In Part 1 of this article, we made the case for why nonprofit organizations should enroll donors in monthly giving. Today, we’ll look at specific ways to create a successful monthly sustaining donors program that can help provide financial stability in any economy.

Nonprofits encounter all kinds of pitfalls when attempting to implement a monthly giving program. Use the following tips to ensure you make the most of your resources and build a loyal base of sustainers.

1. Profile your annual donors to identify likely candidates for monthly giving

Your house file provides valuable source data on donor behavior and characteristics. You can analyze this data to create a profile of the kinds of donors that are most likely to transition to monthly giving. Then, you can target that subset of your audience with special messaging that invites them to become monthly donors.

2. Make the case for monthly support

It’s not enough to say, “Please give monthly because it’s better for us.” You have to translate that into your donor value proposition. How is the impact or experience of monthly giving different than non-recurring gifts? In effect, you are making a secondary case for support. You’ve presumably already made a compelling case for giving to your organization — that’s why these individuals are donors. Now, put just as much care into making the case for why they should upgrade their support to monthly giving.

3. Consider branding your monthly giving program

Many nonprofits funnel all inbound donations together. On a website, for example, you might see a single Donate button that leads to a page with simple options for one-time donations and recurring donations. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but when it comes to boosting monthly giving, you might benefit from differentiating your monthly sustainer program.

Branding your sustainer program with a unique name, wordmark and logo can help optimize retention. A smartly branded monthly giving program can also offer an air of exclusivity. Major gift and planned giving programs often employ this tactic, but it works for sustainers, too. For example, you can frame your program like this: “Monthly sustainers are part of a select group of donors that provides a consistent and reliable source of funding for our work. Your gifts each month ensure that members of our community have uninterrupted access to the programs and services they rely on. As a monthly sustainer, you also receive unique benefits including….” Language like this conveys that a monthly commitment isn’t just any old contribution; it’s an opportunity to become a partner in your organization’s work.

4. Make it easy to sign up

One of the most important aspects of a successful monthly giving program is that it should be relatively frictionless. That is, it should be a simple and easy user experience to become a sustaining donor. Whether signing up by mail or online, keep your form simple and ask for only the necessary information to complete the transaction; you can capture more information at a later time. Label your form fields clearly, avoid lengthy copy at the point-of-sale, and keep digital obstacles (like CAPTCHA tools) to a minimum.

If your online giving provider offers it, you may be able to immediately prompt single-gift donors with an invitation to “upgrade” their commitment to monthly giving before they complete the donation transaction. While this introduces minor complexity at the point-of-sale, the upside benefit to gaining a new sustainer far outweighs the downside risk of losing a one-time gift. With a single click of a button, an individual can come on board as a new monthly sustainer.

5. Suggest specific donation amounts

Specific ask amounts boost response, but only if used intelligently. Choose ask amounts with care based on a donor’s giving history. When addressing prospects, consider a range of ask amounts that begins at your average first-time contribution for the solicitation method and increases from there.

Be sure your invitation to monthly sustainer giving includes at least two (ideally, three) specific monthly ask amounts, presented in order from lowest to highest — $5/mo, $10/mo, $25/mo, for example. When used in direct mail, present these asks to readers at least twice in your appeal letter, and again on the reply device and related web landing page, if possible. To ensure consistency and understanding, match the check-box amounts on your reply and landing page with the same ask amounts used in appeal copy.

Does the Order Matter?

IPM recommends testing the order and denominations of your suggested ask amounts. For some organizations or donor segments, using an array of higher dollar amounts or reversing the order of the dollar amounts may improve performance. If you have the budget, this is a variable worth testing.

6. Thank your monthly donors often

Some fundraisers are hesitant to contact monthly donors after they’ve signed up. They fear that reminding them of their recurring donation might cause the donor to question it or cancel. In fact, in one study, 9 out of 10 nonprofits completely stopped acknowledging recurring monthly gifts by the third donation! This is a huge mistake and terrible stewardship. Strong relationships with donors are built on transparency, communication and engagement. Rather than trying to hide the transaction from the donor, you should thank them multiple times throughout the year.

Here are some ways to use thank you messages to make the donor’s monthly giving experience feel special:

  • Customize thank-you messages with specifics and storytelling that details how that month’s contribution made an impact.
  • Be sure to send thank-you letters in the mail periodically to go beyond email inboxes and keep donors engaged.
  • Try stewardship phone calls. Yes, they are time-consuming and costly. But they can differentiate your donor experience — especially if you have branded your monthly giving program and are trying to make sustainers feel extra special.
  • If you send thank-you notes by email, consider using different signers/senders throughout the year so your messages stand out in a donor’s inbox.

7. To swag or not to swag?

Should you offer gifts or other incentives for joining your sustainer program? The answer will be different for every organization and donor audience, but studies show that intrinsic rewards are stronger motivators than extrinsic rewards. This is especially true for younger donors who are heavily influenced by their peers and want to feel socially connected.

Generally speaking, it’s more important to have a compelling case for support and strong donor proposition with unique, level-based benefits than it is to offer a wide selection of “thank-you gifts” in exchange for contributing. In a 2012 study titled “The counterintuitive effects of thank-you gifts on charitable giving,” researchers found that thank-you gifts actually reduced feelings of altruism and decreased donations.

In the right circumstances, extrinsic bonuses might push single-gift donors to become sustaining members and/or move up the donor pipeline. However, it’s important to acknowledge that once you start giving away tokens of appreciation, it’s difficult to go back to standard case-for-support and donor-value-proposition -driven messaging. After you make the leap to offering a menu of thank-you gifts, much of your copy space will need to be devoted to explaining the quid pro quo.

A cautionary tale of extrinsic bonuses gone too far is PBS. Some local stations are simply far too dependent on connecting philanthropic support to thank-you gifts. In the most egregious examples, donor pipeline growth — moving donors from one level to the next — hinges on the perceived value of what thing supporters are getting in return for their $X-level contribution.

A recent look at the WGBH (Boston) website shows Featured Gifts that include a Downton Abbey collector’s box set, music CDs, and Masterpiece Mystery DVDs. Do individuals who buy these “gifts” consider their purchase a contribution?

So, swag is bad?

Not necessarily. Thank-you gift incentives can be important during times like this, particularly for front-facing experiential nonprofits that have been shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The bottom line is, if your organization chooses to offer thank-you gifts, be sure that you also have the fundamentals in place — including a compelling case for support, a strong donor/member value proposition, and unique benefits that supporters can’t get anywhere else.

8. Model monthly giving

Last but not least, when you make your case for monthly giving, consider having a signer who is already a monthly donor. A message of “this is why I’m a monthly donor” can add credibility to your appeal. Also, if you haven’t already done so, consider upgrading your own giving to the nonprofits you support by becoming a monthly sustainer. Not only will you learn a lot about how it feels to be a monthly donor, you’ll discover what other organizations do right (and wrong) in their monthly giving programs — all of which you can use to make your program better.

Conclusion

Implementing a strong strategy to enroll donors into a monthly sustainer program is smart in any economy. However, with global events like the COVID-19 pandemic, recent shifts in donor behavior and values, and an increased reliance on major gifts, nonprofits should invest in deliberately growing their roster of monthly donors. Use these tips to create or improve your monthly giving program, and you’ll bolster your nonprofit’s long-term financial stability.

On average, new IPM clients see a 34.8% increase in direct mail fundraising acquisition response rates within the first year of working with us. Want to learn more?

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