John Thompson, Chief Creative Officer  ●  8/26/2017

In the Land Between 1–12: Taking a Fresh Look at Sustainers

Sustainer Donor

AHHHH, the sweet sounds of monthly sustainers. Committed and highly engaged monthly donors, whose gifts hit a charity’s bottom line with increasing regularity as more and more of them embrace autopay options.

No wonder nonprofits spend a lot of money and effort to acquire them; either directly from a prospect universe (often via DRTV or face-to-face canvassing) or cultivated from qualified donor segments, which often require a telemarketing component to close the deal.

In either case, it’s a labor-intensive, expensive exercise with a low conversion rate, but one that yields a high payoff.


Yet despite their potential, many monthly sustainer programs are intrinsically flawed:

  • Many give the impression that the donor is signing up in perpetuity, no doubt a perception that limits buy-in. Feedback studies report that donors who are considering a monthly relationship worry they cannot “manage” it in a way they can easily stop, decrease, or increase their gift once they sign up.
  • The core offer of regular monthly giving contravenes urgency. Therefore, when sustainers lapse, it becomes difficult to make a case that there is a sudden need to fill the gap their lapsing created.
  • There is little originality or customization among nonprofit sustainer programs today. Excepting child sponsorships, almost all of them seek a $16–$19/month price point, and little thought is given to differentiating the programs’ “brands” from others in the same vertical. In fact, remove the organization’s name and most branded sustainer programs are indistinguishable from each other.


What floats a monthly donor’s boat?

  • The organizational mission resonates with them. They like to know that their support makes an impact.
  • That impact creates an inherent “warm glow” of self-satisfaction for the donor, knowing that they were asked and responded, and in so doing, made the world a better place.
  • They appreciate the convenience and budgetary control of planned monthly giving.
  • Because they are largely diverted from the regular contact stream, they can easily engage and stay informed about the impact they make without being repeatedly hit with new “ask” appeals.

In return, they willingly deliver regular support, month after month.


What about those who do not make a 12-gift commitment?

96–99 percent of prospects and donors simply do not respond to a 12-month commitment acquisition offer. And that’s not surprising. It’s a big investment commitment for even those whose hearts are moved by a nonprofit’s mission.

In the end, these non-responders, plus all new one-time donors, are generally relegated to the regular donor appeals contact stream, to join the greater mass of single-gift donors.


And what exactly is that “regular stream?”

Of course, that depends on the organization, but very often it is a contact “chase” strategy that includes 12–18 discreet touches that ask for another contribution, in one channel only. The same file may be chased to a similar degree in other channels as well. And after the second or third consecutive appeal, donor hearts warmed by their first gift may be starting to cool just a bit. Certainly by the 18th contact, this chase strategy has completely frozen any purely emotional motivation the donor might have experienced at one time.


From Transaction to Transformation

We at TrueSense Marketing see donors as either transactional or transformational.

New donors are transactional in nature. And if they do not receive reasonable opportunities to expand their relationship with their organization, they will likely remain transactional. Transactional donors, without that cultivated relationship, could easily transfer their gift-giving to another equally deserving charity.

Conversely, donors who seize opportunities to deepen their loyalty and relationship with a charity are much more likely to become transformational donors. Transformational donors are defined not only by the generosity of their gift, but by the frequency of their giving, their rate of retention, and depending on their capacity, their willingness to become true, high-impact donors, such as major or planned givers.


Reasonable Opportunity: Somewhere Between 1 and 12

Traditional 12-month sustained giving is certainly one of those reasonable opportunities. But failing that, as mentioned, many organizations simply revert to the chase.

So instead, let’s redefine a sustainer as a donor who makes a multi-gift commitment for the course of a year. It could be 12 gifts per year. It could be two gifts or four gifts a year. The important thing is the donor’s commitment to making them.

We know that sustainers of this sort are more likely to become transformational. As a result, we employ any number of offer strategies to make multi-gift commitments appealing to donors, thus moving them up the donor value ladder from transactional to transformational status.

The quid pro quo? Sustaining donors receive far fewer “asks” and more cultivating attention: statements on their impact; mission updates; insider information; and, depending on their giving levels, “one-to-some” thank-you phone calls and organizational check-ins.

For TrueSense clients, this donor value-based approach to the concept of sustainers is paying off big-time in the form of dramatic increases in net revenues, similar spikes in retention rates, growing mid-level giving programs, and increasing numbers of high-value donors handed off to Major Gift and Planned Giving case officers.


Lessons Learned

Top-line conclusions? There are several:

  • There is a middle-ground, multi-gift sustainer model that can identify engaged donors who won’t necessarily commit to 12 gifts.
  • These sustainers have great impact and upgrade potential for average gift values, frequency, and retention rates.
  • Because these donors are removed from 12–18/yr. appeal cycle investment, their ROI improves dramatically.
  • Donors confirm they like being in control of their giving relationship with the charity.



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