Spring Cleaning for Your Sustainer Program

Date Published
Rebecca Walz

We all know why sustainers are important to our organizations. Their monthly donations provide a steady revenue stream throughout the year, their retention rate is considerably higher than annual donors, and the ongoing nature of their donation lowers costs associated with renewals. More importantly, these are likely some of your most engaged and most loyal supporters.

And during times of uncertainty, it feels good to know that your sustainer program is doing what it was created to do: sustain your organization.

Monthly giving programs can increase your organization’s revenue and retention rates. But they also pose some unique challenges. Here are several ideas to strengthen and grow your sustainer programs.

Sustainer, Interrupted

During times of uncertainty, whether it’s a natural disaster, global pandemic, or political crisis, you will likely see fluctuation in your sustainer file. But don’t panic! Donors will cancel their monthly donations, and during these times of concern it may feel like a major blow to your program. But keep the cancellations in perspective within the context of your total sustainer file. And be sure to take steps to stay engaged with these constituents.

When a donor calls to cancel take the time to politely ask why. Many donors relocate and may decide to move their contribution to a new local affiliate. Use this opportunity to update your files with a new address. And then code the donor appropriately depending on your geographical reach.

If a donor decides to cancel because of dissatisfaction or disgruntlement with your organization, this a perfect opportunity to find out what went wrong and fix it! In doing so, hopefully you’ll change the donor’s opinion and win back a contributor.

When donors call to cancel because of financial reasons be sympathetic and invite them to come back “when the time is right.” Also encourage them to stay in touch through newsletters, social media, and other communications. Keep them engaged! Then code those donors into your lapsed campaign. Their financial situation might turn around by the time you solicit lapsed donors, they’ll know you want them back, and hopefully the time will be right to start their monthly donation again.

Proactively Manage Credit Card Expiration and Declined Payment

Sustaining donors are an important part of a healthy file. And processing the donations monthly provides a steady stream of income. But the “reject” file is arguably just as important as your processed gift.

We’ve all had credit cards change — whether it’s due to an expiration date, a lost card, or a compromised account. It happens to everyone, including your donors. And because they have become accustomed to giving regularly, they may not notice that their donation hasn’t been charged…sometimes for months. That’s why it’s important to be proactive and diligent in this process.

Many credit card processors now have the ability to automatically update expiration dates. This has helped immensely in keeping cards up-to-date. Be sure to run the “auto-update” function prior to any processing. If you’re unsure whether your CRM or credit card processor has this functionality, be sure to ask. And be proactive. Reach out to your donors a month prior to their expiration. Email them, letting them know that their card is going to expire soon and giving them a link to update. That way you avoid the missed payment altogether.

But you will have donations that fail to process each month so take the following steps immediately:

Email your donors with a link to update their card. Make it easy for them to give you updated information by using personal URLs that have much of the donation information pre-populated.

Call all donors. If you’re unable to reach them, leave a message explaining the situation and invite them to call you back at their earliest convenience. Consider setting up a 24/7 call center to take calls after hours.

Send a letter. Include a reply device they can use to update their payment information.

All three of these steps should happen within 24 hours of a declined donation. Use the email and phone call first for recapture, but if those are unsuccessful send the letter. Then repeat the process one week later. If you’re still unable to recapture, put these donors into a monthly recapture program for the next six months, including all forms of communication in the plan (email, call, letter).

EFT versus Credit Card

One way to avoid many of the monthly declined donations is to encourage donors to give through electronic funds transfer, or EFT. By using routing information from a bank account, you avoid expiration dates altogether. And donors rarely change banks, increasing your retention rates by 14% on average. The typical donor retention rate for EFT is 95% versus 81% for credit cards. Nine Network in St. Louis and South Carolina Educational Television have seen EFT conversion rates of 8%, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in revenue in year one.

In addition, the processing fees for EFT transactions are usually less than credit card fees. Your organization likely pays a percentage of the gift, between 2% and 4% of the transaction, plus a transaction fee. Banks typically charge 1%, and their fees are generally less per transaction. Cutting fees by up to 50% will make a significant difference in your bottom line.

Your retention rates will rise, and your monthly transactions fees will fall, making it a win-win for all parties involved. As a matter of fact, sharing information about processing fees has proven to be a good way to solicit and/or encourage EFT donations. Just like you, donors want as much of their donation to stay with your organization, and this is a good way to decrease the cost of doing (good!) business.

Convert Annual Donors to Sustainers

Many organizations have had success in converting their annual donors to sustaining members by soliciting them to become monthly donors near their first renewal date. Sending an “invitation” prior to the renewal cycle, or in place of the first solicitation, has proven successful for several public media organizations including Alabama Public Television, Oklahoma ETV, and South Dakota Public Broadcasting. Reminding donors that they can help by your organization not having to send monthly renewal notices can be used as an incentive. And placing a total goal for new sustainers, rather than a dollar goal, has proven successful.

And with fluctuation in the economy, donors might be looking for new ways to budget their annual donations. Giving smaller amounts on a monthly basis could be preferable to making a lump sum annual donation. Make sure that renewals and other solicitations make it easy for donors to convert to monthly giving.

Sustainer Upgrades

You may be tempted to “set it and forget it” with sustainers, but that would be a costly mistake. As noted, these are some of your most loyal donors, so why wouldn’t you ask them to increase their recurring gift amount?

We know it’s best to solicit a gift from a donor in a similar method to that used for the initial gift. Direct mail donors like mail; digital donors like email. So it stands to reason that sustaining donors would prefer to give small, incremental donations rather than a larger, one-time additional gift. Encourage your donors to increase their monthly amount, perhaps near a donation anniversary, or a special campaign. Organizations have had success in offering a thank-you gift for “a monthly increase of any amount.” That $5 or $10 increase is easy for the donor to budget, and the lifetime value of that increase will mean significant funds for your organization moving forward.

Sustainer Stewardship

We know that stewardship is vitally important in keeping donors engaged. Be sure to remember your sustainers in your stewardship programs. You are likely sending these donors an annual giving statement. Why not add a logo bumper sticker or magnet stating “I’m a Sustainer” to this mailing? It’s an inexpensive way to show your gratitude for their ongoing gifts, and it allows your donors to proudly show their support for your organization. Or mail a special “Thanks for Giving” postcard near the end of the year. Perhaps your organization does an annual report or an honor roll. Be sure to include sustainers. Or create a special event, newsletter, or “concierge” for sustainers only. Make them feel as special and as important as they are to your organization. Small gestures can go a long way in making sure that your sustaining members know how much you value their commitment to your organization.

Spring into Action

Now is a great time to look at your sustainer processes and “journey.” If you’d like help to make sure you’re doing everything you can to retain, recapture, and re-engage these dedicated donors, email Debbie Merlino at dmerlino@allegiancefundraising.com.

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