10 Strategies to Earn and Keep Nonprofit Donor Trust

Claire Axelrad

Donor retention guru, Professor Adrian Sargeant, has spent 20+ years researching the relationship between trust, philanthropy and continued donor commitment. And he has found, unequivocally, that donor trust is the essential foundation of the philanthropic relationship.

Ignore this at your peril.

Trust defines the credibility and legitimacy not only of your organization, but of the entire social benefit sector. Yet too few organizations make the effort to operationalize this construct into their fundraising and marketing planning.

You should.

Without donor trust and confidence in philanthropy there’s no future for social benefit organizations.

Deliver on Your Promises

Give donors what they bargained for.

You make a promise to them, as a nonprofit brand, to effectively enact the values they care about. Once they fulfill their end of the bargain with their philanthropic support, you have a duty to fulfill your end of this brand promise with a value-for-value exchange.

Usually this value is intangible, i.e., a feeling of “goodness.” You sustain philanthropy by thinking, long and hard, about what you can do to satisfy donors and make them feel good. Transparency. Honesty. Ownership. Integrity. Graciousness. Gratitude. Give these to your donors.

All philanthropy is based on delivering value.

Actively Build Donor Trust

The Donor’s Bill of Rights is a great starting point. But simply using it as a checklist is not enough. Too transactional. I encourage you to go above and beyond. Because the best predictor of future giving is when people feel good.

You can make giving to you a transformational experience. How? By actualizing what you learn here into a series of multi-step plans for:

  • Gift Acknowledgement that Satisfies Donors
  • Donor-Centered Communications that Instill Happiness
  • Useful Content Marketing that Offers Gifts
  • Consistent Branding that Instills Confidence
  • Relationship Fundraising that Creates Meaning and Builds Loyalty

If you take these actions, I can guarantee you’ll steadily build trust and make donors happy.

10 Strategies to Earn Donor Trust and Confidence

Gift Acknowledgement that Satisfies Donors

1. Thank promptly, personally and purposefully

When a donor makes a first gift, they must be reassured their money didn’t go into a black hole. Now; not three weeks from now. People are wired for instant gratification. And as true as that ever was, it’s even more so today in today’s digitally revolutionized landscape. If you make folks wait too long, they’re likely to think unkind thoughts. About your gratitude. Your manners. Your efficiency. Your trustworthiness. This will not be beneficial to you.

Be as personal as you can. Pay attention to what the donor tells you (“I’d like my gift to be anonymous”) and shows you (If they scratched off their spouse’s name on the remit card or envelope, you don’t want to address the thank you letter to both of them). Notice the fact they increased their gift, or made an additional one. Reflect these things back to them.

Offer reassurance the gift will be used for the purpose they intended. Align the thank you with the appeal’s stated purpose; no generic receipts thanking them for “money.” Satisfy the donor you’ll be a good steward of their gifted resources. Satisfaction is a huge builder of trust; it sets you up for building a lasting relationship.

Donor-Centered Communications that Instill Happiness

2. Report on impact

Demonstrate specifically how your donor’s philanthropy was used. Not just once, but multiple times in order to reinforce for the donor that s/he made a good decision. Consistency in satisfying supporters is critical to sustaining support. Use your initial thank you letter. Use your blog or e-news. Place stories on your website. Send photos and videos on social media. Seeing is believing.

3. Be honest and transparent

Make financials readily available. Explain what the numbers mean, especially your “overhead” since donors have become disposed to think of this as evil. Clarify your goals and objectives. Respond truthfully to donor comments, inquiries and complaints. Admit mistakes, and let folks know what you learned and how you’ll do things differently moving forward. Check out this detailed blog post from Invisible Children for an example of how this can be done.

4. Provide outstanding donor service

Delight your donors whenever you can. If you want gifts you must give them. Create positive “wow” moments to surprise your supporters. This relates to the top reason customers become repeat customers — the social construct of reciprocity. The act of surprise reciprocity is even better. Psychologist Norbert Schwarz found in a 1987 study that it doesn’t take much to start the process of reciprocity; even the smallest of favors allow goodwill to be bought with customers, increasing loyalty and retention. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, found that study subjects were prone to rate others as much more likable when they had simply bought them a can of soda.

Thank supporters more than once, and more than one way. Send little greetings. Make thank you phone calls. Offer little token gifts of appreciation. Acknowledge folks publicly; praise grows in a group setting. Don’t just do the traditional donor honor roll listings. Connect with donors on social media; fan them, follow them and favorite them. Get creative.

Make someone on your staff responsible for donor service. Make it their explicit goal to build trust. Trust is your new marketing asset. It comes from showing you care about folks for who they are (people who share your values), and not just for their money.

5. Don’t just report; communicate

If you want folks to pay attention to what you have to say, begin by paying attention to what they have to say. Research shows the primary reasons why donors sever ties with nonprofits are closely connected to failed communication strategies. Create an ongoing dialogue. Survey more, ask for feedback more (on social media, remit devices, newsletters, etc.) and really listen.

When your donor takes any asked-for action, acknowledge their contribution. There’s little point in being active on social media – asking supporters to retweet your posts, put things up on their Facebook page, pin things to their Pinterest board, and so forth – unless you’re going to respond in kind. Socially. Thank them for what they did. Respond to their comment. Follow up with a report on the outcome of your survey, quiz or contest.

Useful Content Marketing that Offers Gifts

6. Serve up donor-centered content

Make it about them. When folks report they’re being overloaded with information, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they want to hear from you less. What they want is less irrelevant junk. Stuff about you. To succeed today you must do more helping, less selling. Always ask: “What might be in this for the donor?”

Help donors see themselves as actors in a story that reflects their very best self. How they’d like to view themselves. As the hero, rescuer and savior. Donors want to make an impact; they’re not focused on money. If all you do is talk about your fundraising goals and how much things cost, you’re going to miss the point of fundraising entirely.

7. Stand for something

Another word for fundraising is “matchmaking.” Matchmakers help people find their soul mates. They strive to connect folks based on shared values. So take a page from Seth Godin’s book and serve up value-laden content that matches donor values (which, again, requires that you spend time communicating and listening – see #5, above). Marketing today must resonate with what your constituents believe.

Loyalty is built on shared values. One study found that of customers who expressed a strong relationship with a particular brand, 64% said it was because of the values they ascribed to that company – which they shared. Figure out what your organization stands for; then express it!

Consistent Branding that Instills Confidence

8. Make an enemy

Distinguish yourself from the bad players in the sector. Show you are as repulsed by those behaviors as are your donors. Research from social psychologist Henri Tajfel shows how human beings unite in loyalty to their “in group.” Of course, this requires that there be an “out group.” Hence, as an example, Mac vs. PC ads. Verizon vs. Sprint. Hertz vs. Avis. Nonprofit folk tend not to like to label others as “enemies,” so think of this as a branding exercise in creating a “unique selling proposition” – which is as much about spelling out who you’re not as who you are. You are different from your competition.

Relationship Fundraising that Creates Meaning and Builds Loyalty

9. Develop personal connections

Where people have a personal connection to charities, trust and confidence rises. This is born out by a recent U.K. study as well as by research by Adrian Sargeant and Elaine Jay in “Building Donor Loyalty: The Fundraiser’s Guide to Increasing Lifetime Value,” Ken Burnett in “Relationship Fundraising: A Donor Based Approach to the Business of Raising Money,” Roger Craver in “Retention Fundraising: The New Art and Science of Keeping Your Donors for Life” and, most recently, the Rogare Relationship Fundraising Review on drivers of donor loyalty.

It’s also common sense that if I have a personal relationship to your charity I’m more likely to stick with you through thick and thin. So pay attention to folks where these relationships already exist (e.g., staff, donors, former donors, clients, members, buyers, alumni, parents, patients, volunteers and family and friends of all of these folks). And make these connections where they don’t yet exist (e.g., invite people to participate in free events, tours, volunteer activities, advocacy initiatives, etc.).

Everyone in the organization must take responsibility for building personal connections. Ian MacQuillan recently called this “total relationship fundraising.” Others call it developing a “culture of philanthropy.” Whatever you call it, the truth is that donors know only one organization. Anything that anyone associated with you does reflects on you, positively or negatively. Another truth is that the more connections/contacts a donor has with your organization, the less likely you will be to lose them if one of those contacts departs.

10. Do no harm

Borrow from the imperative of the medical profession: “First, do no harm.” Before doing anything, I always try to ask “What will the donor think?” It’s not always easy to get this answer right, because working on the inside (within the NPO walls) leads to insider thinking. So the question has to be asked of outsiders as well (back to the need to ask for and respond to feedback).

Another way to approach this is to ask “How might this be harmful?” What works is always evolving. Just because it worked for Charity A yesterday doesn’t mean it will work for Charity B tomorrow. So, adopting any new strategy requires a mini SWOT analysis. It may be replete with strengths and opportunities, yet the weaknesses it plays upon and threats it poses may outweigh the good. (In the U.K. last year donors became upset at copycat over-solicitation and street fundraising, and this harmed the sector as a whole by undermining donor trust).

Plan to Build Donor Trust

Success begins — and ends — with how you treat your donors in between the times when they make donations.

This may sound harsh, but if you’re not actively working towards building and sustaining your donors’ trust, you’re behaving badly.

I want you to stop it. Commit, today, to developing an integrated written plan (don’t silo this plan to a single department) to build donor trust.

Bad behavior is bad business for nonprofits.

What are you doing to assure your donors feel confident enough to invest, and continue to invest, in your mission? To learn more about cultivating donor trust, check out Claire’s website & blog, Clairification, and become an expert through the Clairification School

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