACTION TIP: Go to my blog, subscribe, and grab your free “Donor Thank You Calls E-Book + Script” for a suggested order of priority for “must call” donors and some ideas of donor segments you might test.

2. Who should make the call

Recruit anyone you can (provided they’ll be genuine and passionately grateful) to makes these calls. Board members love to do this, and this can be a great way to ease them into making fundraising calls.

If you can’t find board members, consider having beneficiaries make these calls. This creates a lovely tangible link between the donor’s gift and its outcome.

ACTION TIP: I’ve found folks are happy to receive a timely call from a staff member, as long as the caller doesn’t sound like they’re robotically checking a task off their ‘to do’ list. If this is the only way to assure your call is made within 48 hours, assign the calls to donor-friendly staff members.

3. When to call

It’s best to call within a month of the gift. After that it is likely to be perceived as an additional solicitation. For new donors and significantly upgraded gifts, I like to stick to the 48-hour rule.

ACTION TIP: It can be difficult to ensure calls are always made in a timely manner (especially by board members). So how about picking a date when you know you’ll have a lot of gifts (e.g., after an event) and bringing your board together then to make call?

And – Network for Good’s donor management system comes with easy acknowledgement tracking. Schedule a demo to see how it works!

4. How to call

You can make thank you calls as an organized group endeavor, known as a “thankathon,” (with refreshments, of course!)or you can simply make individual assignments. The benefit of the former is that you assure the calls get made, and you can host a training beforehand to help folks feel confident with what they should say. The benefit of the latter is that it’s convenient, but you’ve got to follow up with your callers to find out the outcomes!

ACTION TIP: Organize a small committee to make thank you calls on a regular basis. This can be a “Thankathon Committee” or simply a subcommittee of your development staff or volunteer guild members willing to make calls.

5. What to say

Every call will be different. The core of what you say, however, will be the same. Here’s a great example:

Hi Joe, this is Claire working for Beloved Charity, and I just called to say how much we appreciate your recent gift to support our Important Program!”

Brief. To the point. With a smile on your face (this will put a smile in your voice). The greatest impact of this call comes from its purity. Donors are pleasantly surprised that you’ve called simply to express gratitude and that you don’t want anything else from them.

ACTION TIP: If you don’t reach your donor, leave a message. Try calling one more time because research shows donor retention is better when you speak with a live person. If you know you won’t have time to try again within a two-day timeframe, leave a message now. Keep it short. Donors will be pleased with a brief, warm thank you message.

6. Next steps

Make a record. Whether you leave a message or have an in-depth conversation with a donor, you want to record the results in your database. If you assign calls to volunteers or other staff, make sure they report back with the results. It’s your responsibility to make sure this information is captured so that you can become more and more donor-centered as you build your relationships.

Do what you said you’d do, and do it NOW. This seems obvious, but sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Maybe you promised to send your donor some information. Or perhaps the donor told you about someone who is recently deceased. If your job is to call, but it’s someone else’s job to follow up, make sure this doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

ACTION TIP: Don’t forget to record the simple fact that this donor received a call, especially if you’re testing if it’s worth devoting more time/resources to making thank you calls. Only by measuring results will you know if those who were called renewed at higher percentage rates and/or higher dollar levels than those who were not called.

Besides these steps, boosting donor retention requires an organization-wide culture that channels an attitude of gratitude all year long.

This is where spontaneous thank you calls come in.Think of them as planned “random acts of kindness.” In other words, though you may not know in advance what you’re going to do or who you’re going to call, you do have the intention to do something to keep the gratitude flowing and solidify your donor relationships.

There are a number of gratitude strategies that you can also incorporate into your work. For example, set 15 minutes every day to make thank you calls. Rack your brain (if you must) to come up with someone who did something for you. It may be another person on your staff. It may be a vendor. It may be a donor’s administrative assistant. And, of course, don’t forget your donors! Use these calls to get to know folks and to let them get to know you.

Whatever strategy you develop, remember that prompt, personal thank you calls build a bridge to future support and deeper engagement. Do it well, and you are on your way to future fundraising success.

Claire Axelrad J.D., CFRE specializes in fundraising coaching, nonprofit marketing consultation and board training as principal of Clairification. Named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, she brings 30 years frontline development experience to her work. Claire writes regular columns for Nonprofit Pro, Guidestar, and Maximize Social Business. Clairification was named “Best Fundraising Blog of 2013”by FundRaising Success Magazine. A member of the California State Bar and a graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco California. Connect with Claire on Twitter, Pinterest or LinkedIn.

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  • erniejay

    It’s hard to argue stats, but I am a “doubting Tom.” If anyone calls me to thank me or to ask me what their NP can do better, either they do not receive a donation from me the following year, or what they do receive is greatly reduced. I have specifically asked NEVER to be called, but those who will not honor that will lose the opportunity to do it again. One major enviro NP asks new members what level they would prefer contact. All NPs should assume that no one wants another intrusive phone call. Just send the thank you in the mail. We donate due to the cause and good work, not to get a call.

  • Sheila Carroll

    If you call then I assume a thank you note is not necessary?

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Connie Poulos
Senior Associate, Copywriter

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