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The average retention rate of a nonprofit donor is 27%. And it’s increasingly expensive to find and convert a new donor. That means a ridiculous amount of nonprofit execs’ and fundraisers time is actually just spent replacing donors who ditched them—often, as the stat indicates, replacing 3/4 of the donor base every year! Yikes.

By contrast, the retention rates in well-operated monthly giving programs are often around 90%. And the amount a monthly donor gives is usually much higher (it’s easier to get most people to give $25 at a time than $100, but $25 x 12 months = $300!).

Well operated, though, is the key. Asking people to agree to write a monthly check isn’t enough. Monthly giving requires some extra effort to set up and run properly—but it’s well worth the effort.

A monthly donor program should:

(1) Be branded.

Give your program a name, an identity. You’re not just asking people to give you money once a month. You’re attracting them with a brand-within-a-brand. You want something that people are regularly reminded of in their daily life (because its name or feel is linked to common memory triggers), something with emotional resonance, something with a clear story of which people can be a part. There are different schools of thought on this and it depends on what your organization does, but often, connecting the brand to a specific need is helpful.

Compassion has done this for a long time with their Sponsor a Child program. Everybody knows what it is, it’s connected to a specific child, and it’s easy to buy into and tell people about.

(2) Be exclusive

What are you really asking people to join? People are tribal by nature; the us-vs.-them mentality is strong in the human psyche. There’s a reason people spend obscene amounts of money on football games, and get irrationally worked up when confronted with the latest outrage perpetrated by a member of the opposing political party. So a monthly donor program that makes people feel like part of the elite club provides a strong draw, and a strong sense of loyalty once inside (which in turn increases retention rates still further). Part of this is accomplished in the branding process. But you also have to think about perks (see below), how to tap into the emotions that made the member donate in the first place, and ways to make membership a membership, not just a bill.

ISI makes getting a foot in the door really easy—it’s free!—but you immediately see the benefits of ramping up to paid levels of membership. Most exclusive of all, though, is their actual ISI Honors Fellow program for college students—loads of perks, application only, and long-term value.

(3) Be public

Social currency is a big deal. If your club is worth joining, it’s worth other people knowing somebody has joined. If you find ways to publicize membership, you increase the club’s visibility and the outside sense that, golly, all the cool people are doing this. You can do this by featuring members on your website and social, by having members-only events that are publicized on social media (so non-members can see their friends are going), or even with old-fashioned stuff like free t-shirts. But there’s another aspect to making it public, and that’s empowering your members to publicize it themselves; making membership and its benefits worth sharing, and making them social.

My local symphony has done such a good job building its season subscription program that probably 70-80% of the people in the seats for a concert appear to be season ticketholders (I know, because once in a while they make it public and ask all the season ticketholders to stand up). I personally have recruited half a dozen people to join me next season, and I routinely emote on Facebook about how good last night’s concert was.

(4) Have perks

Being a member has to have practical value. You’re not just asking people to give you something (their money); you also need to give them something. What members-only events are you planning (they’d better be really cool)? One-time access to exciting people (like a celebrity) can not only make members feel valued and part of the club; it can also be a great foundation for a campaign to drive new memberships. Happy hours and other social events can be good ways to connect members with each other (increasing the public/social value). Sending occasional gifts and handwritten notes makes people feel valued (even if the gift is just a token). Members-only content is a must; you can’t just send them the regular ol’ newsletter; remember, they have to feel like they’ve got the inside scoop. More personal, more intimate, more detailed content goes a long way. It’s also very helpful to have a members-only section of your site, so that when a member visits your site (say, to read your latest blog post), he gets personalized, exclusive content access, in addition to the ability to manage his membership (this also allows you to put in cool stuff on his account page, like a progress bar that nudges him to up his monthly donation, or a “latest news” link that encourages him to tweet it for you on the spot.

Another thing to think about: one of the perks might be ways to get more involved in your organization. Volunteer opportunities, chances to introduce a friend to the organization, etc. If you’re doing this wrong, it’ll feel like you’re bothering them and asking for more stuff. If you’re doing it right, the opportunity to take ownership of something feels almost like being offered a job at your dream organization.

I’m currently helping one of my clients (a national organization) build a monthly giving program, and it’s going to be linked to a lot of location-specific perks, most of which benefit both the donor and the organization. They’re creating hub communities in major cities, so that when you get involved financially with the organization, it translates to real improvements in your lifestyle.

(5) Be personal

If somebody is going to bother being part of the “in” club, they’d better know that gives them a personal, relational “in” with the organization. You can provide great events, content, etc. but if they’re still on the outside of the inner circle, if they still feel they can’t affect the organization, there will still be points when they feel like outsiders—and that’s not how you want a member of your exclusive club to feel! This means exclusive communications for your members should be personalized (coming from a specific email address, not your organization’s info@ address), and your members should at the very least have a personal contact with a lower-ranking staff member who has the title of the director of the club (even if that’s not the staff member’s main responsibility). Who that person is should remain consistent for each member; you can divvy up the workload if you want to but I should know Joey is always there on the other end, and if Joey gets a new job, a personal introduction to his replacement is in order. Listening is also a part of this—every member should get a regular (even if it’s only twice a year) call from his contact to talk about the member’s life, how things are going, what the member thinks about the organization, giving the member the inside scoop, etc. (this is another good opportunity to introduce members to each other; “Hey, that reminds me, do you know so-and-so? He’s interested in this too!”).

(6) Be automatic

Membership should not be work for the member. And you absolutely don’t want the member to have to manually make that payment every month—he might forget! An automated system connected to your CRM is a must; members should be able to set up an automatic credit card payment or EFT (electronic funds transfer from a bank account), and the process of nudging them to update an expired credit card should be automatic as well. It’s worth the investment.

To talk to me about building a monthly giving program for your organization, contact me!