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Using Data to Create a Healthy, Thriving Fundraising Program

podcast part 1

In this first installment of a two-part episode, we grabbed some time with Mary Beth McIntyre, Principal at Win-Win Giving, to get her perspective on the recent donor retention trends. According to the numbers from Q4 2020 in AFP’s Fundraising Effectiveness Project, donor retention dropped by 4% between 2019 and 2020, despite the number of new donors and dollars raised being up.

Check out this episode of Pursuant’s Go Beyond Fundraising podcast to hear Mary Beth’s thoughts on these retention trends and the six different metrics (including retention rate) she recommends your nonprofit check regularly.

Episode Transcription

Intro (Leah):

The world around us is changing rapidly. Fundraisers and nonprofit marketers like you have to be flexible and innovative to continue to overcome the challenges you face. 

We're Pursuant, and we're here to provide you with the tools, insights, and strategies you need to get you where you want to go. You are tuned in to the Pursuant listening experience. 


Welcome, everyone, to the Pursuant Go Beyond Fundraising podcast. Today, we are sitting down with our Pursuant/GivingDNA General Manager, the one and only Rebecca Segovia, as well as Mary Beth McIntyre, who is the Principal Consultant at Win-Win Giving. And today we are talking all about data and some of the latest results, the latest outcomes from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, and some other things that you should be thinking about when it comes to data and measuring your success in fundraising in 2021. 

So, Mary Beth, I would love to hear from you first about the work that you do with your clients and the general challenges you're helping them navigate. And then, Becca, I'd love to hear your side of that question. 

Mary Beth:  

Sure. I'd say, most often, I'm brought in when an organization or an agency, they're working with someone at kind of a key point of change. So, I work as an extension of the team. So, it could be deciding to move to a new CRM, some type of consolidation in the organization, or restructuring, a new opportunity. 

I'm oftentimes brought in to do sort of an assessment of where you are now, where you want to go, using some data to do that. And again, just being an extension of the team to sort of align those objectives, so you can keep everything that's going on day to day, as well as prepare for and connect to the new opportunities. 

Sometimes I also do whatever is needed. So, that might be a fundraising audit or chipping into project management. I think we all do that — wear many hats. 


I hear you, Mary Beth. I have the opportunity to wear a couple of hats here at Pursuant as well. I have spent time leading our client services in the past. I lead our marketing and platform teams today. And really for me, it's just about our clients — coming alongside them, helping them think differently about the challenges that they face and how to solve them. And then specifically in our platform, leveraging data in a quick, meaningful, real-time way to make really good fundraising decisions. 

And so I'm excited that we're here to talk about what's happening in our industry after we're coming off of what was 2020 and how to leverage data differently in 2021 to make the best fundraising decisions that we can. 

Mary Beth:

I was going to add oftentimes I also present myself as a donor advocate. So, using data from the donor perspective and always, as I think Becca and I both do, weaving in data to kind of make the conversation real. 


That donor-centricity is so important. Knowing what the donor motivations are and what they care about, and then being able to have that two-way dialogue with them. I think it's so important. And sometimes we get lost in the business as usual of fundraising, and “I’ve got to get this mail out” or “I’ve got to get this digital piece out.” And if we just take a minute and understand where the donor potentially is coming from, we can make a better strategic decision in our messaging that may connect with the donor in a more meaningful way. And so I think that's where the magic really can happen. 


Thank you both for that. That sets up our conversation really well, I think. As I mentioned at the top of this session, one of the things that a lot of nonprofit leaders and people who stare at data are thinking about is the newly released Fundraising Effectiveness Project data from AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals). A couple of things that came out in that report are that there was a 10% growth in overall giving in terms of donations, as well as a growth in new donors, which was something that we had seen trending down for many years. So, this is the first time that had changed. 

The other thing that was revealed in that study was that donor retention, however, is down 4%. So, the new acquisition that came in in 2020 may have distracted some fundraisers from realizing that other folks in their donor pool lapsed. And then the third point that I wanted to pull out from that report is that new donor retention was down nearly 10%. 

So, a lot of fundraisers are asking, “Are the new donors that came in in 2020, were they strictly crisis donors and wanted to help out and pitch in at a time when our world was under a lot of new challenges and stressors?” That's kind of a question that we're all asking ourselves. 

Was that something that you saw with the clients that you engaged with in 2020? And if so, what is your response to these numbers? 

Mary Beth:

Well, I guess, as someone who has tracked data in giving for many, many years, I'm excited that there's a bit of a reversal in the number of donors that are being philanthropic and giving, but I'm always wary of it. To your point, Leah, with respect to, “Was it just because of all of the chaos and were they chipping in?” So, it's kind of making sure we look under the covers at everything and kind of regularly in this year that's coming along. 

The second thing is retention, in spite of losing donors, had been fairly stable. So, I think you raise that metric and that is of great concern. And I think some of the things we were already focusing on will relate to that. 

Interestingly, reactivation was up a bit. And I think that's because, prior to the pandemic in 2020, I think there's been a lot of buzz about using different tools to better reactivate, whether it's using outside modeling or co-op materials or also just kind of understanding from where they came and aligning those messages. So, I think it's very positive, but I think we need to sort of — we can't ride a wave. We need to keep working on it.


I hear you. I'm going to play off of that reactivation point and then share a few other things. So, reactivation and donor stewardship isn't something that our industry has been paying attention to in a meaningful way. And so, I think that's why we've been able to go back and reactivate lapsed donors year over year, and we're starting to see that trend line continue to go up and to the right. 

I think what concerns — and it actually ties into that donor centricity that we were talking about a few moments ago — I think what concerns me is a couple of areas. So, retention does actually really scare me, especially that first-year retention. And so, how can we be smarter about the new donors that have come into our file and start to have that donor-centricity mindset from the beginning? 

One of the things that I love about the GivingDNA platform is that it actually allows you to bring those donors in and visualize the demographics and psychographics and behaviors of those new donors, and you can quickly put them into a journey map. So, these are people that are most likely to just be general fund donors right now. They give to organizations like ours. They give to organizations like ours under $100, as an example. Or these are people that potentially have major abilities to give because they're giving to organizations like ours over $500 and they have a disposable income of $10,000 or more. So, just being able to look at that and make better decisions about the donor journey that we want to take them on I think is important and can help reverse the tide that we're seeing there around retention. 

And I think it's retention at every level of the pyramid. Annual, mid, and major, but also where they are in a relationship with you. Not just those that came in and they're potentially lapsing in year two, but what does that lapsed donor reactivation look like? And then the holy grail is to get people into giving for three years or longer or into a sustaining giving program. 

And so making sure that we've got clear pathways for those that are managing the donor portfolios at every level of the pyramid to know, “Okay, here's the DNA of this segment and here's how I'm going to get them to take action.” I think that'll be a game changer, so paying attention to retention was one.

Mary Beth:

Yeah. And I think building on that, I was going to say in addition to what's measured here and everything we know that happened in 2020, there were also some things that aren't measured here. I think people were much more taking actions and using their voice. And I think to your point, Becca, I think while we had more donors, we also have many, many more people taking those actions. And I think finding ways to connect that, to begin to understand it as an additional part of the DNA of something they've actually engaged with or done, becomes an important way to sort of understand the motivations of those new folks who have joined, come back. Or the ones that, as you said, are on the edge of either upgrading to monthly or to mid or to falling off. Because I think many times we just don't always pay enough attention to connect those. 

I think in your platform, you have ways with, if you're collecting it or moving it from the online system, you can begin to measure it and see if it really is valuable. And to me, that's the full picture of how the donor is engaging. And I think in 2020, people use their voice as much as their wallet, and finding ways to connect that, I think, will really help us in maintaining the good parts of these metrics and turning around some of the ones that are of concern.


I think some of that that you're talking about, if I'm reading the tea leaves right, is also data collection, right? Are we actually getting the right data on the donors so that we can actually make those decisions? And so, I think you have some key metrics that you pay attention to. I'd love for you to unpack that.

Mary Beth:

Oh, sure. Well, I think in general, we're looking at the ones that are called out in the fundraising effectiveness tools. So, when we look at more donors, I think it's also breaking down where the new ones are coming from and building out those pools. Also, saying, “Are there folks that haven't made gifts but have engaged with us? And can we access those as potential new donors?” So, that's something I like to look at in multiple ways. 

And then we talked about retention, we talked about reactivation rates. I'd say probably one of my biggest things is to also, at some point in the cycle, look at their long-term value, kind of understanding from where they started, the ways they engaged, and how do those profiles match up with someone more likely to become a monthly donor? Give three years, as you mentioned, upgrade to mid, say you're in my estate, or pledge a major gift? 

So often when you look back on where they've come, that's where you can educate people. You realize the planned gifts are not going to come from someone giving $500. They come from someone who's given $15 for 10 years going or something and raise their hand in multiple ways. So, those are the metrics, in addition to just order retention, finding ways where you can kind of drill down into that to, like you said, better understand that full picture. 

And I love the thought of their DNA. And for me, the more we can make part of that DNA assessment things they have actually told you or actually done about their interest and engagement with your mission. To me, that's gold. 


That's where I was hoping you would go. We know that there are some basic metrics that we should be capturing on our file, but the magic really happens when you start getting that engagement. How many times are they opening your email, responding to whatever activation that you asked them to do? So, understanding the 360-degree view, if you will…the constituent and what's important to them. 

And then it's not just the little things of how much they gave or when they gave, but are they attending your events? Are they reading your emails? Are they opening your letters? Are they meeting with someone in your mid or major team? Just capturing all of the data points that help fill out the persona of that person and then ultimately probably the group that they live in.

Mary Beth:

Well, one other thing I'd add, when we think of how can we maintain the metrics that are good that we're looking at for 2020 and turn around some of the others To your point Becca, I think the more we can measure it for good in our fundraising, but also educate everyone in the organization of what's working or what's not. Then, I think you can build this awareness that if I'm in the contact center or I'm managing an event, how important collecting some of that information is, and that you're really part of making everything better. 

It might be a little rose color, but I think sometimes we have to be real advocates to show people they're part of the process and what they're doing is important and the same. If you read your comment mail or different notes you receive online, what your major gift officers are hearing and any external partners that are often listening, and do we give them a moment to tell us what they're hearing and how we translate that? 


I love that you're bringing that into the room because I also think about, what are you learning in those details of comment notes or conversations that help inform the case for support? So that you understand what's really connecting with your donors and put those messages forward. And so that also ties into retention, which is where we kind of got onto this rabbit trail, and I'm so glad that we went down it because there's so much richness and just understanding what data is important and why. So, retention is something that, for sure, we need to be paying attention to as we look at 2021. 

Two other things that we've been talking about in Pursuant that are going to be important as we think about where to put some energy and effort is mid-level. It's been a buzz in the industry for a long time now, but it's really kind of seeing its moment. And so focus on mid-level and stewardship, and what are the attributes of those that could potentially upgrade? So, that's something that we are at least paying a lot of attention to in the GivingDNA platform. What are those attributes, and can we segment and look at them really quickly and take actions? So, download and put them in the hands of a mid-level officer.  

And then the other place that we're really paying attention to is sustaining giving. So, how do we have some predictable revenue, a revenue stream year over year? And so that's another thing that we have built into our platform. People that are most likely to be sustainer givers or not yet sustainer givers, but they look like the profile. To your point, we've got all those data points in there. Do they look like the profile of someone that could be a sustaining donor? 

And so, I think about 2021 — and I'm curious if you would agree — if we were to double down in retention and really figure out what that looks like, specifically for those that are coming off their first year of giving. So, determining if they were a crisis donor, or if they're someone that's going to be with you for a long time, who are those that are most likely to give monthly and who are those most likely to upgrade? I think a lot of organizations could have a banner 2021 as well. 


Are you asking questions about your fundraising data but are struggling to find actionable insights? Pursuant’s GivingDNA platform is here to help. We combine your constituent data, donation data, third-party information, and tack on augmented intelligence to provide you with insights about who is giving to you, what motivates them to give, and the channels through which they prefer to engage. The platform also comes with baked-in opportunity segments that show you who is most likely to give a large gift, is most likely to lapse, and most likely to give monthly. All this and much more is at the fingertips of fundraisers like you — no IT or data analyst required. Learn more at GivingDNA.com today.

Mary Beth:

Yeah, so for me, I think it's coming to some succinctness of what some of those might be, which is a little bit of a, you know, cart before the horse or which comes first. But, for both monthly and mid, I think the game is to connect things they’ve actually done. So, make sure — especially coming off of 2020 — you're issuing surveys or looking at what's shared online because the sustainer giving is more about their giving patterns, but it's also the commitment. 

I think many times they're more likely to have been an activist or said something — why they believe in what the organization is doing. The mid-level, sometimes we fall on those wealth indicators and capacity and, I think, just getting everyone thinking about what makes them uniquely connected to us. It builds for those, not only upgrading them to mid. And you have all the openings to capture this data if it's captured by the organization. But I think it's a muscle memory mindset for the organization because you begin these conversations that start to be richer beyond…because everyone knows if they have the capacity, what's unique to the organization or anyone supporting the mid-level or the sustainer is why they like you.

We can kind of unpack that and you have some ways to sort of connect that, to assess, is that a driver in either a model or lifting something up? And it's good for the whole way up the pyramid, those conversations, and it's just building that into sort of the muscle memory for every organization. So, is that kind of what you were looking for?


It was. And you brought out a point that I think it's a question I love to ask you. Why do donors give? And then actually what they tell you when they answer that question, here's why I give, is that actually what they do? And seeing what the correlation is between those. And so that then unpacks a place of research that I think is also really important as you get to know and understand your file, what makes them tick so that you can craft that compelling case for support and make sure it matches where you are inside the giving pyramid. Thank you for bringing that up. That was great. 

Mary Beth:

Sure. It's a journey, like you said. Yeah, I think the concept of journey mapping, really, it's just listening and coordinating communications, and there's all sorts of tools to do it. But that also kind of breaks down some silos, gets people collaborating from the donor point of view, not just what I'm going to do for them based in my area. I love that you also focus on that. 


So we're talking about all of these metrics, we're talking about these different layers and complexities of numbers that they could be looking at and asking questions about. But I think a lot of people who are watching or listening today might say, “Well, all of that sounds great and that sounds something like we should be doing.” But a lot of times, all of us are in our day-to-day jobs, it can be difficult and maybe feel unnatural to sort of step away and lift our heads out of the thing that we're kind of always staring at to say what's working and what's not working. Because we can get so comfortable, right, in our plans and our rhythm of how we fundraise throughout the year. 

So, what other things might keep a fundraiser from staring at these numbers and asking these kinds of questions other than the simple amount of time that it can take to look at your data? 

Mary Beth:

Yeah, my feeling is you always have to look at it through multiple lenses. So, there's campaigns, how are we going to budget with some of what was seen with the Fundraising Effectiveness Project and what was just released? And we're going to have even more studies in April for 2020. Again, I really am a glass-half-full person, but when it comes to data like this, I'm kind of like, it's empty. I'm always worried about when the shoe’s going to drop. And so I think we're going to have to usually, I'd say, check in on these benchmarks and measures at least twice a year. 

In this case, I'm feeling like we almost have to do it quarterly because, just as I think you both brought up, did we have this big group of new donors and are they falling off and from where did they come? We're going to have to just check some of that. We need it for projecting and also just to sort of understand where we may have to level-set some areas. You can't do those types of metrics too often, but I think it's important to look at it — and probably look at it with even a broader group…so, your partners and your teams across multiple channels, so everyone can kind of look at what they're seeing.

Because some of the stuff, if we can catch it in the first quarter or the first half of the year, I think it can help with the metrics going forward. Sort of catching the retention one you both noted and especially the first-year retention. And also just kind of give us some of those warning signs as well as some things where maybe we're patting ourselves on our back. But I think we especially need to be attentive to this. Plus everything we're going to do day to day — campaign reports, all of that. But this is wonderful news, but we're probably going to get some more pivots in the way here.


I am actually 100% with you. I am a firm believer in quarterly business reviews. It's been a practice that we've done at Pursuant for since I've been here, 11 years. I also believe in macro planning. So, I think that there's macro planning that needs to happen this year. And last year was unlike any other, where you had to be able to scenario, plan, and adjust as you saw what was happening. And I think we're going to live in that in 2021, maybe carry that into a little bit of 2022. As we continue to recover, we'll see. 

So, in addition to that macro plan, I like to look at things quarter by quarter, just as you are talking about, and look back and see what did we learn, what was going really well and then where do we need to pivot, you know, into that scenario planning idea. So, if we're starting to see that trend and new donors that have just come on, not potentially renew. What are one or two things that we could try in Q2, as an example, to see if we could get them to give again? Or, same idea around mid-level or upgrade. Is there a pocket of 100 donors that look like they could be mid-level donors? Let's try to take one or two next steps with them. And then just review your progress. 

Same idea with sustaining donors. If we just had a time where we brought the teams together. And I agree with you. It's not just the annual giving team or the stewardship team, but can we bring all the people that are thinking about fundraising and potentially all the people that are in marketing together and talk about what is and what isn't working? And then, think through what those little steps are that we would want to test over the next quarter, and just slowly but surely see if we can start to change our metrics to where they're all going up and to the right. And if we see something flipping, let's understand why so we can course correct. 

Mary Beth:

Yeah. And I think with that, as I mentioned, with some of the increases in people giving and supporting organizations that we're seeing here, and we've all felt…we weren't expecting it in March, April, and May of 2020, we thought between events and everything, but that's been a good picture. But they've also been action takers and doing things more than ever before. 

So, along with what you're saying, I really think it's important that folks think, “Are we collecting it on all of our systems or connecting it so we get that full picture?” Because we might be seeing, maybe they're falling off because we're not recognizing that they're doing both or that way, I don't know. But what we can do is connect that and look at it, as you're saying, on a more regular basis, because I think that action taking was just between election year and all the ways we needed people to participate. 

It's just this great opportunity to say, “Are we bringing it in in all the ways we can?” And, you know, you as partners, all of us, can kind of just raise those questions and find ways to do it in a more streamlined fashion. So, you can then measure it and say, “Might that help messaging? Might that help selection?” 


I love it. I think 2020 was its own experiment, right? We tested it and optimized in all kinds of ways. Events went virtual and we had to rethink our major donor galas, and digital transformation happened. And so, you were now all of a sudden getting more responses on the email than you had before. People were picking up the phone and willing to talk to you. And so, it'll be interesting to see, A) did we capture all of that movement, right, and transition and change in a meaningful way so that it can impact the way that we go about planning and fundraising in 2021 and beyond? And then deciding, was that a blip or was that something that is actually going to stay with us because our habits or people have changed? 

So, it's going to be an interesting year in 2021, and I think in 2022, as we come out of what has been 2020 and try to make sense of the data that we now have and leverage it to inform, “Okay, what are the things that we want to test and innovate as we move forward versus what are the things that we want to just keep doing?” Because we got really interesting results last year. Let's see if they're actually still going to work. 

Mary Beth:

Yeah. People raised their hands in just exceptional and unusual ways. And I also encourage my clients and partners to also capture this stuff, even if they haven't made a gift, because I think that builds platforms in other ways, which, you know, isn't always…we're so good, and, you know, fastidious about, you know, marking transactions, but not always kind of these interactions and engagements.


Great discussion today, ladies. I think I'm going to wrap us right here. I know that we've got a hard stop coming up, but I look forward to continuing this discussion the next time that we meet and go over some additional things to think about as we are kind of looking into 2021. 

And I love what you brought up, Mary Beth, about making sure that we break down those departmental silos within the nonprofit, because there could be really valuable data that is hiding in someone else's spreadsheet, and we need to get it all in one place so that we can get that really rich, full picture of what's happening with our donor file. So, I look forward to continuing that discussion next time that we meet. 

But thank you both for your time today. I know a lot of nonprofit leaders are looking at this and asking questions and saying, what should we do next? What should we do first? So I look forward to sharing this with them. 


Thanks, Leah. 

Mary Beth:

Thank you so much. 

Wrapping Up

Using the insights from this episode, your organization can leverage data to acquire and retain more donors. To get started on this journey, secure your organization’s free 7-day trial of GivingDNA’s software

If you’re interested in hearing more about this topic or GivingDNA, you can connect with Mary Beth or Rebecca Gregory Segovia. For more episodes with fundraising insights, check out the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast.