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39: A Look Inside an Organization’s Strong Donor Retention Numbers with Megan Staples Jacob

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“I think that’s the challenge in this day and age is that people can tell when a template is a template.”

– Megan Staples Jacob
Episode #39

Overview

In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

I talk to Megan Staples Jacob, Director of Development at CSF Philadelphia. Megan is a passionate fundraising professional with over a decade of experience in Greater Philadelphia’s philanthropic community. She is fiercely passionate about CSFP and has moved mountains since starting with them four years ago. Her natural curiosity has lead to massive strategic break throughs inside CSFP’s donor retention numbers and she shares her reasoning while highlighting what other fundraisers can do to lean into the same approach.

We discuss all the elements of her success with donor retention inside of CSFP from defining her personal mission to the key components that keep her motivated inside the natural lulls that exist in fundraising cycles. 

“The more that you’re actually talking to your donors, the more you’ll learn about what your donors are understanding of your organization, that’ll help drive your communications.”

We understand how much communicating with donors makes an impact, but what’s imperative to implement is the heart of those conversations as well as the frequency in which we have them. Megan touches on this and so much more inside this episode.

Join in and listen as she unravels how she designs strategies to reach her goals and how she outlines exactly how you can do the same as it relates to your donor retention numbers.

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MALLORY ERICKSON

episode transcript

Mallory: Welcome Everyone! I am so excited to be here today with Megan Staples Jacob from the Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia. Megan, thank you so much for joining me. 

Megan: Yes, it’s great to be here. I’m really excited to be a part of this conversation.

Mallory: So we are talking about donor retention specifically today. But first, just tell everyone a little bit more about you and your history and journey to your current role, your organization just to give a full snapshot of what brings you to the conversation.

Megan: Of course. So my name is Megan Staples Jacob. I am currently the Senior Director of Development at an organization based and focused in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania called Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia. 

What we do is we provide scholarships to students in the K to eighth grade, they can attend schools that are in our accredited partners school network anywhere in the greater Philadelphia area but we focus specifically on Philadelphia students and families from underserved neighborhoods in our city. And for the listeners who are not familiar with the Philadelphia area for quite some time, Philadelphia has been the poorest of the 10 major cities in the US. And the cycle of poverty affects so many aspects and social determinants of life and wellbeing and education is a huge area of need at something that we are very dedicated as a city and as partners between corporate leaders and nonprofit leaders in addressing. And CSFP is one of the largest partners in that effort.

Personally, I’ve been working in the nonprofit realm in Philadelphia for over 13 years now, both in the education and human rights space and also our arts & culture. I love this city, I think we have a really unique philanthropic landscape and has certainly helped the way that we address donor relations here at CSFP.

Mallory: Let’s just dive right in there. Tell me a little bit about that and your approach around donor relations and around knowing your particular donor landscape in Philadelphia and how that has informed some of that work.

Megan: So Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. People say that a lot about a lot of cities, but it really is both geographically and historically. We’re really unique in that we have a lot of data to show that people who grow up here tend to stay here. We are also the city of Meds and Eds. So we have a lot of influx with graduate students attending our local universities, and then we have a small, strong cohort that stays. So what really happens here is that pop of philanthropic activity as people who were born and raised here and care about the issues here, grow up and experience success. And people who come here and want to set roots here and want to establish their own philanthropic endeavors.

It’s a really active and as always been a very active philanthropic community. And we’ve really seen that grow during the COVID-19 quarantine and pandemic. I think I can’t speak to other cities, but Philadelphia in particular, the philanthropic community really dug in and addressed the issues at hand. I saw a lot of emergency funds across large institutions in Philadelphia, a lot of campaigns, a lot of campaigns meeting their goals.

So we have a tight knit community of people that really care about issues. The positive is that we are poised to launch campaigns and initiatives and see positive outcomes and be almost familiar with the familial with our donor community. I think the downside there is everyone knows each other and the circle is really small.

So you do have to be cognizant of that as you’re interacting with donors and prospects. 

Mallory: What do you mean by that? 

Megan: It’s very surprising how everybody knows each other. I think that the first go to platform for any Director of Development is a wealth screen engine or a networking software tool. So we utilize that as CSFP, of course, but you don’t really need that in Philadelphia. You need one or two key stakeholders who are well ingrained into the philanthropic community, who can tell you the six degrees of everyone in Philadelphia.

It’s a town of towns, it’s a city of neighborhoods and that expands into the suburbs. So everyone is really well connected. I think what’s really great about Philadelphia, that’s not just for individuals, it is also in the corporate community. We have a very active and very well-established Chamber of Commerce, which is the heartbeat of Philadelphia Commerce, but also philanthropy. They go hand in hand and they run a lot of commingled events. There are a lot of events where everyone can come together, but then one job as a fundraiser is to always take every opportunity for every meeting that I get to ask questions on how they can open doors for us, who they know, try to find commonalities, because there’s usually always some. There’s just so much crossover between relationships in the city.

I think it’s a particularly big. The city is just legitimately so old and the families are so established here, but also because so many business leaders grew up here and I think it’s disproportionate to other cities. I think that we have a larger percentage of business leaders here in Philadelphia that come from the Philadelphia area, then you’ll find in most of the major top 10 cities. In fact, I know that because we did a study a few years ago.

Mallory: Interesting. So it’s interesting to me, the way you’re talking about this a little bit, because I hear in your voice and correct me if I’m wrong, but just a tremendous amount of potential that opens up that this sort of close knit community and the ability to be introduced and that there are these six degrees of separation.

I hear you saying all of that through the lens of like opportunity and possibility. I just want to flag as something that I think is really special and wonderful, because I feel like I’ve heard other folks talk about situations like this and their focus tends to be on the small close-knit community leading to a scarcity mindset that everyone’s going after the same funds.

And there’s only so many people and you didn’t say any of those things. I love that. What’s your reaction, even to hearing me say that.

Megan: It’s a really good question. And I think you hit the nail right on the head, as you have to approach it with positivity because there is so much crossover. So one of the things that I really love, and I know that this is getting away from the topic of donor retention, but one of the things I love about Philadelphia is for the most part as fundraisers, we all work together.

We attend each other’s galas and events, and we share information. We have networking circles because there’s so much crossover and there is also so much wealth in Philadelphia, that because someone donates to three other organizations doesn’t mean that they’re not a good candidate to donate to your organization. You just have to make sure that you’re matching their vision and values. 

I think you will see if you come to Philadelphia and you look at a couple of donors list. You look on the plaques on the wall. You’ll find very familiar names that are well known and we also have a lot of joint events. So you’ll see an arts and cultural organization park partnering with a youth organization and having joint donor events. It’s you have to play the card that you’re dealt, but it creates a collaborative community. I wouldn’t say that we’re competitive at all from my experience. 

Mallory: Wow. I think that’s really special. And I actually think it is really related to donor retention in a lot of ways, because it seems like you are navigating donor relationships and donor retention in what some might consider to be a more challenging environment.

I actually think it’s a really awesome way to look at how you think about donor relations through that framework. In the sense of like everybody knows everybody, it’s a small community, but also recognizing of course, that people can care about multiple things and multiple organizations and even organizations that are in the same focus area, you can still be supporting multiple organizations.

And so I really love hearing that about sort of the lack of competition. And it also makes me wonder, because you perhaps do have a more like an insular community. Do you feel like that’s been part of why you’ve been able to focus perhaps a bit more on donor retention as opposed to being wooed by all the shiny objects donor acquisition strategies?

Megan: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I come from a background of being an annual fundraiser Manager and annual giving manager. So I certainly have a lot of experience in acquisition strategies, working on a larger scale. My organization that I represent hasn’t done that yet. And we’re actually thinking about doing that in the coming years because we’re entering a major growth spurt.

We’re 20 years old and we have a lot of exciting strategic and fundraising initiatives around our anniversary. We have a very high average gift right now because we’re primarily funded through corporate and institutional giving. However, we have a strong and mighty individual donor base that is growing and growing because we paid more attention to that. I think there are a couple things, for our major donors what you sometimes consider the shiny objects that are probably shiny or our prospects, they’re quite manageable. 

Because each one of us is fundraisers, we’re a department of four right now. We have our portfolios so we make sure we’re covering everyone and they’re being treated as friends of the organization. But then we have our larger annual donor base, which we’re able to make personal touches all of the time. And that’s something that my team instituted. We’re all relatively new. We all started within two years and I’m really fortunate that donor stewardship is a huge priority for each and every one of us. We’ve been able to carry out some of the initiatives that I feel really passionately about.

So we make sure that even in the busiest of time, when our gift report goes out on Monday, confirm that everyone’s received their thank you letter. And within 48 hours, everyone will get some sort of personal touchpoint from one of our fundraisers, in the method that they choose. So it’s genuine. 

Examples of that is my president and CEO has really gotten into video messages. So she will record a message on her phone. She’ll upload a link to me. I’ll send her a link. She’ll shoot an email to someone. it’s super easy, takes 20 minutes. We give her a list of 10 donors. It doesn’t take a lot of time. I personally, still I’m really old school. I like handwritten cards so I make sure that I have a stack on my desk every time.

And then my two direct reports really like emails, but they’re great at it. So their emails are heartfelt, they have links and resources and stories on families. So I think one of the benefits when you’re talking about donors stewardship and donor retention, if you’re excited about what you’re communicating your donors will feel really appreciated.

Getting out of the templates, doing something that’s good for you, it’ll have integrity and will feel like the donor actually heard from a real person. I think that’s the challenge in this day and age. People can tell when a template is a template. And I think so often they assume that it’s being pushed out from an email blast, especially during the pandemic, when that activity has spiked.

The more donors can feel like an actual human saw their gift and the saying, thank you. The more valuable that is in whatever way, shape, or form, medium or type of outreach you have. In terms of acquisition, right now, our acquisition is purely organic, but we are growing into experiment with more traditional forms of acquisition.

And we also have a pretty extensive list co-op network in Philadelphia. So those are things that we’ll be exploring in the future. And I’m really curious to see what our retention will look like with the new donor. So for right now, our new donor retention is really strong from the first gift to the second and third, because we have organic acquisition.

So very curious to see how that changes, what we’ll learn about ourselves, and what we can improve as we go to more traditional marketing based acquisition campaigns.

Mallory: Do you have the numbers around your retention between first and second or second and third gifts?

Megan: Yeah, I actually do, so the first and second gift acquisition is 62%, which I’m really excited about. We have some work to do with the retention between the second and third gift. It’s a little bit lower, it’s about 42%. But that also is affected by a program that is called the Pennsylvania Educational Tax Credit Program. We do have an option for donors to participate to that program so you give to us, then you receive tax credits for your state taxes and returns. So sometimes we lose donors just because their tax liability changes. So there is a portion of our attrition that we can’t control. 

But what we instituted one year, we segmented every donor so we can better track that. We can say, who is a true annual fund donor, and what is their attention, who is giving through this initiative, who is giving through your corporate giving? So we can better track that and learn from past years with donor experience. 

I will also say that we have some work to do on the second to third gift. We’ve instituted some improved newsletters. We experimented last year with the, “Hey, why haven’t you given to us lately?” survey. So we took a task group of donors who hadn’t given in 16 months and checked in. My team and I split up the list and the message was along the lines of Hello, I’m your CSFP liaison. I’m very interested to hear what your reflections are of us. Thank you so much for your past gifts. I’ve noticed that you have given in the past year or so. I’m curious if there’s something that we can do, or if there is a particular reason that you chose to give somewhere else and start to collect feedback.  

And that worked really positively, we reactivated some donors and we also got some really honest feedback. Honestly, that is the best feedback you can get because otherwise you’re just analyzing data. And that can be limiting in some regards

Mallory:  You don’t have to necessarily share the specific feedback, but how has some of that feedback that changed some of your donor relations strategies moving forward?

Megan: That is an excellent question. The quick answer to that is that we need to do this every year. And we should be doing it with every lapse donor, because I think the helpful feedback is take me off your list, right? So that we’re not spinning our wheels. And we’re also not irritating people who no longer support the organization or maybe gave because of someone else. But if it wasn’t a tribute gift, we don’t have that data to track it. I think that’s really helpful.

We also learned that maybe we’re not communicating as much as we think we are. We get in our heads as fundraisers. Like we know everything that we’re sending, but that doesn’t mean donors are seeing all of it. And another really helpful piece of feedback that we received, since we were scholarship organization, formed organization and we’re very data-driven. Sometimes we can fall into the trap of our communications being very data oriented, but as I’m sure, and all of your listeners know, that it’s really in the storytelling and connecting to our shared values and what’s in our heart, are what make those lasting connections with individual donors.

And so we’ve taken steps to have a healthy combination of the two. So sharing family stories, championing the parents and the students that we serve, while also being able to continue to show our outcome. But that’s a newer initiative and I am really excited to see the outcomes of that. We’ve already seen the slight upticks and open rates from our emails and engagement with our emails. I’m hoping that matriculates across all of our different channels of communication.

Mallory: I love what you said about how often we don’t really understand what the communication feels like on the other side. And we are thinking about all the emails that we’ve sent and the donor just does not have that in their head.

In fact, so many donors don’t even know when they gave, how much they gave, and actually something I’ve heard that a lot recently in just anecdotal experiences. And I’m curious what you think about this. I’ve heard so many people say to me recently, I gave less last year than I thought I did. Like when I was doing my taxes, I realized I actually gave a lot less.

I’m curious about your experience with that. And if you all have a strategy to prepare for that before end of year, if you work that into your retention strategy at all.

Megan: At Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, we do look into that really carefully, but I think we’re new at that. So we’re still learning a lot. In our database and record, Donor Perfect has this really wonderful report that I can pull at any time that shows donor activity.  And helps me break that down a little. But some of the things that we do on a regular basis is that, I mentioned this before, but we make sure that we still have the personal contact. We look at everything unmasked because you have thousands of donors and you have to be making sure that everyone is getting every communication.

But we do have targeted donor surveys. I haven’t ventured into the emailing everyone the donor survey because that’s a massive undertaking. But we’ll take a small group of 20 donors and we’ll send a visit request or a phone call request and get their reflections with open-ended questions that are hopefully not leading.

How often do you hear from us? Do you hear from us enough? Do you hear from us too much? What would you really like to learn about us and who do you think we are. And trying to get their feedback. And it’s all over the place. I’m sure this is the same for every organization, probably even more so for organizations that have a wider footprint than we do. 

But the CSFP to Joe in Conshohocken is way different than the CSFP that Mary in South Philly understands. Because they pick and choose information what they’re interested in. That has been a huge learning lesson is, that people do not have the same understanding of our organization that we think they do. And the more that we can get out in front of people, even if you’re talking to 5% of your donor base, the more that you’re actually talking to your donors, the more you’ll learn about what your donors are understanding of your organization, that’ll help drive your communications.

We also do very typical things. The emailed surveys of those people who haven’t opened an email in the last seven months. Do you still want to hear from us, the opportunity to unsubscribe, making sure that we’re scrubbing our list as best we can so that we can add more people who do want to learn about the organization.

And one of the things that I’d really like to do, we’re adding a couple of new staff members this year. So when I have a little more capacity, is really look at the calendar and not just the fundraisers calendar, but the entire organization and see, okay, if I’m a donor, who opens every single email, every single letter, takes every single phone call. What does my experience look like. Versus someone who’s never opened an email, ever. And how can we come to a nice middle point so people are getting the story that we want to tell. So that’s the ivory tower that’s never achievable because you can’t control how people act, but we want to try and make sure that we’re sending out a narrative that we’re proud of and we’re making sure that donors are hearing all of the new, great things that we’re doing. 

Mallory: Okay. I love this. And I want to go back to something that I noticed about how you were talking about some of your retention strategies a minute ago, because we have this other episode in this series with this woman Ayelet Fishbach, who wrote this book called Get It Done, which is around the science of motivation.

And in that conversation, we talk about this middle problem and how motivation typically wanes in the middle of anything. Whenever you start some new campaign or new project, there’s this excitement at the beginning or the first few donations that come in, feels so big. And then there’s this kind of long wah wah phase. And then we feel the motivation at the end.

And for me, this is super interesting to think about in regards to donor retention, because you have been alluding to and sharing, you’re doing a number of things right now that you don’t know how it’s going to go. Like you keep saying, I’m excited to see this and I’m excited to see this.

Will you just talk to me on a personal level. How do you manage and navigate some of the uncertainty that comes with fundraising, trying something new. How do you keep yourself motivated to be taking actions that you believe are going to show that return down the line? But you don’t necessarily get the data validation in the moment.

Megan: That’s an excellent question. I am always so excited to see the outcome and I think that’s partially because so much of my background was in mass marketing to donors and an annual giving that I’m okay with initiating a strategy, knowing that the tail is really long and we’ll take some time to figure out. And that’s exciting going into the unknown.

I really like messaging strategies. So I’m constantly changing strategies where it makes sense. But in terms of your question about the middle, I think if you, yourself, find your own w, Why you’re a part of the organization that you represent, or if you’re on a board, same thing. Or if you care about anything, if that, why? Like, why do I represent him? Why does this need exist? Why are we even doing this? You’ll find new ways of making things exciting for donors. 

For me at the Childrens Scholarship Fund Philadelphia we had a major opportunity that was otherwise would have been a little bit of a lull period because we were in a planning phase where we got a new Executive Director.

And that was a really exciting, and it’s not tied to programs, but people want to hear the vision. So we work more with youth focused organizations. There will never be a time where donors don’t want to be connected to a child that they serve or a parent that’s trying to find education to their child. So there’s always something new and exciting.

And I think the more, as a fundraiser, that you can work to be a part of that connection, the more motivated you’ll be to be in that middle phase. And you’ll constantly think of new ideas. And get yourself out of your database bubble and the webinar bubble and all the reports and the fundraising associations bubble and get in it. Get in a meeting with your Programs Director and a major donor, and just listen to their conversation and you’ll be really motivated for that next step and how you can make even at your next newsletter really exciting.

That’ll come through to donors, the more that you can do things in a genuine way, the better. Sometimes my communications to our entire database can be a little bit biased because I tend to speak about the things that I’m really passionate about, but at least then my passion comes through.

We had a recent training for the entire staff at CSFP on developing their, and I don’t love this phrase because it sounds kind of salesy, but I can’t think of a different one.  But finding their elevator pitch, that’s based in their personal passion for our mission. So if someone comes up to you and they ask you what your organization is, you don’t spout out our mission, which is very important. You don’t say we’re a scholarship organization. You have your personal approach to what we do and why it relates to you personally. 

Because people give to people, interact with people. You, if you hang up with a donor, you are their lasting impression. So why don’t you communicate, What about your organization it is that you’re passionate about.  And that’s how I get around the middle. And I try to take that and then translate it into our mass donor communications. 

A key example of that is we’re about to kick off our annual fund for the new year. So our fiscal year, follows the calendar year and we’re in a bit of a middle phase right now, we’re in a lull. Like we had a big growth phase last year. We’re about to enter another new initiative that we can’t announce yet. So what do we say in this letter? What’s the sense of urgency? What’s the excitement? So we had to do an exercise in getting back down to our core values and essentially we need donors to give, because without these gifts, year after year, students aren’t getting an education.

And while that may not be shiny and new. It’s incredibly urgent and there’s a huge need for it. So what we did is we just turned the letter back to parents. All of our donors are very loyal. We have more donors that were asking to renew their gifts, then prospects, than we have asking you to give new gifts. So we have the great deal of our donors who we are for the most part. So we can skip over a lot of the intro, copy and language, and we can get into the heart of why we even do this in the first place.  

We took our keynote or a key event. Which is called Lottery Day, it’s a celebration of all of the new scholarship recipients. So volunteers come together and they make calls to families and let them know the good news that their children are getting scholarships to the schools that best meet their needs. So our first kick off annual fund letter is a whole series of parent experiences from the last Lottery day. And then we circle and tie that and it back into why we need gifts a year after a year, no matter what phase of the growth we’re in.

Obviously that letter hasn’t launched yet, so I don’t have data, but I’m excited about it. And I have a lot of confidence in it because I think it’s a unique approach. I’m proud of that way that we’ve got around the lull of, we don’t have any big goal to announce, we don’t need  X amount of donors to make this goal happen, but we need the donations to make CSFP happen. And that’s a real thing. That’s one way that we got around it specifically this year. I hope that answers your question.

Mallory:  It does and actually you also highlighted this other piece that I talked about in the other episode, which is this idea of incremental goals. And I think sometimes when we think about incremental goals, we think that they all have to be numbers or data. So we think about a campaign where, okay, we can set incremental goals around how much we bring in the first week, second week, third week. So we’re constantly tracking against those goals. And then maybe we don’t lose the focus just on the big goal at the end. I think, or have the middle problem because of just the big goal at the end, which I do think that’s important too.

But I think what you’re also illuminating is that sometimes the goal is just around the intentionality through which you take the certain action. So maybe the goal is like the experience you want your donor to have when they read your next newsletter, or your goal is like how you want to deal with your understanding of the relationship of like how your organization runs a certain program and why this donor is like so excited to support it year after year. 

Sometimes we make so many assumptions and this is just a natural thing our brain is doing. And instead of getting really curious, and what I hear you doing is maybe just a natural part of who you are, but I want to highlight it as a strategy for folks, is like one, you are using a ton of curiosity, which we talk about on the podcast a lot as one of the number one things to keep you in, what I talk about as anabolic energy. So more of that flow state and that momentum and motivation, right? Curiosity is such a tool to help keep us there. And you have demonstrated it in so many ways, just in the last 30 minutes of this conversation, which is just awesome to see in practice.

And then I think you also are taking a certain amount of time to be really intentional about what’s the point of even doing this thing. Because I think sometimes when we get stuck in those template emails, It’s because we’re just looking a mile away and we’re like, I have this goal and part of that goal is sending 12 newsletters a year.

So how am I going to get those 12 newsletters created as quickly as possible to reach hopefully that end goal, instead of what is the point of March’s newsletter to our community. What’s the actual point. What’s the actual goal. What’s the experience we want people to have. So I just want to double click on some of the pieces that you said there.

But I want to go back here because I’m curious if there’s something there. You all have a new Executive Director. That’s a big transition, for many organizations, that transition makes them concerned about donor retention. 

I didn’t hear any of that from you. Talk to me about that. Is that something you’ve been considering or thinking about or not think about thinking about and why? Just tell me where that lands with you.

Megan: Yeah, so we actually have seen tremendous success with the woman who has come on as Executive Director. In fact, she’s grown leaps and bounds and has made this organization grow leaps and bounds that the board just changed her title to President and CEO. So now we have a President/CEO of Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia. We didn’t actually see any dips and I can’t take credit for it because she started four months before me, her name is Kesha Jordan. And so a lot of things had been underway to make her announcement.

I feel what made that transfer really successful, specific members and our board took a lot of responsibility to introduce her in the right way. We were at this incredible moment. So Kesha started two weeks before the quarantine lockdown happened in Philadelphia. 

It changed the whole narrative. It changed all the questions like, what are you going to do to for the organization? To what is happening with the organization, what is happening with the students? So it was a little bit of a unique situation, but it created a shining moment for leadership at CSFP. 

With her guidance, we kicked off an emergency tuition fund. She was able to champion that and talk about that. Our board members banded together and got her virtual meetings with all of our top donors. And them we slowly introduced her to the larger donor community. And I do believe that it was received well. Partly because there was a series of turnovers in leadership before the current President and CEO joined.

But also because it was rolled out strategically with Kesha, stepping up as the new leader, the board rolled out a new strategic plan. We kicked off this emergency tuition fund initiative. We hit our goals. We did struggle through hardships and we did have to explain that, but right now we’ve bounced back and know we’ve hit a lot of our goals.

So I think that she is a leader has built trust with our donor community. And we also, and it’s funny so much to the point, sometimes you have to pat yourself on the back, but she’s built so much trust to the point that we carefully use her name when we’re sending out email blast because when we send an email with her name, it gets more opens and clicks. So we don’t want to do that all the time, so people are like, oh, this really isn’t the President and CEO. It’s just another email. So we’re like very careful that when we send out messages from our President and CEO. So it’s been a really cool learning lesson or the silver lining that can come out of something like going down on lockdown and learning about your organization from your house, because you can’t go to the office and you can’t go to partner schools. Everyone wanted to hear from our new Executive Director because they wanted to know, what was going to happen to the students that they support?

Mallory: Okay there are so many things that I’m really inspired by around what you’re saying.

I want to ask you, what do you feel like is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made when it’s come to donor retention or donor relations. And what did you learn from it?

Megan: I have a lot of them obviously, but 

Mallory: I think we all do, we need to normalize talking about it!

Megan: One of the biggest things that I’ve learned from are, the gimmicks, like falling into the trap of marketing tactics. In my current role because of the size of the organization, we have the good fortune of that we don’t need to send fundraising letters out every month. Other larger organizations that I have been a part of, like that’s an absolute necessity and just the bread and butter of how you fund your mission and you can very easily fall into the trap of marketing tactics and what can sound really gimmicky?

My biggest learning lesson is, if you’re gonna have a tactic, if you’re going to have a strategy, there needs to be integrity behind it. Because donors are savvy, whether they donate $20 or they donate $20 million, they’re going to see right through you if you don’t have a message that has integrity. So even if you’re churning out an appeal every month, across every single channel you could possibly imagine and medium, that it really has to meet you where you are as an organization and speak to your donors.

And like I said before, is bridge that divide between the community that you serve and your donors, because ultimately that’s what they want. They want to learn about the people, the animals, the environment, the community that they support you. 

They’re not going to respond to certain teaser on the front of your envelope. They may open that, that may work one month, but if you constantly just build on the tactics, eventually your going to experience donor attrition, because you’re not actually connecting them with your mission. So the more that you can have integrity and communication, the better is what my personal experience is.

And then again, my bias is that I’ve primarily worked in Philadelphia and tying it back to people in Philadelphia, being very tied to Philadelphia. I have to be even more cognizant of that.

Mallory: But I feel like that’s a wonderful thing. What I hear you saying underneath all of that is just respecting the people that you’re getting a moments of attention from enough to make sure that you’re not taking that moment for granted.And that you’re communicating. 

I think about this, even in my business all the time where I have to market things and I’m constantly asking myself, if this is the only interaction that someone has with me, how do I want them to feel. My programs might never be for them, my work might never be for them. But the last thing I want to do is have my marketing strategies negatively impact fundraisers in any way since the whole point of my work is to improve the lives of fundraisers. 

But sometimes we can lose sight of that and I’ve certainly crashed and burned there before too, taking the advice of someone else and not taking that extra moment, does this feel like it’s in integrity and alignment with me and my business and just going through the motions.

And I think there’s this piece here that is so important and so often overlooked, is when you try to rush donor relations and rush donor retention. You’re actually doing the opposite of what makes those interactions meaningful.

Megan: I would completely agree with that. I just actually had a conversation with my team, including our President and CEO about this first kickoff appeal letter. Because we have a few open positions right now because we’re growing organization and we’re shifting our departments around, which also means that we’re quite short staffed in several capacities.

I have said I know that there are things that we’ll have to change. We’ll have to alter, we’ll have to shorten, maybe we would have to skip this year to make sure that we’re not over exhausting with everything. But if we’re going to do one thing, it’s going to be the way that we communicate with donors.

And I’m okay with things going out slightly behind schedule, ff the end product is way better than what it would be if it went out three weeks earlier, like that’s very important to me. I think one of the traps fundraisers, annual fundraisers, fall into when it comes to donor retention is the skim ability factor, which is my own personal term. It’s not like an industry term. 

You send out so many emails and so many letters, they’re like, okay, donors are just going to skim them. So let’s bold things, let’s underline things, let’s bulletproof them. What if you approached it from a different message where you create something compelling, where the hope is that donors actually want to read every letter, where you have a cadence, then a full two page letter every month. Maybe you have snippets of updates and then you have a heartfelt letter from the President and CEO.

The goal should be that the donors want to read the content that you are sending them, and I’m not just saying, Oh, okay, you’re asking me to give, let me just tear off their device, hold it till November, send it in November. Now you’re always gonna have donors that want to do that because you can’t control what the donors want to do.

There’s some donors that just love giving to 30 different organizations and that’s great, that’s a great impact. But the goal should be trying to reach the donors, where you’re not falling into that skim ability trap, where you’re trying to highlight your bullet points and not necessarily what the donor probably wants to hear.

Mallory: You want to teach inside my course. That’s what we talk about alignment, communication being through the funder lens. And I really appreciate you sharing all of that. And I also think there’s something you said that really aligns with something I teach a lot  one-on-one but I haven’t talked about publicly, is like how every sentence you write, the goal is to get people to read through to the next sentence. I do this a lot with folks when I coach them around job search stuff, and people look at their cover letters and they want to put everything in their cover letter. 

The goal of the cover letter is for them to want to take the next step. If they have a question about that thing. Guess when they’ll ask you, in the interview. You don’t need to actually have everything in there. And same with the donor outreach email, it’s not about writing 45 pages in the donor email. It’s about how can you connect to them through what they care about through their funder lens to inspire them, to take the next step in that engagement, whatever that next step is.

And sounds like that’s what you’re talking about too.

Megan: Yeah, I also acknowledge that’s a huge challenge. It’s really hard and it involves a lot of managing up every single step of my career. I have been faced with the scenario, is you write what you think is a fantastic, get to the point, powerful 275 word appeal. You send it off to your managing Director of Development, Executive Director, they add seven paragraphs, send it back to you and they are like now this is good to go. And you’re like, oh no. And it always depends, like you have to, you do have to serve your community and you have to deserve the person leading the organization. So sometimes you have to make things skimmable. I do it every day.

But sometimes you have to step up as a fundraiser and say, I’ve been in practice, I know what donors want. And I think that if we kick it off with this powerful message that we’ve tested already, and we know resonates with donors, that we can actually include all of this other great data and content and tons of pages into the link, like the end to the landing page. And that can help drive donors the donation page.

There’s always positives to everything. So it’s, how are you taking all that great content and prolonging the interaction and the engagement with the donor. So the best experience, the ultimate goal is that you get a donor that receives a letter and then they receive an email. Then they open that email. They click that link. They go to the landing page, they make a donation and then they get a slew of resources and information in their follow-up email after they make the donation. So you can spread that content. But it’s not an easy conversation to have with someone that is your supervisor. But the more that you learn about donor retention and learn from other organizations that have made that mistake or have gone through those growth challenges and those learning curves, the more empowered you are to explain what donors want to hear and how they will want to hear it.

But it’s always tough. It’s always hard, especially if you have a leader who doesn’t come from the fundraising world, because the leaders of organizations come from all different backgrounds. Sometimes they come from programs. Sometimes they come from fundraising. Sometimes they actually come from the corporate world.

So you’re serving a lot of different audiences all at once as a fundraiser, while working towards one very common ubiquitous goal, it’s hard. Plus we were are wearing 17 hats every day. It’s all about balancing the data, with balancing integrity, with balancing a message that you’re passionate about. So then it turn, your donors will feel that passion and then they’ll donate.

Mallory: I love it. And I’m really glad that you said that part at the end because you’re right, it’s never happening in a fishbowl, it’s happening connected to all these other pieces. So I’m really glad that you said that. Tell us where you want folks to go to connect with you. If they’re interested, if you’re open to that, or to learn more about Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia.

Megan: Yes. Thanks so much for that. I am so excited to be at my organization. I feel like such a nerd whenever I talk about CSFP. I mentioned this at the beginning, but Philadelphia has an incredible issue of just the constant pandemic even if you want to say endemic of the cycle of poverty in our city, I think is because we’re such an insular community 

And we have neighborhoods and zip codes where the local school options are actually in the bottom 15% of schools on the performance range in the state of Pennsylvania and the parents are faced with limited to no options for quality safe education that meets their children’s needs. 

And we address that through an inclusive annual lottery, we award anywhere from 2000 to 2,500 new scholarships to families looking to place their students and schools that meet their need every year. This year we served over 5,400 students, annually, which is our largest rate ever and still the need persists. 

And I just can’t think of anything right now, especially where we are, more powerful than allowing a mother to send her kid to a school that’s safe, that the child enjoys and that the child is thriving and finding success. So if you want to learn more about that and all of our achievement data that’s behind the work that we do, you can go to CSFPhiladelphia.org. It’s really easy to find. So CSFPhiladelphia.org. My name is Megan Staples Jacob, I’m on LinkedIn. Please connect with me. I’ve also worked at five other organizations all in Philadelphia. If you ever want to meet with me and speak with me, I love networking. I’m a fundraiser, so I love meeting people and I would welcome any conversation. 

Mallory: Awesome. Thank you Megan so much for joining me today. I’m so grateful. 

Megan: Of course, thank you for inviting me.

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