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.”




Messaging Cheat Sheet inspired by the Cygnus Donor Survey


Demographics, fundraising, donors, messaging
Young and old may all give blood. But not for the same reasons!

Penelope Burke and the team at Cygnus Applied Research recently released the Cygnus Donor Survey: Where Philanthropy is Headed in 2012.  For fundraisers in the United States and Canada, this is a gold-mine. So much useful, practical, actionable info–it’s a must-read.

Some of the most interesting nuggets had to do with how to engage donors in different age brackets. In his most recent newsletter, Tom Ahern also addressed this issue. He reminded us that “To write persuasive copy, you need to see the person you’re writing to…in your head.” Tough to conjure up a mental image if you don’t factor in someone’s age.

The survey also revealed that two out of five donors could have given more last year but simply weren’t persuaded to do so.

Don’t leave money on table just because your messaging doesn’t factor in age and motivation.

Although far from comprehensive, here’s an extremely high-level “cheat sheet” for how to craft messaging to connect with three different (and admittedly very broad) age groups:

Under 35: Focus on your COMMUNITY and how they can help grow it. Make sure it’s easy to read on a mobile phone.

35-65: Focus on IMPACT. Real-life stories about what their dollars are doing with good stats to back it up. (Remember not to go right for the head, however. Heart then head. Heart then head. Repeat.)

65 on up: Focus on NEED. They’ve given enough to know the drill and they want to cut to the chase–what does your organization need. Make it clear and they are happy to oblige.

These aren’t mutually exclusive, mind you. Younger donors care about impact and older donors want to hear stories. You’ll be in good shape, however, if you focus on their main motivator first and foremost.

The 4 Personalities of Tom Ahern

Tom Ahern, fundraising, nonprofits, non profit,
Tom Ahern, from his site, looking young and happy in France!

Do you have a specific type of reader in mind when you write your fundraising appeal, newsletter, brochure, blog, Facebook post…? You should. This is where personas come in.

Creating a full-blown persona can feel arduous. Thank goodness for Tom Ahern! He gives us four handy personalities to consider when embarking on mission-motivated writing.

  1. Amiable: They crave a good story and engaging images.
  2. Expressive: They want something new. Program, website, trends, reports. New=good.
  3. Skeptical: They’re into facts and supporting evidence. FAQs, testimonials and proof points will make them happy.
  4. Bottom-liner: They’re looking for a very specific, actionable call to action (CTA). Make it easy for them to know what to do.

Each of us has a bit of each of these personalities in us and so do the people you’re trying to engage. Write accordingly. You might mix a bit of amiable with a dose of skeptical for your fall newsletter and then for your year-end appeal, get expressive with some bottom-line.

The point: For best results, write with a specific personality in mind.

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?