Retention – is it the right measure?

One of the key messages from the plenary talks at the International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands was open your eyes to what is really there and not what you think you see.


So it’s opened my eyes to question what I think I see.  Take retention. Donor retention is an important concept and one that is cited often as something all organisations should know. Which I agree. But just stop for a moment. Is it really what we should measure? Bear with me before you start throwing the vegetables.

I believe we need to move away from a mindset of ‘how to get money out of people’ to ‘how to inspire people to spread your story’. The latter approach will leverage the ‘social capital’ of your supporters with their network of contacts (and the social capital they have with their contacts will always be greater than the social capital your organisation has with their contacts). What matters is that are they interested in your cause not whether they give. This approach will lead to more money for your mission  because people who are interested in you will talk about you and recommend you to their network (in a world with huge choice we increasingly turn to people we trust). This in turn can lead to not just donations by individuals but openings to corporates, foundations, major donors because you just don’t know who people know in this increasingly connected world.

So retention is a measure of whether I give you money again, not if I remain interested in you, hence if you really do believe in a different mindset then you need to apply a new measure. It’s accepted  wisdom that “if you change what you measure you’ll change what you’ll do“. So if we agree we need to change what we do – then er … we need to change what we measure. And we fundraisers love to measure retention. Maybe that’s part of the problem?

If we want people to be interested in your cause so much so that they spread your story then that’s what we should measure. The fact someone continues to give or not doesn’t matter. Of course that’s one of the impacts we are seeking. But it’s just that – an impact. What does matter is ‘are they interested in us?’. If they give is a subset of that – but it’s not the complete picture. And if we focus on retention there is a danger you just ignore people who don’t give again but still wish to remain engaged in your cause.

When the magic happens

What we should measure is the extend we are engaging people and whether they are talking about us. I have learnt that’s when the magic happens – where a church starts fundraising because an individual in the congregation suggested your cause, or a foundation invites you to apply for grant through a recommendation from someone they trust, or a corporate contacts you seeking a partnership from hearing about your reputation (and your reputation is what other people say about you). So do you pay enough attention to individuals who are interested in you but just haven’t given recently ?

engagement-marketingThen, if we measure engagement, as a result we will change what we do. We will put more effort into how we engage people – whether it’s when they come to the website (such as going to the trouble of setting up online chat), or when they take the trouble to phone you, or meet your staff or volunteers through events – all of which can be a great way to have conversations. In fact it will encourage us to be proactive to think of activities that lead to deeper engagement and help encourage and inspire people to tell our story. Of course to do this well you need  a story well told that people will want to share. It will ensure you focus on the quality of the exchange or the experience not the output (whether I give or not).

Ok so it’s not easy to measure engagement – but it’s far easier that it has ever been. For example there is an engagement measure on Facebook. An ‘opt in’ is an indicator that I want to hear from you (and another reason I think opt in is good news). And we are all familiar with being asked how our customer experience was and if we would recommend to a friend? Are these not measures of engagement? The fact you proactively try and measure it maybe more important because it will help change what you do.

If you focus on getting me to give again to boost your retention rate you will probably focus on activities that ask me for money and just measure whether I say yes. And your behaviour will be to ask me more and more. Which will lead to the opposite of what you want to achieve.

Ironically I believe by measuring engagement that retention will improve. But it will lead to so much more too and impact on other areas of your fundraising programme and even the delivery of your mission as my last blog post illustrated. The level of engagement with someone is the output we need to measure so we do more activities that improve engagement and retention becomes an impact (the consequence of what we do).

Ok you can now throw the vegetables.

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