Charities are treating donors like a sausage factory production line when it comes to communication, according to Charlie Hulme, managing director of the consultancy Donor Voice.
Speaking at the Institute of Fundraising’s conference on face-to-face fundraising in central London yesterday, Hulme said that as well as measuring data about where and when donors signed up, charities needed to keep records of why people donated in order to tailor communications and improve retention.
If not, he said, there was a risk that a range of people – those who donated to a cause because they had been personally affected by it, because they or someone they knew had been supported by the charity or those who had no prior connection to the charity – "would all go on the exact same donor journey".
Hulme added: "Then we wonder why people are leaving us, and we’re blaming the agency, saying they’re bringing in the wrong kind of people.
"What we’re not doing is looking at these people as people; we’re looking at them as units on a sausage line. They are supporters and they go on the factory production line, and that’s how they get treated."
Charities were collecting information about where people gave, when they gave and how much they gave, but not about why they wanted to give, Hulme said.
"If you’ve got a good fundraiser, they’ll talk to them about this and find out anyway," he said. "But that’s not reflected in the-one-size-fits-all welcome pack and phone call because at that point it all looks exactly the same."
Ilja de Coster, fundraising strategist at Amnesty International Belgium, agreed that charities needed to tailor their communications to different donors.
He said he had conducted an experiment that demonstrated donors who were not completely committed to the cause were more likely to continue as donors if they received regular communication from the charity, but donors who considered themselves committed already were more likely to be put off by receiving too much information.
More than 1,000 donors had been asked a series of questions when they signed up, designed to establish how committed they were to the cause, and this scoring, de Coster said, was the best indicator of whether they would be retained as donors in the long term.
The donors had then been divided into three groups: those who received only a standard newsletter, those who received light communication (once every other month) telling them what was happening to their money and about the charity’s work, and one group that received the same sort of communication on a monthly basis.
Although the different levels of communications did not seem to affect retention across the whole group, de Coster said, differences did emerge when the results were broken down by how committed they were.
"The highly committed donors, the ones who say at the moment of recruitment ‘I really like you; I am passionate about you’, for that group the fewer communications you send the more they stay," de Coster said.
These people were likely to be annoyed by communication, he added, and perceive it as an attempt to convince them of something they already believed in.
He added: "The ones who are more in doubt, the more communications you send the more they stay. They might sign up on an emotional impulse, but they need additional support to know who you are afterwards."