Building Donor Loyalty:
The Fundraiser’s Guide to Increasing Lifetime Value

Adrian Sargeant and Elaine Jay
(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2004)

You would have been shocked.

My firm had been retained by a national health organization to help determine how to promote legacy giving among some of its hundreds of thousands of direct mail donors. We had agreed to begin the process by simply asking donors to share their feelings about the organization, its fundraising practices, and legacy giving generally. The result was a series of focus groups – but the participants’ comments were not, shall we say, encouraging.

In fact, the focus groups surfaced one complaint after another. Complaints about donor acknowledgements that arrived long after new solicitations: complaints about excessive mailing, unresponsive staff, unanswered questions, uninformative communications, uncorrected addresses. You get the point. These were not happy campers. And – no surprise here! – legacy gifts would not be forthcoming.

To understand how this pattern might have developed – and why – I suggest you read “Building Donor Loyalty.” In one surprisingly slim volume – just 197 pages – Adrian Sargeant and Elaine Jay have brought to light the latest research findings and the latest thinking about what makes donors tick.

Most previous books on fundraising fall into one or another of three types: off-the-cuff tales by practitioners on the front lines of the field; jargonheavy tomes that are intended to be used as textbooks or to sit on shelves as references; or academic studies brimming over with complex formulas, polysyllabic pronouncements, and an inordinately heavy use of the passive voice.

Happily, “Building Donor Loyalty” doesn’t fit in any one of those categories. The writing style, though inelegant, is straightforward and easy to digest. Most of the authors’ assertions are backed up with references to their own research or to previous studies – but without intrusive footnotes. (There’s an extensive reference list at the end, dominated by academic studies.) The authors have approached their material with the practitioner clearly in mind, illustrating in a practical, down-to-earth way the real-world best practices that nonprofit organizations can adopt to lessen attrition among the ranks of their donors. “Building Donor Loyalty” even includes a number of sample questionnaires, checklists, forms, and other tools that practitioners can put into practice with only modest changes.

If donor attrition isn’t at the top of your current to-do list, consider two facts: (1) it can cost up to 10 times as much to reach a new donor as it does to communicate with an existing one; and (2) given today’s typical donor attrition rates in direct mail fundraising, you will have fewer than 100 donors left out of every 1,000 after 10 years – in many cases, fewer than 50. Donor attrition is by far the single biggest problem facing many nonprofit fundraisers.

In demonstrating how to combat this challenge, Sargeant and Jay explore three interconnected themes: understanding “relationship fundraising” and putting its principles solidly in place; building a monthly giving program; and improving the quality of the organization’s service to its donors. These three ideas unquestionably lie at the heart of any rational strategy to boost donor retention.

The impetus for “Building Donor Loyalty” was a four-year research project Sargeant undertook in the United Kingdom and the United States, surveying the views of more than 20,000 donors on both sides of the Atlantic through a series of focus groups followed by a large direct mail survey. This was the largest study of donor loyalty ever undertaken. Sargeant and his colleagues asked lapsed supporters why they stopped giving and compared the views of active and lapsed supporters to uncover the issues and attitudes underlying donor loyalty or its absence. Some findings were especially revealing.

For example, Sargeant’s team learned that “those expressing a strong religious conviction (irrespective of denomination) were much more likely to switch their support from one organization to another” (p. 13). This insightful revelation takes us much more deeply into an understanding of the dynamics of giving than the age-old truism that strong religious convictions are a good indicator of a willingness to give.

Other findings from Sargeant’s research are consistent with common sense. For instance, “Lapsed donors are significantly more likely than currently active supporters to have been seeking some personal benefit or reward for their giving” (p. 20). Similarly, “Individuals who feel they are not given enough choice over the form of their support and who believe they do not receive adequate recognition are significantly more likely to lapse” (p. 23).

In other words, common sense is a very useful tool in fundraising, as it is in most fields. But it’s not infallible. Sometimes it pays to ask people who actually know, which is what Sargeant and Jay have done here so effectively.