people in a circleAcknowledgement

Sustainer Retention Basics

With sustainer programs, retention is a two-pronged effort that consists of 1) Cultivation and 2) Proper and assertive payment management.

Properly managing a sustainer program causes a fundamental shift in internal thinking. Whereas fundraising success in the past was solely reliant on creating excellent fundraising appeals that attracted maximum dollars on many platforms, and then acknowledging and cultivating donors across the year, so much of true sustainer success is reliant on proper processing and payment management – very different functions, skills and sensibilities. This is important to consider when making revisions to department structures to account for growing sustainer programs and in training and coaching staff.

The first step, proper acknowledgement and cultivation, ensures that your sustainers stay motivated and loyal in the ways that originally led them to make an open-ended commitment of support. The second vital step is to implement a credit card stop/loss program that has no holes in it, and manages payment issues seamlessly. More than any other element of a thriving sustainer program, top-performing stations have all back-end processes working in lock step with each other in a timely and efficient manner, all year round.

As exhibited by the chart below, if you can't keep valid credit cards on file or transition members over to Electronic Funds Transfer payments, your sustainer program will not maximize its revenue potential. Keep in mind that this is a simplified model that calculates annual amounts. In real programs, sustainers are lost on a monthly basis, making the declines even steeper with lower recapture rates, because they add up more quickly over time.

Sustainer Retention Model

SustainersAnnual AmtRetentionYear OneYear TwoYear Three

A well-managed recapture program makes a very real difference

Acknowledgements: The Importance of Saying "Thank You" Right Away

When a donor becomes a sustainer, they demonstrate a strong commitment to your station. This kind of loyal donor should not be taken for granted. Thus, after they've taken the step to sign up to make a monthly gift, it's important to thank them and acknowledge their generosity both promptly and then strategically across the year.

If a gift is made online, either through your website or email, you have the opportunity to take the first step in this process automatically. Once a gift is made online, donors should be served up a confirmation page that thanks them simply and warmly, and lets them know that an email confirmation will arrive in their in-box shortly.

The email should begin with a clear subject line that includes the words "thank you," and should reiterate the importance of the gift to the station, and include all details of the donation and the accompanying benefits.

Even though acknowledgements must contain a certain amount of "business," it's important to keep the feeling of the communication friendly and grateful. Include a warm header with a recognizable program or local image. Begin the communication with the words "thank you," and with a positive statement about the impact of the donor's gift. Don't begin with words such as, "This is to confirm that your donation of $AMT was received on DATE." Acknowledgements can be so much more than that.

For gifts made through other channels, it's ideal to provide this same, easy to save, easy to print, way of saying thanks through an automatic thank you email, which is set up to send the moment a gift is entered into the database system for all donors with a current email address.

Gifts made over the phone provide an even more direct way to say "thank you" albeit in a less printable form. Make sure that telemarketing scripts include a sincere word of appreciation at the end of any call, no matter the size of the gift. And of course, it's always important to make sure the callers are being gracious in delivering this thanks, which can be confirmed by listening in to sample calls.

The same goes for gifts made through an on-air drive. When a donor calls in to make a gift, the person taking their call has the opportunity to be the first person to express your station's gratitude immediately. On the air you can also thank people publicly by announcing their gift during a pitch, and by always including a heartfelt thanks before returning back to the program. Of course, there are some guidelines for this, like making sure you receive donor permission first and don't use identifying information beyond a first name and city.

Beyond Email – Use the Mail

Don't fall into the trap of sending e-mail acknowledgements only, simply because they are "free." The free nature of e-mail on your side also means that it will rarely be as valued by the donor. Keep in mind that e-mail is typically a quick-open, quick-read and delete type of action, leading the communication to be out of your donor's mind in an instant. The strongest programs always include acknowledgement and cultivation in the mail — a technique that is real and has more staying power.

Thus, it's important to develop a strategic acknowledgement series to welcome your new sustainer into their membership with your station. Though it will not be received by donors as immediately as a direct thank you over the phone, or an automatic web page and email response, the first piece of acknowledgement mail should also be sent automatically after the donation is entered into the system, so that your new sustainer receives it ideally within the first week after they have made their commitment.

Note that like fundraising mail, there is always a chance that the donor will not open this piece of mail. Make sure the fact that this is a thank you letter is made obvious through a teaser that says "thank you!" or something along those lines, so that your intentions are made obvious and the donor can see that they have been acknowledged. Similar to email, it's best to have this communication lead with friendliness and let the business end of the donation confirmation follow lower down in the piece.

For credit card donors, the acknowledgement package can also be a positive and cost-effective way to begin to convert some of these donors to Electronic Funds Transfer payments, which always prove to be more reliable in the long-term.

Your acknowledgement letter is also a good place to share direct contact information for a staffer who is committed to serving sustainers, or for a station "Sustainer Hotline" for example, to let your sustainers know that they will receive prompt and personalized service.

E-Mail Welcome Series

Another simple, and cost-effective way to keep the good feelings flowing with new sustainers (or any new donors in fact), is to initiate a welcome e-mail series, which is a set of three or four weekly or bi-weekly emails that share interesting and important aspects of your station and your membership program with your donors in an effort to keep them connected. The content of these emails can cover the benefits of being a sustainer, opportunities to get involved or attend events, and a survey.