Building and Maintaining an Effective Sustaining Donor Program

By: Kurt Worrell

Building and Maintaining an Effective Sustaining Donor Program

Monthly sustaining donors represents a key part of any annual fund strategy. Sustaining donors are locked in with you and your mission. These donors reaffirm their commitment to you every single month. They also provide a solid foundation which delivers predictable revenue throughout the year.  

Current donor retention rates average about 46% of all donors. Sustaining donors retain at rates between 70% and 80% and go as high as 90% after one year. Having a strong sustainer program will certainly improve overall retention rates. A well-executed sustainer program also reduces overall costs since they don’t require inclusion in your regular appeal stream.  Additionally, donors who engage through a sustainer program have an annual value 42% higher than a one-time donor. 

Creating and maintaining a sustaining donor program takes a little bit of planning.

Here are seven tips that will boost your success: 

  1. Have a plan and document your policies for a sustaining giving program. Here are some areas it should include: 
    • How will you identify sustainers in your CRM and what are the attributes you will assign? 
    • How will you handle expiring credit cards?
    • What will the policy be do deactivate a donor as a sustainer?  
    • What methods of payment will you accept? Will you allow for monthly check writers and does that include a direct mail reminder stream? 
    • On what schedule will you steward your sustainers and how will you manage upgrades? 
    • Should the program be branded/named? While it is attractive to identify donors in a giving society, it means multiple versioning for some communications.
  2. Take a multi-channel approach to conversion. Sustaining donors are heavily weighted to digital channels. This makes sense, since most direct mail donors are check writers. Donors comfortable in the digital channel much prefer online transactions. Telephone should be part of your strategy. In terms of numbers, telephone is the most effective channel for converting/acquiring sustainers in a campaign.  
  3. Be opportunistic. Consider past donor behavior and donor life-stage to find your most receptive audiences. Focus on donors already exhibiting sustainer like behavior. For example, donors making 4+ gifts per year are much more likely than the once-a-year holiday donor to make a commitment. Second gift conversion strategies have also proven to be a good time to make a sustaining ask. Create a stream to the donor after first gift that includes thanking the donor, reporting impact (multiple times) then a sustaining ask. Acquisition can be an opportune time to acquire donors as sustainers. In fact, we see in our grateful patient acquisition programs that 35%+ of new donors opt for a sustaining giving option (when acquired via the telephone channel).  
  4. Don’t get greedy. When developing an ask strategy for a sustainer campaign, focus on the commitment and not an upgrade. While it is always tempting to make a bigger ask, the committed donor will deliver long-term benefits that will far outweigh a short-term lift in giving. I recommend targeting around the previous fiscal year cumulative giving as we don’t want to downgrade either. 
  5. Have a strategy for impactful stewardship. Create a schedule to report impact to your sustainers. It should be as often as once a month. Keep it simple with digital reporting of progress but let your donors know how they are making a difference. Thank them often. This should include a monthly thank you communication when their payment is processed and hand-written notes/calls at least once per year. At StoryCause, we also recommend asking these donors what is important to them and the impact they want to have today and into the future. Capturing every donor’s why will help shape your future outreach and provide you with valuable resource for your next campaign.
  6. Have an upgrade strategy. Consider an annual appeal/ask that gives a donor an opportunity to increase their monthly gift. I recommend targeting the anniversary month of their original commitment. An impactful stewardship program will make this more successful.
  7. Play the long game. It takes time to build a sustainer program. Be patient. The long-term benefits in terms of retention and lifetime value far outweigh the work it takes to launch an effective program. 

We are here to help. If you would like more information or more insight, please do not hesitate to reach out to us here at StoryCause. We love to talk about this and we are here for you.