One of the most important strategic decisions any development office can make is the allocation of its scarce fundraising resources into new donor acquisition. Yet, this question is often put aside until the rest of the budget is set. The result is disappointing donor growth.
Since new donor acquisition is almost always conducted at a first-year net cash outflow (each new donor may return only $.60 of each $1.00 you invest in its acquisition), it drains resources from other budget items. Of course, it’s also the only way to replace donors who die, move away, or lose interest, and the only way to grow your program in the future.
Here are three strategies, each described in the extreme to illustrate the point:
The “George Allen” approach
George Allen was the winningest football coach of both the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Redskins. He became famous for trading away future year’s draft choices to acquire quality, veteran football players who produced results immediately. It helped him compile a winning record until the veterans retired. He was let go after the 1977 season, after which the team could do no better than .500 for the next four years.
In other words, you can cut or even eliminate acquisition, for a short time. This will result in greater short-term net revenue, but ultimately a decline in your gross and net fundraising. Even if you retain 80% of donors from one year to the next, after three years, you’ll have only 51% of the donors you started with. I also call this the “Detroit City Bus Maintenance Deferral” method for obvious reasons. Many nonprofits practiced this in 2009 and 2010, and they’re still digging out of their downward revenue spiral.
The Amazon Approach
Jeff Bezos built Amazon into what it is today by plowing virtually all profits back into growth. It was a deliberate, and ultimately successful, attempt to capture market share and grow into a firm that now accounts for 20% of all U.S. e-commerce. He was able to continue this for so many years because he was able to eloquently articulate his plan, and demonstrate successful growth each quarter.
If your board, and your donors, are willing to reward dramatic donor growth year after year in exchange for net revenue to fund the mission, this can be successful for you, too. Good luck with that.
The Goldilocks Approach
The “just right” donor acquisition strategy takes into account your traditional donor attrition and growth plans. If you lose 10,000 donors per year, and your growth needs require a net growth of 5,000 donors per year, you need to invest in the addition of 15,000 new donors each year. The chart below illustrates how one organization’s donor acquisition (blue line) fell far short of donor attrition (red line) over the past four years.
It’s not wrong to be opportunistic at times; if your new donor acquisition is producing good long-term donors, and the budget is available, and the board trusts you, ramp us acquisition beyond the required replacement-and-growth amount.
Nor is it wrong to be frugal; there will be extraordinary circumstances that require budget cuts, and acquisition is no more sacred than any other area of your budget.
Just know, in each case, that you’re saving for, or borrowing from, the future, in each case, and that neither is sustainable in the long run.