How are Donors Like Orchids?

Several months back, a friend sent me an orchid for my birthday.  It was a really lovely present and now has a special place on my desk. My friend told me that he chose the orchid because he was pretty sure I don’t have a green thumb (correct) and that it would be very low-maintenance (sort of but not really as you will see). What my friend didn’t know was that I had killed an orchid once before. But I was determined not to lead this plant to its demise this time. 

The blooms lasted a few months and then slowly one by one, each faded and dropped off leaving me with the stems and leaves.  For a while the plant was doing great in its dormant state. The leaves were beautifully green.  It looked healthy.  It was shooting out new roots that even started to extend out of the pot. I recalled reading that repotting is necessary after a certain period of time and thought it might need more room.  However about a week after the transplant to its new, more spacious home, I noticed that the leaves started to droop and the roots began changing colors.  Now, panic set in.  Apparently, orchids, despite the fact that they can grow in jungles pretty much in air, are prone to infection and can be sensitive to changes in temperature and light. What happened? Maybe I should have sterilized the pruning shear as the instructions said (seriously? This is not major surgery!)?  Maybe the plant doesn’t like the new bark or the new pot wasn’t clean enough (again, really?)?  The curse of my not-so-green thumb was striking again! Thankfully, the plant clinic at a nearby nursery diagnosed the problem and gave me a plan for what I need to do to save it from further stress.

In a way, donors are like orchids. The GivingUSA 2016 report that was released earlier this week once again shows an increase once again in total philanthropic giving.  Clearly donors are feeling confident despite a fluctuating economy and unstable political landscape here at home and around the world.  But donor retention levels are still abysmal at an average 43%.  That’s a far more important number to be paying attention to because it means that nonprofits are losing 60% of their donors each and every year. 

Care and Feeding Takes Dedication

Just as good orchid care is more involved than just the “one ice cube per week” as my friend assured me, good donor relations is a lot more than just a thank you note.  It’s easy to become complacent to think that just because donors have chosen to invest in our cause, they will unconditionally support us and that when we ask again they will give.  That’s certainly a natural assumption to make if you are an educational institution that bases its alumni relations on that emotional bond. 

Rather, good donor engagement involves a regular calendar of touchpoints, updates, and communications that highlights stories of successes, progress, results, and even failures and challenges.  Notice “solicitations” isn’t included in this list.  50% of respondents in the 2014 Burk Donor Survey, cited over-solicitation—whether real or perceived—as a top reason for no longer giving to charities.

Create the Right Environment to Make Donor Engagement Bloom

Apparently, the keys to getting an orchid to rebloom involve the right amount of light and room temperature. Even then, it’s not guaranteed that they will maintain a regular cycle of blooming and dormant states.  As we see from that low average donor retention rate, continued donor giving should never be assumed.

Are you creating the right environment to grow your donor’s emotional connection to your mission? In your communications, how do you make your donors feel?  Do you celebrate your donors as partners in your mission?  Even more important than the quantifiable metrics that demonstrate good ROI, are the stories about your work, the people you serve, and your results making your donors feel that their support is appreciated and making a difference in the lives of others?  Donors want to see, feel, and touch the impact their gifts are having. There are many multi-channel ways to bring your work to life such as through social media, videos, virtual reality, personal letters or notes from your beneficiaries, and even personal site visits to see your work.

If you’ve made your donors feel loved and valued as a co-investor, their support will indeed bloom and renew.  But it takes constant dedication. That is the key to growing those donor retention levels, too.