A blog post I read today is prompting me to take a break from the philosophical/ theological angle, and write a bit about the basic blocking and tackling of annual appeal fund-raising.
Three or four years ago, the stewardship team at Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis added an additional step to the acknowledgment process in our annual pledge drive. We simply started having committee members and vestry members write short hand-written notes of thanks, in addition to the formal letter on church letterhead signed by the rector and the warden.
It’s an easy way to get everyone involved in the stewardship process, and it just makes intuitive sense that the personal touch will be noticed and appreciated, and will make a difference.
And indeed, we’ve had record-setting pledge results in two of the three years since we added this practice to our portfolio. Of course, there have been many other good things happening at Trinity that also have affected people’s willingness to pledge. Is there a way to actually measure or evaluate this little added step?
Today, I came across this post from Ryan Johnson of the YMCA of the USA on the website of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. In working with a local YMCA on its development practices, he found that that organization had a remarkable “retention rate” of 63% of its first-time donors in the $250-$999 range — that is, 63% of those first-time donors renewed their support the next year. Among first-time donors in the $100-$249 range, the retention rate was 29%. (The national average renewal rate of all first-time donors to all charities is 23%.)
What was the procedural difference in how these gifts were handled by the local YMCA? The $250+ donors received hand-written thank you notes.
Now, once again, there is more going on here than just the note. Probably, people in a position to make a $500 first-time gift are more likely to be in that position again a year from now. Larger gifts are more likely to have been solicited by a peer to whom it is hard to say no.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that the personal note didn’t have some effect on that striking improvement from 29% to 63% renewal rates.
It is also interesting that the title of this article references the term “stewardship.” In AFP parlance, stewardship suggests being a good care-taker of your donors. In church circles, we use “stewardship” almost as a (less threatening?) substitute for “giving” — and “asking.” But in the broader sense, the term stewardship in the ecclesiastical dictionary refers more globally to acknowledging that life is a gift from God; to taking care of God’s creation; and to giving to others by giving back to God.
And taking care of creation certainly includes taking care of donors!