Help! Our donors are ghosting us! [MacGyver Fundraising]

MacGyver Fundraising: A series about getting it done in the real world

MacGyver was an US action TV show in the 80s (with a more recent reboot) featuring a brilliant professional problem-solver who could get himself out of any jam with whatever random materials were at hand. He always solved the most difficult situations. Fundraisers are a lot like MacGyver.

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One of the things I really love about the work I do is how often I get a front-row seat when organizations transform their fundraising.

It typically goes like this: They’ve been doing fundraising a certain way, often for a long time. It’s not getting them where they need their organization to be, so they ask for advice.

The advice is usually pretty easy: A mix of useful tactics and strategies, and often a new approach to how you think about fundraising and donors.

They do it, and revenue skyrockets. Yay!

But it doesn’t always go that way.

Sometimes they make the changes and revenue doesn’t increase much. Sometimes they’re already doing things well and revenue is a fraction of what other organizations report getting.

The difference: their donors. Those who struggle often have donor lists dominated by donors who are very unlikely to ever give again. They tend to be donors of these types:

  • Memorial or tribute donors.
  • Donors who sponsored someone for a walk or run.
  • Donors who gave at an event.
  • Donors who came via a “viral” event.
  • Donors who gave because there was an emergency.

These donors are much less likely to ever give again than other donor groups.

Think of them as “arm’s length” donors: They’ve been motivated to give to your organization indirectly. They aren’t very interested in your cause.

Cause motivated donors have a second-gift rate of about 19% industry-wide — though with smart fundraising you can get that up to 30% and above. Arm’s length donors generally have a second-gift rate of 10% or lower.

There are things you can do to improve the retention of arm’s length donors, but not by much. (Probably the best thing is to find ways to get them to become monthly donors. It’s not easy, but the payoff is good.)

If you have a file made up of large numbers of arm’s length donors, look for ways to get more cause donors. Maybe move some of your spending away from events to direct response channels.

Otherwise, fundraising will be a struggle — likely unsustainable — no matter how good a job you do.

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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