Fundraising Best Practice Series: Volume 7, Upgrading Donors

Upgrading donors is an essential part of your nonprofit’s fundraising program.  Or at least it should be.  But the upgrade process isn’t just about asking all your donors for more money.  Check out these tips for more strategically upgrading your donors:

Upgrading begins at the point of acquisition.  This is important to understand.  Not all donors can be persuaded to upgrade.  In fact, if you’re acquiring a lot of donors with initial gift amounts below the $15-$18 range, you’ll have a very difficult time upgrading them.  Testing indicates that the higher a donor’s initial average gift, the better chance you’ll have at getting her to upgrade.  For this reason, make sure you test your acquisition ask string (the gift amounts you’re asking people to give) at least once a year.  You want to bring donors on at the highest average gift without negatively impacting your response rates.  This can be a tricky thing to navigate, so it is important to test first before you roll out any changes.  If you can acquire a high volume of donors at a better than $20 average gift, you’ll have a very good chance at upgrading them in the future.

Build a rock solid thank you process.  Want donors to give more generously?  Show them they matter by a) promptly and genuinely thanking them for their past gift(s), b) sharing compelling stories about what their gifts have accomplished, and c) proving you’ve done what you said you’d do with their gifts.  Getting these right will inspire donor loyalty and increase the likelihood that donors will upgrade when you present them with the next compelling opportunity.

Have a big vision.  Getting donors to increase their giving isn’t easy.  Rare is the donor who will substantially increase her giving just to support more of the same. For example, if a donor with capacity gives $25 to provide hot meals at a shelter, you will find it difficult to get that same donor to give $2,500 just to provide more meals (on occasion this will happen – but don’t expect it to be the norm). Donors substantially increase giving because you inspire them to think and act big. That’s why middle and major donor programs often take advantage of offer bundles (literally where you combine a number of tangible program needs into one larger fundraising offer), special project campaigns and capital campaigns.  These initiatives are tied to a larger vision than simply solving today’s problem.  And they make upgrading donors so much easier.  An example of an offer bundle could be (to use that same shelter theme), $1,900 will provide meals, shelter and job training for three people for a month.  Special project campaigns could be as simple as asking a donor for $5,000 to buy 10 new beds so you can increase the number of people in your in-patient alcohol/drug recovery program.  Or as complex as laying out the vision for a new program to care for a currently undeserved population.  In that case you’d have many different offers (brick & mortar, staffing, supplies, etc.).

Remember that upgrading can come in small packages. Sounds counter intuitive.  But hear me out on this.  It’s great to get a $50 donor to upgrade to making $150 gifts.  But don’t overlook that donor who gave $25 last year but gave you five $25 gifts this year.  That’s an upgrade too.  However, chances are your current segmentation and reporting systems aren’t set up to identify that type of upgrade (where the increase comes in frequency instead of a lump sum increase).  Check your reports and segmentation to make sure you’re identifying these people as well.  If cultivated correctly, they can add a lot of income to your organization, both now and in the future (hint: they make GREAT planned gift prospects).

Increase the relationship and they’ll upgrade. Donors are human beings. They give for many reasons. But they continue giving and increase their giving because you make them feel validated and appreciated for their contributions.  This is a given for major donors. But you’d be amazed at how big of an impact this can have on your middle donors and even the upper end of your regular donor file. Write them special handwritten notes.  Call donors who make gifts at certain levels.  Invite them to your shop for a tour or out for coffee.  These steps will deepen their relationship with your organization, and provide them with more positive experiences.  And the next time you make an ask – even a stretch – they’ll be more likely to respond with a yes.

Invest in a quality high dollar direct mail program. You might be tempted to just mail your standard package to every donor and vary only the ask amounts. That’s a mistake.  Effective high dollar direct mail is much different.  It’s less tactical, more relational. This is one place where longer letters tend to be the norm, as is less formulaic letter copy.  You’ll also see more live First Class stamps (both on the outer envelope and reply envelope).  True handwriting is another successful component in high dollar direct mail.  And from time to time (you can’t get away with it more than once or twice a year), I’ve also seen FedEx and UPS overnight packages work very well to upgrade donors (one note of caution: don’t use the FedEx/UPS idea if you have a lot of P.O. Box or Rural Route addresses on your file.  Going to the post office to pick up fundraising mail tends to tick off a lot of donors).

Say thank you more frequently. Engage your board to make thank you calls and write handwritten thank you notes to donors on a regular basis.  You can even make it a standard part of each board meeting. Do this several times throughout the year, prior to when you’ll be making your most important asks.

Embrace telemarketing. You might personally hate telemarketing, but it is a great tool for upgrading donors.  Short of personally visiting with each donor, a high quality telemarketing campaign will do wonders for upgrading. Telemarketing allows you to build personal relationships through conversation, allows donors to feel like you’ve heard them (both the positive and negative), and gives you time to tell more of your story in a highly personalized way than direct mail or e-mail.  You’ll also be able to reach more people on your file who aren’t necessarily responsive to other channels like mail.

Host strategic cultivation events.  If you’re trying to upgrade $20 donors to the $50 level, you probably don’t need to host cultivation events. But if you have a good group of $500 donors that you’re trying to upgrade to the $1,500 – $5,000 level, cultivation events are a great tool.  The best events tend to be (or at least feel) exclusive, like behind the scenes tours of new programs, vision casting trips where you engage donors in forward thinking discussions about “what could happen” with their increased investment, etc.  Equally as effective are intimate gatherings (cocktail parties and dinners, usually) at the home of your CEO, a board member, or an influential or well known donor.  The key to all of these is the feeling of exclusivity and access, of these donors being “insiders”, and having the opportunity to be the first to know/invest in something special.  These cultivation events will deepen engagement around your donors’ passions and show them how very important they are to your cause.

Upgrade through integration.  Some of the most successful middle donor upgrade campaigns I’ve ever worked on have utilized an integrated direct mail, telemarketing, e-mail, video and face-to-face strategy.  Integration helps you increase the frequency of your touch points, communicate the same message in different and increasingly compelling ways, and to leverage each channel to increase overall response.

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