Your Weakest Link?

Yesterday I was at a clothing store that I hadn’t visited in many months. In non-pandemic times, I would visit this store several times a year. Walking by, I couldn’t tell if the store was open, because the front door was obscured and there was a big sign on the outside window promoting a different location of the brand/store down the street. I tried the door anyway and realized that the store was open. Although the staff was nice and helpful, I mentioned at the end (after I made a purchase) that there really should be something at the front of the store indicating that it was, indeed, open, so that other customers would recognize that they were open for business. The salesperson was absolutely indifferent to my statement. Not only did he not care — he didn’t even respond to my comment. Until then, I had a lovely experience, but now, not so much.

I spend a lot of time writing about how donors feel when interacting with professional fundraisers, and we know that a single negative interaction with someone who wants your money/support (especially if it’s the first interaction) generally makes someone retreat and not want to interact with that person ever again. This applies to contact between fundraiser and donor just as much as it applies to contact between salesperson and buyer.

How critical is this for NPOs? Take a look at these new (2020) stats from the Fundraising Report Card:

  • Donor retention rate is decreasing. In 2020, overall donor retention was 33.49%. In other words, if that number stays the same this year (and doesn’t decrease further!), for every 100 donors at the beginning of the year, only 33 will remain at the end of the year.

  • The retention rate for new (first-time) donors is even more dramatic. Based on these 2020 statistics, only 18% of first-time donors are likely to give again this year. For comparison, this number was 28% in 2018.

Most, if not all, professional fundraisers are aware of this issue and have myriad plans to increase donor retention, with solutions in place for interactions with donors/prospects.

But what about interactions with non-fundraising staff at your organization? What about the donor/prospect that calls your receptionist or a random number from your website and never reaches you?

Take a look at these recommendations from the Harvard Business Review. Although this was written for business interactions, the same applies to NPOs. As the report clearly states: All customers really want is a simple, quick solution

The… Board…describe(s) five loyalty-building tactics that every company should adopt: Reduce the need for repeat calls by anticipating and dealing with related downstream issues; arm reps to address the emotional side of customer interactions; minimize the need for customers to switch service channels; elicit and use feedback from disgruntled or struggling customers; and focus on problem-solving, not speed.”

The overarching message here is simple — think about interactions you’ve had at stores, events, or even on the phone with a credit card company — and imagine that you’re a prospective donor and the person on the other end of the call is a representative of an NPO.

By doing that, it’s simple to see where these issues might occur in your organization.

The Houston Chronicle described this perfectly: “The person in an organization contacted by a current or potential customer instantly becomes an important representative of the organization as a whole. The person you hire to be a point of contact for your company serves a key role in the relationship your company will have with its customers. Every interaction at a point of contact between your organization and your customers can help build or burn your brand.”

Did I feel a bit “burnt” when I was ignored at the clothing store? Sure. Although I’m likely to give them another chance (but probably with a different salesperson), interactions like that don’t help reduce the churn rate or increase the retention rate.

Here are some specific examples of where these issues (opportunities!) might exist at your organization:

  1. Every staff member of your organization who might have any type of customer/donor contact must be up-to-date on your events and fundraising programs. If you’re about to send out something to your database, make sure that every staff member is aware of the message before it “hits”.

  2. Look carefully at every method of interaction that a customer/donor could have with your organization. Telephone is the most obvious, but just as important are communications to you via email, snail mail, social media, and even IRL.

  3. If the customer/donor identifies themselves as a donor, the staff member should immediately say some version of “thank you so much for your support!”

  4. I’ve written before about the importance of saying “thank you” to donors, but existing or potential donors contacting you should be greeted with something like “How can I help?”

  5. If the staff member doesn’t know the answer, it’s completely acceptable for them to say “I don’t know the answer, but I can get that for you.” They should add something like “Would you prefer to hold for the person who’s responsible for that area, or would you prefer for me to have someone call you back with the answer.” Just saying “one moment” and then transferring said caller to someone’s voicemail isn’t okay — and will be likely to find you with one less donor — unless the caller is specifically okay with being transferred to voicemail. A great addition here, if the caller is transferred to voicemail, is to say “thank you so much for contacting us”.

  6. If a staff member takes the customer/donor’s information and offers to follow up on their behalf with the right person, be absolutely certain that the follow up occurs. You don’t want to lose that donor because someone took vacation time the day after the call and nobody calls them back for a week. In other words, that call should be treated as gold! (see “retention rates” above.)

  7. Make sure that your “point of contact” staff person knows the basics of how a caller/customer/donor can make a donation — including online/offline/check/DAF/credit cards, etc. Do NOT just send them to the website and hang up the phone. The caller is likely calling because (a) they were already on the website and contacted you because they couldn’t find the info they needed, or (b) they’re not comfortable with making donations online, or (c) they don’t want to make any donation unless they’re talked to a “live person” (see one of the numerous articles on the erosion of trust in giving, including this). Think about how you feel when you don’t find what we’re looking for on a website, call the number given online, and are told to get the information from the website — ugh!

  8. Ensure that all staff members understand the terminology of giving, so that they know what the call is about. For example, all staff should know the terms development, advancement, bequest, legacy gift, endowment, memorial gift, DAF, etc. (With about $131B in DAF’s ready to be distributed, don’t forget that last part.)

  9. If a customer or donor offers any information that might be helpful to the organization (separate from the “I want to give you money” part), make sure that the staff member thanks the caller for their thoughts, and assures them that the information will be acted upon.

  10. …and keep those “thank yous” coming.


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- Lisa