Retention–Use With Caution (#WordsThatWow)

#WordsThatWow, retention rate, fundraising[This is part of our #WordsThatWow series. We covered which words to avoid, and have been looking at which ones to use with caution, including inspireimpact, and advocate. In this post, we look at another word to use cautiously–retention.]

Retention has been on my radar as a word I worry about ever since talking to Super Smartie Peter Drury a few years ago about his ‘Beyond Cash Fundraising Dashboard‘ (a FREE tool that you can and should download).

Then recently, the ever-wise and insightful Tom Ahern (who has a FREE newsletter that you should absolutely subscribe to if you don’t already) asked if we should be focused on retaining or renewing. Good question, Tom!

In the nonprofit world, we often couple the word ‘retention’ with ‘rate’ to get the all-important ‘retention rate’. A higher rate means more donors are giving a second, third, fourth gift to your organization.  This is a good thing. We want more donors giving year after year. The concept isn’t the issue.

The issue is the word ‘retention’ and what it means for the donor experience. When you give to a charity, do you sit back and say to yourself, “Dang, I really hope they retain me.”? Of course you don’t. Retain  means to “keep in one’s possession” or “to be able to hold or contain”. Like a plant retains water. Could be totally wrong on this one, but going to go out on a limb and say most donors don’t want to be thought of like house plants.

Tom Ahern’s suggestion, which is thanks to Penny Harris at Renewable Philanthropy, is to focus on renewal instead of retention. Why? Because renewal “puts the focus on the donor’s desire to continue finding meaning through your mission”. That sounds way better than being possessed or contained, now doesn’t it?

As with all the words in the ‘Use with Caution’ category, I’m not saying never, ever use retention again. I’m simply suggesting that you pay attention to when you use it, what it means and, importantly, how the word might translate into a sub-par, donor-as-house-plant experience for your dear donors.

Say it with me: “Friends don’t let friends treat donors like house plants.”




Engaging in diffusion, differentiation and dissonance

This Wednesday, I had the pleasure of being in the room with some of Seattle’s leading thinkers on all things nonprofit, philanthropic and do-good-y. How’d I get so lucky? Well, late last year, me and my colleagues Peter Drury and Zan McColloch-Lussier kicked off something called The Lab. We decided it was high-time that super-smart do-gooders had an opportunity to think deep thoughts that would lead to great action.

The first time we met, we talked about listening. This week, we talked about engagement. We picked this topic because listening leads logically to engagement and yet the word engagement seems to mean a whole lotta things to a whole lotta people. Given its meteoric rise to ubiquity, we decided it was important to come to a shared understanding of this popular word (lest it end up on the Banished Words List!).

There were more good points and astute observations than you could waggle a mission statement at during our two hours together–these were my three favs:

  1. Diffusion: Technology makes it easier to engage. This is great in many ways; it also means individuals are bombarded with engagement opportunities. So, although it is technically easier to engage, it is more difficult to get people to engage because their attention is drawn in so many directions. Don’t let ease of access trick you into believing engagement is easy.
  2. Differentiation: Arcs, spectrums, ladders, pyramids. Whatever you call it, organizations benefit from thinking about how to differentiate their engagement opportunities by audience and then getting clear on how engagement leads to more engagement for each group. Be explicit. Be specific. Then you know where you want which folks to go and they know where they’re going. Happy, happy.
  3. Dissonance: We agreed that engagement is a two-way street, that both parties derive mutual benefit from engaging and have skin in the game. Engagement is active. All well and good. And yet organizations and individuals usually seek different benefits from the engagement. Or at least that would seem the case. Unless, of course, you can stay focused on the benefit you both care about: advancing mission. It was fascinating to see how this end-user vs. organizational-initiator dynamic played out in the conversation. Rigorous focus on mission mitigates dissonance.

To get more highlights and tidbits from the convo, check out #nplab on Twitter. Also, check out Zan’s great summary here. And last, but certainly not least, see what Beth Kanter (yep, THE Beth Kanter!) had to say about engagement when we interviewed her at Tech for Good, where she delivered a totally amazing training.

How do you like to engage and be engaged? How does your organization engage? What does ‘engagement’ mean to you?

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?