‘A relationship problem?’

Charitable donors are tired of being treated as faceless statistics, say experts, and forming a relationship with them bodes better for long-haul support.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 3, 2005

"Use your interaction with individuals online to learn what’s important to them."

—Vinay Bhagat

Charitable donors are tired of being treated as faceless statistics, say experts, and forming a relationship with them bodes better for long-haul support.

“Why do so many organizations lose so many of their constituents from one year to the next?” pondered Vinay Bhagat, a consultant and author who frequently speaks about online fundraising. "The first thing I ask fundraisers: do you have a relationship problem with your constituents?"

Bhagat and others spoke before their colleagues at the International Conference on Fundrasising, offered this year in Baltimore by the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Charitable organizations - from the national behemoths to the tiniest groups - need to start thinking about donor renewal and retention. “Do you have a sense of how loyal your advocates are?” asked Bhagat.

Don’t relate to your donors exclusively through financial appeals, cautioned Bhagat. “There is not a lot of relationship-building that occurs within an appeal,” he explained. “Maybe the first communication is not an ask.”

If charities study what Bhagat calls “constituent relationship management,” they will learn more about their audience - and in the long run garner more support for their cause.

The concept of “one-on-one” marketing has come into its own, with the Internet as its primary tool, he added. “Use your interaction with individuals online to learn what’s important to them. You may be warming up a major donor.”

About one percent of visitors to a typical Web site become donors. But charities can increase that percentage by offering donors personalized messages, said Bhagat, and they like a feeling of building a sense of community online, similar to a social network, or peer-to-peer community building.

But before an online community is built, how do you get donors to register on your site in the first place? “Make it easy for people to sign up,” said Bhagat. “Use incentives.”

An incentive example: the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) offers a free rescue alert sticker to post near your front door that tells emergency responders or neighbors that there are pets inside your home.

The ASPCA - which currently has half a million people on its online registry - also adopted language that builds a sense of community among its donors, referring to “pet parents” rather than pet owners. ASPCA marketers also created a “cat newsletter” and a “dog newsletter” based on its donors’ preferences.

After introducing donors to your Web site, one way to build a sense of community is by asking donors to “tell a friend” about an advocacy issue. Mothers Against Drunk Driving had a recent petition-signing campaign. Web site visitors who signed an online petition received an e-mail that asked them to simply tell a friend about what they’d done. The results? “Ten thousand people signed up in two weeks,” said Bhagat.

One basic approach that’s not often used is simply asking your donors how they’d like to be in touch with you, said Bhagat. “The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews asks people how they’d like to be communicated with. They give a choice of daily updates, news about travel among the organization’s leadership, or weekly updates.”

In its online newsletter, The Nature Conservancy sends mainly news about a national agenda - but for each donor there is small personalized section based on home state. “While people care about the national agenda, they also care about their local environment. You should automatically personalize your online newsletters based on your donors’ attributes. One or two variables make e-mail a little more relevant.”

Make your Web site interactive, suggested Bhagat, by occasionally allowing your constituents to publish content. “Have a central administrator approve stories before they’re published,” said Bhagat. Donors find their own success stories - and success stories by their peers - very engaging. “Focus on storytelling,” he said.

Donors are also attracted to “micro-campaigns,” he said, a practice that disaster response groups regularly use. “But a micro-campaign doesn’t have to be around a disastrous event,” said Bhagat. Temporarily developing a mini Web site centered on a single holiday benefit event, for example, can give longtime donors something different to view - and attract new followers, too.

“Put a little success rate thermometer on the site and it makes fundraising really tangible to people,” he added.

After the event, don’t abandon your micro-campaign too soon, said Kimberly Majewski, director of communications for the Chicago-based Mercy Home for Boys and Girls. When Majewski and her colleagues held a benefit event, they offered access to a photo album of the event in the micro-campaign Web site. Site visitors submitted their e-mail addresses and then were sent a password to the online photo album. “We had several hundred responses to this,” said Majewski - and Mercy House captured e-mail addresses for every interested person.

Finally, one more simple way to hold a donor’s attention for longer: put video clips on your Web site, suggested Bhagat. “Inserting video yields a 2-3 times higher conversion rate of site visitors who then actually make a gift.”

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