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July 23, 2014

Ring or Fling? Not all Donors Want the Same Relationship


I read the Harvard Business Review blog posts nearly every day and most of the time I find something that may not be meant for nonprofit fundraisers, but that is good for us to think about nonetheless.

The other day, I found a goodie.

Andrew O’Connell’s piece called Don’t Propose Marriage to a Customer Who Wants a Fling really made me think about the current discussions happening around donor retention in the fundraising blogs these days.

Here’s a quote from his post.

“…consumers are looking for certain kinds of relationships with companies. Some consumers might want to be treated as friends, others as colleagues. Some might want to be just fleeting or casual acquaintances.”

Insert “nonprofits” in there for “companies” and you’ve got a very interesting thought.

While retaining your donors is the most efficient way to increase your fundraising on so many different levels, all donors may not want to develop a longer-term relationship with your organization.

How can you tell your donors’ intentions?

And what do you do with those donors who just want a fling?

Should you spend time and resources fitting all your donors into a mold of a loyal donor?

Another quote from the article:

“Marketing organizations need to reorient themselves so that they can use their powerful customer-relationship-management technologies to capture and make good use of relationship data and, ultimately, become good relationship partners with consumers.”

Again, insert “nonprofit” into this paragraph and you’ve got this: Nonprofit organizations need to record and store the interactions they have with their donors in their donor databases. And they have to make use of this data to build appropriate relationships with their donors.

Not all donors are the same. By tracking the interactions that occur between you and your donors, you can sort them into different categories and tailor your actions and communications to fit the way they view your organization.

Consider these three donor groups and the different ways they might view your organization:

The Infatuation: These are donors who have recently discovered your organization or who have gotten engaged or excited about one specific thing. They might have a flurry of activity online. Then they might have called your organization to ask a question or respond to an event invite. They may have also responded to a recent appeal. (Note that all of things you can track on your database).

You need to know what these donors are responding to so that you can quickly get information to them and they can act on their new or renewed interest by giving, advocating, volunteering, etc. They may not stay around forever, but they can provide your organization with important bursts of energy in the form of dollars and action.

The Best Friend: These are donors who are with your organization for the long haul. Monthly donors, long-time annual donors, and planned giving donors often fade into the background because they are so dependable, but they form the very rock of any sustainable fundraising operation.

These are the donors that we think of when we consider traditional retention strategies. And the most important thing to communicate is gratitude. Many of these donors already know and love you. They just want you to recognize their loyalty.

The Fling: These are donors that have a fleeting burst of an interaction with your organization. They include event donors (both online and offline) and peer-to-peer donors who are giving because they were lured by a great experience or asked by a friend. They weren’t prompted to give because of your mission or vision. They were attracted by some outside force that makes it hard to get them to repeat their gift.

A traditional newsletter or renewal will be a tough sell for this group because these communications assume that the donor knows more about the organization than they do. Instead, these donors need to be cultivated either through the involvement by the friend who made the original ask or through welcome efforts that re-introduce them to the organization. And there has to be an acknowledgement that the renewal rates for these donors may be considerably lower than the “best friend” group.

There may be other groups that you discover as you mine your donor database. Hopefully, there are not too many “stalker-prey” or “marriage-on-the-rocks” types (see the chart in the HBR post), but you may find that as you look at your data, other patterns emerge.

In all cases, you should ask people how they want to be communicated with and what they want to receive. Track these preferences and the other interactions your donors have with you and you’ll be able to serve them in a more personal, more transformational way.

Donor retention is not a blanket strategy. There is no one way when it comes to donor relationships. Some of your donors are just going to want a fling. Recognizing them (and intentionally talking to them differently from your best friends) is the key to long-term donor happiness!



  1. Travis Railey says:

    Love this. Thanks, Leslie.

  2. Jami Wolken Fassett says:

    Great article! Got me thinking about a few conversations I’ve been having recently with clients about audience personas/profiles to help with content and communication strategy. It’s so important to remember that a one size fits all approach just won’t work. Thanks Leslie!

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