The Mikuska Group  

It pays to keep your donors

We hear all the time from organizations about getting new donors. Yes, it’s important to bring new donors in, but it’s even more important to keep the donors you have.

The 2017 edition of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project results was recently published. Here are some of the sobering findings from 10,829 non-profit organizations:

  • Every $100 gained in 2016 was offset by $95 in losses.
  • Every 100 donors gained in 2016 was offset by 99 donors not giving again.
  • The greatest gains were in new donors.
  • The greatest losses were in new donors not giving again.
  • The average donor retention rate was 45%.
  • The average dollar retention rate was 48%.

(Gains are gifts by new donors + recaptured lapsed donors + increases in gift amounts. Losses are decreases in gift amounts + lost gifts by lapsed new and lapsed repeat donors.)

What does this tell us? Organizations do a poor job at keeping their donors, and as a result, they are continually chasing new donors, at great expense.

It’s much more cost-effective to keep the donors you have than to continually chase new donors.

The results vary by size of organization. Smaller organizations fare much poorly that larger organizations, which means resources dedicated to retaining donors make a difference.

The FEP site has tools to help you analyze your data so you can make decisions on where to put your time and money in keeping your donors engaged. It’s not just about the bottom line of how much comes in. You need to know who your donors are.

Don’t treat all your donors the same. Heap more love on your loyal donors and ask them to give more. But do make sure new donors know they are valued and welcome, and chances are some will give again and again.

Julie Mikuska.



I received an appeal from a large organization this week. Notwithstanding how awful the appeal was, what struck me first was the fact that they sent it to my former address. I haven’t lived there for almost 3 years.

People move all the time. Many of your donors are among them. If you expect to maintain a relationship with them, you must make an effort to make sure you’re sending your appeal to their current address. There are ways to do this:

  • Annual donor surveys – ask donors if the information you have on file is correct. Also ask how and when they would like to hear from you.
  • Canada Post has a National Change of Address (NCOA) Mover Data Service. Use it to check your database to make sure you have the most up-to-date information.
  • Direct mail companies will also use the NCOA database when you contract them to do your direct mail.

By not making an effort to check contact information, not only do you lose money on mailing costs, you also risk losing the donor.

That’s why I’m moving on.

Laura Mikuska


A flourishing garden

Spring – a time of renewal. We’re itching to get outside and work in the garden. We want to watch our plants grow and enjoy the fruits of our labour.

Your organization can also flourish, much like your garden:

  • Start by “weeding” – go through your database and clean it up. Make sure addresses conform to postal standards, you have correctly coded donor preferences (title, frequency and form of contact, receipting, etc.) and weed out the records for people and organizations that should no longer be on your list.
  • Once you’ve done the weeding, you can see what you’ve planted and make plans on how to make your donor relationships grow. Segmenting your donor list into “rows” will help you determine how best to cultivate them – do they need extra sun? more nutrients? more attention? We know that not all plants require the same treatment – donors are the same!
  • Donors, like plants, sustain us in different ways – they nourish our soul and they feed us. You can’t survive without them – let them know they are your heroes and how important they are!
  • Regularly sprinkling your donors with stories of how their support has impact will feed them and sustain them, and keep them growing.

Enjoy a bountiful harvest by paying attention to your donors – their inspiration will feed you for a long time.

Laura Mikuska


It’s a process, not an event

Fundraising is a process, not an event. What does that mean for boards and staff?

What it’s not:

  • It’s not a one-off.
  • It doesn’t mean finding those five elusive wealthy people you don’t know to give you money.
  • It’s not about seeing donors as “low hanging fruit.”
  • It’s not about once-a-year contact only to ask for money.
  • It’s not just about the development staff.
  • It’s not about the money.

What it is:

  • It’s about continuous communication with your donors – the ones you already have. Show them the love and let them know they are heroes.
  • It’s about making sure your internal processes honour donors – quick receipting and thanking, accurate record-keeping, sound financial management and reporting.
  • It’s about relationships with people. When donors feel valued, they stay engaged.
  • It’s long-term. Be patient and persistent.
  • It’s about board members making fundraising a priority and participating in it.

Where are you in the process?

Julie Mikuska


Fundraisers don’t come with a Rolodex

There’s a notion among some board members and senior staff at nonprofits that they can go out and hire the best darn fundraiser around, because “look what they did at X organization – they can bring their Rolodex with them and we can tap those donors!”

They woo the fundraiser away from that organization, plunk him or her down in an office with the mandate to “go and raise money”. Then they pat themselves on the back and wait for the money to roll in.

But, as they find out six months down the road, the torrent they were expecting is more like a trickle. Cue the moaning and wailing and berating. “Just open your phone book and ask those who gave to your last organization! They’re all rich and you know them already!”

Not only is this attitude patently unfair to the fundraiser, it’s also unethical under the AFP Code of Ethical Principles and Standards, which all members are bound by in their practice. Even if the fundraiser isn’t a member of AFP, it’s still good to operate under the code. Standard No. 17i says:

Members are respectful of the fact that information about donors and prospective donors is the property of the organization for which it was gathered and is not to be taken to another organization.”

So even if the fundraiser has a prior relationship with a prospective donor, they can’t disclose the particulars to the new organization. They will have to establish a new relationship, based on their new organization’s mission and engage the donor accordingly. Be aware, however, that the new organization’s mission or leadership may not be of interest to the donor anyway! If they funded puppies and kittens before, they may not want to fund the environment or health care.

It all comes down to respect. Respect for your fundraiser. Respect for the prospective donor. And a mandate for your organization to create a culture of engagement that invites supporters to join you.

Laura Mikuska


Where are your memories stored?

Last month, our blog talked about the importance of databases for your fundraising program – keeping track of donors and your relationship with them.

But there’s an even greater reason to have a robust database. It becomes your institutional memory.

Think about it. If most of the knowledge about your organization is in the head of your long-time executive director, you have a big problem. It’s not only about the fact that only she knows certain facts and history – and that no one else can take advantage of that knowledge – but what happens when she retires, wins the lottery or goes to a different job?

Your memory bank needs to be permanent and continuously populated with good data and notes on:

  • volunteers, including board members
  • donors – individuals, corporations, foundations
  • potential donors
  • clients/alumni
  • suppliers/vendors
  • staff

Over and above basic demographic data and donations, record:

  • Interactions – visits, phone calls, correspondence
  • Relationships:
    • who’s linked to whom? e.g. family members, employees and employers, what other boards do people sit on etc.
    • who has a relationship with them from your organization – executive director, development staff, program staff, volunteers
  • notes about conversations that indicate a donor’s preferences e.g. come back and talk to me in six months, I only want to receive the e-news, etc.
  • reminders
  • etc.!

Assign someone to be responsible for the database and to train others to input data. Make guidelines for everyone to follow in collecting and inputting information. Make sure everyone is aware of privacy rules. Anyone in the database can ask to see their record so keep it respectful.

If you don’t have a good institutional memory, start now. Because if it walks out the door tomorrow, you’ll be starting from scratch.

Julie Mikuska



Fear and loathing: Databases

What comes to mind when someone mentions “database”? Do your eyes glaze over? Do you curl into the foetal position? Scream in frustration? Think that someone is talking about a spreadsheet?

You’re not alone. Many non-profit organizations have had little to no experience with a database, let alone success. A database seems to be shrouded in mystery, hidden behind a ubiquitous fog that seems impenetrable. When it comes to extracting the data to use in a mailout, or – horrors! – analyze your donor base, you muck through as best you can and say a little prayer to the gods of IT that your results are reliable.

I’m here to say that it doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s worth the investment to engage a professional who knows what they are doing to teach you good practices and principles of data management. Good data is the underpinning of a great fundraising program. Notice I said good data, because as the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. You have to pay attention to what you enter into your database and how you do it. Make sure you have someone who is familiar with the principles of fundraising, so you can tailor your learning to maximize the use of your database.

Some examples of what a data management program can help you accomplish:

  • track total donations for each donor/household
  • let you find out if you’re losing donors and take action
  • identify donors who you may be able to approach and ask to be a monthly donor
  • track activities that engage donors – did they attend the gala? Come to your open house? Meet with the board chair? Use this information to further engage them in your work
  • choose which donors will receive a special mailing based on their donation history

Your data is as important as your staff. You can’t be effective if you don’t know who your donors are. Make the investment – the results will speak for themselves.

Laura Mikuska




fear and loathing – (Hunter S. Thompson) A state inspired by the prospect of dealing with certain real-world systems and standards that are totally brain-damaged but ubiquitous – Intel 8086s,COBOL, EBCDIC, or any IBM machine except the Rios (also known as the RS/6000).



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