Social Donors: The Hardest to Retain?

Jun 8, 2021

How to Improve Social Donor Retention Rates and Why They Can Be the Most Challenging

Once upon a time, a modest-size nonprofit took the opportunity to analyze new donors. The organization ran a traditional annual fundraising event – a theme party more than a gala – and had a robust tribute program. Of approximately 2000 annual donors the previous year, around 8% (~160) were new donors that had come in as event attendees and around 6% (~120) were new donors that had come in because they had made tribute gifts.

Not enormous numbers, but not inconsequential either; and to a great extent representative of donors who come in through ‘social’ channels in many organizations. Large enough that significant retention would ensure the achievement of upcoming fundraising targets and significant attrition could ‘tank’ year-over-year retention rates overall.

Many nonprofit organizations run events and other fundraising programs that attract ‘social’ donors but have found them challenging or costly to retain. The fundraising is often wildly successful, and yet the donors lapse. Why is that? Some questions to ask are:

  • Just what are ‘social’ donors and what motivates them?
  • Why are these donors especially hard to retain?
  • What strategies and techniques can we use to re-engage them?
  • How can we be as effective as possible?

Let’s look at social donors, provide some discussion points, and get thinking about the best ways to preserve these historically hard-to-retain donors.

Just What Are ‘Social Donors’?

We define ‘social donors’ as donors brought into your organization by way of a social relationship with somebody already engaged. That is, these donors don’t have an initial, organic affinity with the organization on their own.  Rather, they contributed because of an existing family, friendship, professional, or other relationship. The main avenues for social donors are:

  • Peer-to-peer donors – donors who contribute to a volunteer fundraiser who raises money for an organization by taking part in a run, walk, ride or a similar type of event. Peer-to-peer donors would also include those who donate via personal fundraising pages created and promoted by someone with their social network.
  • Special event participants – donors who pay a registration fee to attend a gala, golf tournament, or similar event, and do so at the behest of someone already involved. They typically have no earlier tie to the organization.
  • Tribute donors – donors who make contributions in memory of or in honor of someone or some occasion because the organization is/was important to the person being honored or memorialized.

Note that when we talk about ‘social donors’ we’re not talking about social media donors, ie, those who make contributions over media outlets such as Facebook. That said, many peer-to-peer and other social-donor fundraising initiatives do take advantage of social media. For example, there has been an explosion in personal fundraising pages using Facebook over the past five years.

What Motivates Social Donors?

The motivation to give is different for social donors. Primarily and initially, it’s the relationship with someone else that motivates a donor to commit. Emotion very often plays a role – the passion of the friend or relative who already has an affinity with a nonprofit can be contagious. In some cases, guilt motivates a social donor. Or someone at work or in another social setting engages the social donor who finds that it’s politically correct to participate.

These donors cannot be treated the same way as someone who has an organic affinity with the organization. The way you communicate with them and even thank them needs to be more considerate of the circumstances that brought them to you. The social donor’s relationship is different; we must be aware of that and interact with her correspondingly.

Donor Retention Challenges vs. Opportunities?

Typical donor retention is driven by allegiance and affinity to the organization and its mission, and by the impact that donors know their gifts are making. Put another way, donors who have an organic relationship with the organization are more naturally interested in how their gifts are used. Once they know that, that fosters their inclination to keep giving.

But social donors are quick to lapse because they are often treated with lower priority, not effectively stewarded, and communicated with generically. Social donors may be thanked by the social-relationship person that initially engaged them but not by organizational leadership, and they may receive no further information on the impact of the funds they gave. Many social donors never hear from the organization again after making their first gift or registration, other than subsequent generic solicitations.

But there really is gold in those hills. There’s a big opportunity to take advantage of here because you have three important items to make use of.  You have their attention (even if just in the short term), you have their data, and you know their motivation for engagement.

3 Prongs for Maintaining Social Donor Engagement

Based on our stipulation that social donors should not be treated the same way as donors with organic affinity, it makes sense to change the approach. We can boil this down to three main prongs:

  • Active stewardship – including both gift stewardship and donor stewardship
  • Leveraging the relationship that engaged them in the first place
  • Leveraging the engagement approach – the method or activity that worked initially

Active stewardship – it may seem obvious, but for social donors, much of this is often not taking place. Start by thanking them – from the organization, not just from the person who initially engaged them. They should not only be thanked for their gift, participation, tribute, etc., but also for their own importance to your mission. Make it personal and remind them why their involvement makes a difference.

Then, be sure to convey the impact that their donation made, and/or about the programming supported by their gift. Also, take further interest in them by not only sharing information but by eliciting information – find out if they had a positive experience and any other feedback they might want to provide. Finally, follow up with non-solicitation communications, again to build their knowledge and interest in your organization, and to show that you don’t just see them and a conduit for funds.

Leverage the relationship – in addition to direct, active stewardship, be sure to continue to use the social relationship that got them involved in the first place. Have those persons stay connected, first from a stewardship standpoint – informing their social donors about organizational goings-on – and then from a re-engagement standpoint, when the time is right.

For nonprofits with tribute programs, leveraging the relationship is also about leveraging the timing. For many tribute donors, timing is everything. The dates of birthdays, anniversaries, special occasions, and even memorials can be employed so that donors are actively reminded, and have the opportunity each year to use charitable giving as an ongoing way to honor an occasion, or memorialize someone important to a friend or loved one.

Leverage the approach – that is, make use of the method or activity that worked initially to engage your social donors. If it worked before, it would likely work again. Some research from our friends at Cathexis demonstrates that 54% of social donors are likely to give again in the same way and 89% of first-time social donors would be open to additional donation requests from the right person.

Make Your Data Work for You

These theories around social donors may be eye-opening, but the question ‘how can we be as effective as possible’, moves from theory decidedly into practice. And, practically speaking, your efforts with social donors are only as good as your data.

You can be as effective as possible by using your data as productively as possible – using all the information you have about your social donors to your advantage – and not just focusing on their most recent gift or event participation.

Start by having a clear picture about where all your data live – think about your event system, peer-to-peer fundraising system, tribute spreadsheets, email system, main CRM system, etc. Social donor data are often maintained in separate points systems, even spreadsheets, outside of a nonprofit’s main CRM database. So, if you don’t already have the coveted 360-degree view, determine how important that is and how to get there through data integration.

You never know what gems you will find once you consolidate and centralize your key data and get that complete picture of your social donors! For example, you may find social donors who have other history with your organization, and that you can capitalize on that combination of information. Once you have the full donor story, you’ll be better equipped to use that information to engage and re-engage your social donors as effectively as possible.

Utilizing Data for Better Social Donor Retention

After proper analysis and data centralization, one organization discovered they had such a large number of historic (and one-time) tribute-only donors, that they began what became a very successful holiday-season appeal targeting just that audience – with opportunities to make holiday-focused tributes as holiday gifts to their social-relationships. They leveraged the approach and leveraged the relationships to provide a win-win for all involved.

Remember, social donors have tremendous potential for continued engagement and ongoing – and organic – contributions. But your strategies for retaining them should be appropriately different from those used to retain donors who may have become part of your donor-family through more natural or conventional affinity. So, use what you have – their motivation, their background, and their data – plus a dose of creativity – to build win-win relationships that will support effective social-donor retention.

Stu Manewith, CFRE
Stu Manewith, CFRE joined Omatic Software six years ago and serves as the company’s Director of Thought Leadership and Advocacy. In that role, he is Omatic’s nonprofit sector domain specialist and subject-matter expert and is responsible for actively promoting and demonstrating Omatic’s position as the nonprofit industry’s leading partner in the areas of data health and integration. Prior to Omatic, Stu spent 13 years at Blackbaud, working with Raiser’s Edge, Financial Edge, and Blackbaud CRM client organizations as a consultant, solution architect, and practice manager. Previously, Stu spent the first half of his career as a nonprofit executive, fundraiser, and finance director, working in both the healthcare and arts/cultural arenas of the nonprofit sector. He holds business degrees from Washington University and the University of Wisconsin, and he earned his CFRE credential in 1999.