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The Elements of a Successful Monthly Giving Program

Ok, so you know recurring giving can be a big win for your nonprofit. But how do you do it, exactly? Never fear, this lesson will walk you through setting up (or retooling) your own monthly giving program.

Ready? Let’s do this!

In this lesson, we’ll cover:

  • Setting a goal for recurring giving
  • How to outline a framework for your monthly giving program
  • Identifying the best prospects for recurring giving

What are you trying to do, anyway? A bit of advice about setting goals.

This is where starting at the beginning is really starting at the end.

Let me explain.

If you don’t have a clear goal in mind for your program and campaigns, it’s challenging to crystallize what you’ll need to do to reach your target. It also makes it difficult for your donors to understand how they fit into the big picture. And when donors can’t see themselves as a part of a real solution, they’re less inclined to give.

For your recurring giving strategy, just like your other fundraising and marketing efforts, you should define a specific goal that will help you align your tactics and measure your progress. But before you toss out a dollar amount or donor acquisition target, go one level higher to get to the root of what you’re trying to accomplish.

I like to think of it as painting a “destination postcard” for your supporters. Except instead of palm trees and sandy beaches, we’re focusing on saving the world and social change.

Here are some questions to ask yourself (and other stakeholders in your organization):

•What do we want to accomplish through monthly giving?
•What would that mean for our programs and mission?
•What would happen as a result of achieving our goal?
Thinking about your goal in this way will make it easier for you to connect with your donors when you ask them to become monthly sustainers. (We’ll get to that soon, I promise.)

Now you can dig into what has to be true to get you to your ultimate vision. How much money will you need to raise? What is the measurable impact of that effort? Turn this into your goal statement.

Oh, and don’t forget to make it SMART. Your goal, that is.

Your goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. It may sound hokey, but SMART goals make sure everyone is clear about what you’re trying to accomplish and by when you’d like to do it. This goal will also help you craft clear calls to action and allow you to see how your efforts stack up.

Let’s try it.

Say you want to create a monthly sustainer program to fund more kennel space for elderly rescue dogs. Your ultimate goal is to ensure that no elderly dog in your district goes without a warm and safe place while waiting for adoption. The result is fewer dogs suffering on the street, and eventually more elderly dogs placed in loving forever homes. Based on the number of dogs you typically rescue in a year, you’ve calculated that you’ll need a certain amount of building space to make this happen. Obviously there’s an ongoing cost to that and you want to fund half of it through recurring giving and half through a corporate partnership with the local pet supply company.

Your smart goal might sound something like this:

We need to recruit 30 recurring donors at an average monthly donation of $20 by April 10 to fund half the annual cost of our Senior Kennel Sanctuary space.

This is a goal you can easily measure and you can create a plan to achieve this goal with an organized marketing plan and a proposed donor pyramid that will show you how many donors at each level you’ll need to meet your target.

To do: What’s your big vision? Have you translated it into a SMART goal? Take some time to do this today, and I promise it will make the rest of your planning that much easier.

How to outline your monthly giving program framework

Now that you have your destination postcard and SMART goal in your mind’s eye, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of creating your monthly giving program. There are a few key things that you’ll need to decide before you move forward with your campaign to recruit more recurring donors.

What’s the hook?

Before we get to appeal writing (and we have an entire lesson dedicated just to that), take some time to draft a few short statements about what your monthly donors can be a part of. Will these sustaining gifts be applied to a particular program or purpose? What is the specific and tangible result of a monthly donor’s generosity? Think back to that goal we worked on above. Also, consider the monthly impact of each donation as well as a cumulative impact of a donor over one year.

Your job is not just to convince a donor to give, but you need to convince them why it’s important that they set up a monthly gift. Your case for monthly giving may have a lot of similarities to your organization’s other fundraising appeals, but there is a subtle, yet important, difference.

What do I ask for?

This can be a stumbling block for many organizations. It’s tempting to just copy the same numbers you see other organizations using. While they may not be far off from the amounts you’ll want to showcase, you need to understand the right range for your donors.

Here’s how: Start with your average online gift amount, then take 15%-20% of that number for your baseline. So, if your average online donation is $100, set a baseline recurring gift of $15 per month and step up from there. Your online monthly gift string might look like: $10 $15 $25 $50 $100.

Of course, you’ll want to tailor this gift string depending on your audience.

It’s important to ask for the right specific monthly giving amount when reaching out to unique segments of your audience. A standard $15 per month ask will probably work well for entry-level donors, but that same appeal is going to cost you if it’s sent to donors already giving you $500 each year.

What’s in a name?

When creating or “rebranding” a monthly giving program, much thought often goes into the name of the program. Should our monthly givers be part of a society? A circle? An echelon? A tribe? Sometimes so much thought goes into the branding of the program, in fact, that very little thought goes into the actual planning and execution of the monthly giving campaign.

When it ties back to your mission or campaign, a unique brand can help your monthly giving program stand out and lend an added air of community to this group of donors. A special logo or name can unify all your communications about the program. A carefully crafted name can also reinforce all of the wonderful results your monthly donors make possible.

That said, there are many successful sustainer programs that don’t rely on a special name or brand. If you don’t have one that works really well, don’t force it. Your program isn’t going to fail just because you don’t have a catchy name. Focus on creating a solid campaign plan and donor-centric communications and you’ll be fine.

Doesn’t everyone want a totebag?

Totebags are useful things for lugging groceries home or carrying magazines to the pool, but are they a must for sustainers? Thank-you gifts and other premiums are popular in many monthly giving programs, but at the end of the day they are simply extras. In some cases, these gifts can turn a donation into a transaction, which takes people out of the generous mind of giving.

Just as with your program’s name and branding, don’t overthink rewards. Consider sending gifts truly as a thank you and not tied to the fundraising ask. Whether you offer a gift as an incentive or a nice donor follow up, they’ll be much more effective if they have a clear tie to your cause and the donor’s impact. [For more on this topic, read “When donor gifts work-and when they don’t” on The Nonprofit Marketing Blog.]

If you’re still on the fence about gifts, try a A/B test to sort it out. Send one group an appeal that includes a thank-you gift offer and one that leaves it out. Track your response rates and revenue, as well as retention over time. What works for other programs may not work for yours.

Do I have to thank my monthly donors?


OK, I know that there are some who would caution against reaching out to recurring donors. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” they might say. But for the rest of us who want happy, engaged, and loyal donors (instead of sleeping dogs), a liberal dose of good old-fashioned #donorlove is in order. We’ll take a deep dive into writing thank you letters and stewardship plans later on in this series, but for now, plan to dedicate resources to building strong relationships with your monthly donors.

Tip: Need help understanding what makes the most compelling case for giving? We have a guide devoted to that very topic.

Who are your monthly donors?

Wacky idea alert: To understand how to attract new monthly donors, talk to your current monthly donors.

I know this sounds pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how many organizations don’t take this simple step to learn more about their donor base.

I’m sure you don’t fall into this category, but perhaps you know someone who does. A friend of a friend, let’s say. Here’s some advice you can share:

If you already have a group of steady monthly donors, they hold a ton of insight on what works and what doesn’t. Take a look at their giving patterns to unearth a few clues. Better yet, call a few of them up right now to thank them for their sustaining gifts and let them know how important they are. If they don’t fall over in shock at hearing from a charity they support, ask them to share with you a little bit about why they support your cause.

Go ahead. I’ll wait right here.

The information you glean will help you in three ways:

  1. You’ll learn the traits your sustainers have in common.
  2. You’ll understand what compels them to give.
  3. You’ll discover how to combine 1 & 2 to reach out to other potential monthly donors.

Plus, these donors will likely be willing to offer suggestions and possibly even a testimonial that will help you inspire new monthly contributors.

Want to take this a step further? Create a simple call script and get your board involved. They’ll love it, your donors will love it, and you can reap all the rewards as you build an even stronger monthly giving program.

OK, what else?

If that doesn’t give you a ton of info to keep you busy for weeks to come, there are some tried and true segments that may be more likely to become sustaining donors:

  • One-time donors who give less than $200 per year
  • Donors who give three or more times per year
  • Young supporters
  • Volunteers
  • Donors who have given in the past, but didn’t give in 2014
  • Event attendees
  • Former board members

Your organization may have alumni or program participants that might also be ideal prospects. The trick is to think about who are the supporters who have the greatest affinity for your cause and are committed to your success.

For each of these segments, you’ll need to think about how to tailor your message and your ask amount, so that you’re not inadvertently downgrading donors’ total annual contribution. If you’re just starting out, pick one or two segments to begin with and see how they perform. This will give you time to test different messages and learn what works.

Empower recruiters

Encourage key supporters of your organization to become monthly giving advocates and provide pre-packaged messages that help you extend your reach beyond just your own network. Influential donors or advisors may have the ability to reach and convert new recurring donors. You might consider setting a goal for your board to recruit a certain number of monthly donors to help you reach your program goals.

To do: Take time each week to reach out to a group of your current monthly donors to thank them for their support and to understand your best bets for new monthly donors.

Key Takeaways:

  • Set a clear and specific goal just for your monthly giving program. Tie it to your larger fundraising goals so you can prioritize your efforts and measure your progress.
  • Branding your monthly giving program can add a nice touch, but it’s not a requirement. Leading with the impact monthly donors can have is a requirement. No exceptions.
  • Make recurring giving an option for all supporters, but be sure to target your best bets with tailored messages.
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