If you've read Hidden Gold, Harvey McKinnon's oft-quoted primer on monthly giving, then you already know sustainer programs offer a number of (huge) advantages to nonprofits.
These automatic payment programs can: increase your fundraising revenues ... increase donor retention ... provide you with steadier cash flows ... decrease your fundraising costs, and strengthen relationships with donors.
And for recent, in-the-trenches advice on building a successful sustainer program in the US -- or improving an existing one -- you can't get better than Jo Sullivan.
During her ten years with the ASPCA, Sullivan helped grow that animal welfare organization's ranks of monthly donors from 8,000 in 1999 to an eye-popping 140,000 in 2009. (She's since joined CDR Fundraising Group as Managing Director.)
Below, Jo shares detailed insights on sustainer programs you won't find anywhere else.
Thank you, Jo, so very much! Take it away...
Interview with Monthly Giving Expert Jo Sullivan
1. In the UK, monthly giving programs are a well established element of the nonprofit “donor development portfolio.” But here in the U.S. monthly giving programs seem sorely underutilized.
Why is that, do you think? And what three chief advantages would you give to a nonprofit weighing the pros and cons of starting a monthly giving program?
Monthly giving seems to have taken root in Europe and UK primarily due to the difference in banking systems. Very few – if any – Europeans write traditional “checks”. Having power, rent and other living expenses directly debited from a checking account has become the norm so it is not a stretch for a donation to take on that format as well. People are very comfortable with the concept of a charity of their choice reaching directly into a bank account for an approved gift. American giving did not evolve in that way. But – I will also say that the average gift for UK and European monthly programs can be 2 or 3 Euros a month – while monthly programs in the US have found ranges from $5 to $25 average monthly gifts.
A charity considering entering into the monthly/sustainer giving arena should consider the level of investment they are willing and able to make. Programs like this can’t just happen or you will not be prepared to cultivate these valuable donors once they say yes to giving monthly. There will be an investment of time and resources in building a “back end” program which is prepared to capture credit card, EFT gifts monthly, report on successful and denied charges, marketing follow-up (i.e. – a special newsletter etc…) and extra donor stewardship. Building from scratch does take careful planning and thought – but once that ground work is laid – your organization will be able to develop a giving channel which yields high net income, is predictable and therefore beneficial to program budget planning and also yields a warm prospect group for deferred and major gifts.
2. If you haven’t answered this in Q1, how does a monthly giving program impact donor retention?
In many organizations – it’s shown that a donor who gives monthly by credit card or EFT will stay active up to 4 years on the donor file. That doesn’t mean the first few months of the relationship aren’t especially important – that’s when most donors cancel – but If you have an infrastructure to ensure you keep them active during that time – you’re LTV can be very high for this group.
3. In the introduction I mentioned the amazing success of the ASPCA’s DRTV campaigns. When the first one aired I was writing for Best Friends Animal Society. I remember one member of our fundraising creative trio uttering just one word: “Genius.” Clearly, the ads worked. But many smaller and mid sized organizations don’t have the budget for DRTV.
So is it still worthwhile for these organizations to launch a monthly giving campaign, and how would you suggest they begin – via direct mail, online, or other?
OK – first of all – thank you for the compliment. It means the world to me because it really was my baby and I believed in it for so long before I was able to get the program on air. IT was a couple of year campaign internally which has resulted in something iconic and something I am so proud of and always will be.
But second – a resounding YES! You absolutely can have monthly giving without DRTV. In fact – I spent 4 years at the ASPCA laying the ground work to get to TV. Any group who starts with TV and wants to work backward won’t succeed. This goes back to the infrastructure I mentioned. You need to have that completely solid, know these donors, feel you’ve maximized your investment in mail, online and telemarketing before you should consider channels like DRTV or even face to face. This group will be the voice of your mission, the center of your giving program so the channel only matters in relation to how much you can invest. If you are limited to online and mail – then own it! Be the best mail monthly giving program you can. Study lists and segments of your file to see which yield higher response to the monthly ask. Develop strategies to use your magazine, acknowledgements and other channels to always reinforce the importance of monthly giving to YOUR cause. It may not build as fast as the TV rocket has done in the past – BUT it is how all successful programs started and more than not have a rich, loyal and passionate group of monthly donors without ever having been on television with their ask!
4. Time and again, nonprofit statistics show that animal welfare pulls better response rates than most other segments of the industry. But many of my readers raise funds for higher education, museums & libraries and healthcare/hospitals.
During your time with CDR, have you seen monthly giving programs that work for these types of organizations – and are they any key differences to be aware of?
I would argue that our collective fundraising “memory” is short. I’ve heard that as well – and in the past 6 years – I agree it’s true. But the pioneers and early success in monthly giving came with child sponsor organizations as well as religious groups around the world. Who can forget the powerful “for the cost of a cup of coffee you too can help a child?” I do agree it can sometimes be challenging for higher education and maybe museum on an emotional ask but I am sure some savvy person has made it work somewhere. I look at the best of the best out there and still would hold St. Jude as one of those icons. Any charity which can demonstrate an immediate, urgent and ongoing need for support can build a monthly program! You just have to find the right voice and channel to start asking.
5. What is the minimum list size and staff requirement that these organizations would need?
Honestly – If you partner with one of the firms who does giving processing for monthly (3Creative, EFT, PSI or others) and have a database that can track – you can do a monthly program with very little internal staff. The most important is customer service. These folks will track like any other segment (albeit more frequent looks at their behavior to ensure you’re not losing them for some reason) but being a more intimate part of your family – they will want and deserve access to ask questions, change giving amounts or just check in to make sure you’re fulfilling your mission with their dedicated gift.
6. Which donors on the house file do you recommend approaching (e.g., $50 and up, all first-time donors etc.)?
Different strategies work differently for different groups. (Wow – what a mouth full). But all things being equal and if you’ve never mailed them before asking for monthly giving – look for your most loyal group. Multi donors who give 3+ times a year and have been active 3+ years. If you have enough in that segment – do a head to head with a single ask to ensure you’re investing correctly. Once you get some key learning’s – you can branch out and look for lapsed segments who may respond or in acquisition – lists which yield multi donors once someone comes on the file.
As your program grows – yes – it’s important to add the “new to file” invite – but phone if at all possible and testing ten ways to Sunday online until you find the most responsive method.
There really is no wrong if you understand you need to find loyal donors to convert as low hanging fruit and branch out from there. Just track your testing and keep pushing yourself to new segments and new list tests!
7. What have you found to be the best timeline for converting donors to monthly givers? (i.e., how soon after the first gift do you make the appeal, and if no response, when to make the appeal again)
Again – there is no easy answer – but most people find a “thank you” call welcoming people to the charity which has a monthly ask works really well. For those people you can’t reach by phone – mail them around their thank you for their first gift. Then – maybe annually for a couple of years (don’t forget – every acknowledgment, mentions in member magazine, website placement etc…) the message will have sunk in and you’ll get a “yes”!
8. As a copywriter, one of the biggest problems I see in the industry is the quality and consistency of post appeal donor communications: donors commit, and then they’re sort of left stranded on the “communications sidelines” until it’s time for an upgrade.
Nonprofits are especially unsure when it comes to monthly givers: should they be taken out of the appeals stream... how often should they receive statements...and so forth.
What’s your experience been with this, and would you share a sample follow-up communications stream that keeps monthly donors in the loop?
Leaving these donors alone is the biggest mistake charities make. These people have committed to you and to your cause. They want and expect to be a part of something bigger than an annual mailing. In terms of putting them in other appeals – I say test and test. If you have “heritage mailings” like calendars, cards and the like – send those along since they reinforce the brand but that’s really up to the charity and can be tested. There will be a point you see that you are pushing too hard and the segments don’t work as well in appeals or you will see cancelling of their giving – so just be judicious and keep track of what you are doing. 3 to 4 additional appeals seem to be the limit most monthly files will absorb.
The marketing track for your monthly donor – outside of other appeals – needs to be an important step in planning before you launch. I happen to be a fan of quarterly newsletters specifically to this group. This does NOT have to be complicated or a big production. Do a single fold, few articles and some insider information to keep them engaged. A note from your CEO, their quarterly giving summary as well as an opportunity to change, update personal information and a testimony from another monthly donor to reinforce they are part of a team helping give in this special way. It’s amazing what something that simple can do to a group of donors who are willing to go above and beyond for you. If your organization can manage it – I’d also suggest a phone number specific to this giving group to ensure faster and more responsive customer service response and one more way to make them feel special.
9. Once donors convert to monthly givers, does this mean all hope of upgrading them is lost? Can you give me a quick example of how an upgrade might happen?
Upgrading monthly donors happens almost instantly. Let’s say the segment you target for the invite has donors who have given 2 gifts of $20 in the past 12 months - or even 3 gifts – and you invite them to become a $20 a month donor. Immediately – you’ve taken a $40 or $60 annual donor and made them a $240 annual donor. Even at $10 monthly – you’ve got a $120 annual donor. In addition – you’ve got plenty of time to upgrade their annual gift as well as cultivate them for a deferred gift. The point is – the loyalty this group displays and proves through their giving is extremely valuable and it’s up to the charity to cultivate and maximize that over the life of the donor on your file.
10. How important a role does creative play in monthly giving appeals, and what are the three top mistakes to avoid?
Creative is extremely important. The monthly ask is a complicated one – and concepts of EFT and voided check are challenging enough to explain without all the normal case for giving information.
Avoid too many numbers. Ask for what you want – two monthly asks and a onetime option – without giving the breakdown by day, week or other. People will understand if you paint urgent need and how their gift can make a difference and then just tell them what you want….$15 or $20 a month – or whatever makes sense based on your file behavior.
Visual is better. That image of a child in need, animal suffering or other speaks volumes. It’s ok to show need – we wouldn’t be in the business of fixing that need if it weren’t there.
11. Should monthly givers receive a special welcome kit, and if so, what elements do you recommend that it contain?
Welcome kits are GREAT tools in monthly giving. I feel you can be as simple or complicated as your budget allows. In some cases – a letter acknowledging the giving club name: “ASPCA Guardians” or the like is enough. If you haven’t promised a premium in your original asks – I’d not include one in the welcome kit. If you’re set up to do member cards on a regular basis – utilize the new monthly giver welcome pack as a segment. The most important thing isn’t what you send – but how fast you send it. Welcome them and make sure they know you’re glad they are on your side quickly and you’ll see retention rates respond in kind.
12. Three rapid-fire questions:
a. Tax statements – monthly, quarterly, or annually?
Jo's Answer: Annually but quarterly giving statements to ensure they know you know they are around!
b. Pay via credit card, EFTs, or checks – which is best?
Jo's Answer: EFT is the gold standard, Credit Card silver and checks….well…
c. You represent an agency, I’m a freelancer. So... agency, freelancer or in-house?
Jo's Answer: Both, neither, either. Depends on your skill set, time and desired growth pace. Important thing is to make sure you’re not reinventing the wheel. People know how to do this – if you want your organization to start it….find somebody who can show you pit falls and opportunities.
13. Gift strings – how to choose the amount?
Jo's Answer: Oh – never easy. Look at your overall average gift and make some best guess assumptions. You’ll shoot for a little lower in the mail – right in the middle online and TV and face to face will have their own different basics. Reality is – test. Pick a couple of different ask strings your first time out and then adjust as results come back!
14. Can you recommend any resources – books, online, etc. – where my readers can learn more?
Jo's Answer: I love SOFII as an online resource for package options and results. It has a great cross section of monthly and one time programs and great learning!
15. Is there anything else that you wish I would ask that you want to share with my readers today?
Jo's Answer: Not that I can think of – but I will leave one parting word. I am passionate about monthly giving and think it is a way to build sustainable, predictable income which can take a charity to the next level. Take the time and build it right and you’ll be changing the fate of the organization you are committed to seeing succeed!
Note: Jo Sullivan is presently a Managing Director with Maryland-based CDR Fundraising Group, a firm that advises on monthly start-ups. (Sister firm MindSet Direct has a specialty in that area.) She will be happy to field your general questions about consulting with CDR when you contact her via email at: jsullivan(at)cdrfg(dot)com.
© Lisa Sargent and Sargent Communications.