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May 14, 2014

Slightly Creepy Birthday Cards: Not All Retention Efforts Thrill Your Donors

800px-blue_candles_on_birthday_cakeToday is my birthday (49!) and I’m celebrating by playing some tennis, gardening, and not cooking dinner.

I really love to celebrate birthdays – my own and everyone else’s. I think it’s fantastic that everyone gets a special day.

And many moons ago, when it was suggested to me that it would be great to send birthday cards to our donors, I thought it sounded like a good idea. The organization I worked for actually had date of birth data on many of our supporters. It seemed like an easy, personal touch.

But we didn’t do it. And now I’m glad.

Just yesterday I got a handwritten birthday card from someone I had never met that works for an organization I have given to casually over the years. The card didn’t really mean anything to me because I didn’t know the person who sent it.

I know my birthday is easy to find out there in the world of data, but without a personal connection, it just creeped me out a little bit.

I know I’m not anyone’s target audience. I’ve been in fundraising too long to be considered a test case. But it still seems to me that there is a lesson here.

Donor stewardship and retention efforts work only when they are the real deal. When the action means something to the supporter and when it fits with the brand of your organization, a personal touch can be very meaningful.

Of course you would send a birthday card to a friend. And if you know your donor like you know a friend, go ahead and send one (I did that many times over my career).

But if you didn’t get the birth date from the donor (you got it from some type of data mining) and you don’t know this person, it’s probably better to build a different bridge.

When considering donor retention strategies, ask yourself:

Is it spontaneous? Does it feel like something that is routine and planned, or is it a special effort?

Is it personal? Does it look like it was printed out along with a bunch of others or did you put some thought into it?

Is it authentic? Does it feel like a “real” human interaction or a marketing ploy? Does it somehow reflect your organization’s personality?

Is it delightful? Does it make your donor smile? Or tear up? Or raise their fist in victory?

Is it engaging? Does it invite conversation, opinion, or action?

Donor retention is extremely important and we wouldn’t want to dissuade any organization from being creative. But not all donor retention efforts are created equal.  Before you send out something that misses the mark, measure your idea against these five attributes (SPADE): spontaneous, personal, authentic, delightful, and engaging.

For more about best practice retention strategies, read our blog post Do You Dig Your Donors? Show Them Your Love in SPADEcomplete with a template for a donor retention calendar to keep track of your great ideas!



  1. Olivia Mayer says:

    Great gut check list.

  2. Greg Wright says:

    Good insights from your own personal experience, Leslie. I got a boiler room call the other night from a student soliciting CSU parents to donate to support extracurricular programs. It was nice he was getting paid and learning some marketable skills, but their attempt at authenticity by using a student to make the call really backfired for me. It felt completely fake when he acted like he might know our son. By the way, Happy Birthday!

    • Thanks, Greg! You know that’s a great example of how important it is to know your audience and have good execution. I got the very same call from the University of Denver (where my oldest is) and I loved talking to the guy (and I gave). He was a freshman like my daughter and he spent a long time on the phone, answering my questions about his year so far. I loved it, but it would have to be done right to feel authentic. Right?

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