How to measure retention

Often, you will see people ask “what’s your retention rate” and get answers like 50% or 60% or whatever.  But there are different types of retention that add up to that overall retention rate.

Yesterday, I said that your direct marketing program was like a bucket with a hole in it.  We’re going to change this a bit today to say that your program is like a pipeline with a bunch of holes in it.  This is the lifecycle of your donor.  To define some terms:

  • Prospective donors are people who haven’t given yet, but might.
  • New donors are donors who are giving their first gift to your organization. I said we’d be defining terms.  I didn’t say they’d be hideously complex.
  • Converted donors/second gift donors/first-year donors are all terms for people who have gotten over the hump and given to your organization within the next year
  • Multi-year donors are people who have given reliably over multiple years
  • Lapsed donors are donors who haven’t given in a while. In a lifecycle analysis, this is frequently put at a time horizon (e.g., given the past year or past two years), but in reality it’s often militated by a broader analysis.  For example, if someone donates $5, you will stop trying to retain them much sooner than someone who donates $100).
  • Deep lapsed donors are lapsed donors, only really lapsed. Again, when this is is defined by your organization.
  • Lapsed reactivated/reinstated are people who were lapsed and have since given a gift. This is an important category often overlooked, in that these reactivated donors can’t be treated like people who just gave their second gift, but neither are the part of that key multi-year donor group.

Blackbaud indicates that the average retention rate is about 50% — that is, of your file, half will give you a gift in the next 12 months.

But as you can see, that’s oversimplified.  First-time donors are less likely to retain with a retention rate about 27%; multi-year retention is 58%, according to Blackbaud’s white paper on the topic.

But they only look at these two categories for retention.  It’s best to look at your retention rate in four buckets:

  • New
  • First-year
  • Lapsed reinstated
  • Multiyear

This is why retention rate as an overall metric camouflages what is happening in your file.  You may have a higher overall retention rate than you did a couple of years ago, but lower retention rates in all of these categories, similarly because you have more multiyear and fewer new donors than you did in years past.

If you prefer, lapsed could be included in here; I don’t because I think of lapsed retention as reactivation – there has to be an effort to reacquire donors, rather than talking to those whose attention you have already.

The other reason it’s important to look at each of these groups separately is that they require different strategies for retention.  With new donors, you have been a first date.  You have learned a tiny bit about them and they about you.  Also, to stretch the dating analogy, your relationship at first is new and exciting.  You can explore things early on like sustainer asks and that person might be in the afterglow of giving and your outstanding onboarding process (more on this later this week) and willing to entertain that notion.  Testing different messages and learning instruments like surveys are par for the course.

Conversely, for your multiyear donors, you should know what they like and don’t like.  Do they give only in the fall and when their gift is matched?  Do they love advocacy appeals?  Is your calendar hanging in their house and are all of their mailing labels yours (i.e., premium donors)?  Not only can you know these, you are expected to know and play back to them – see Ellinger’s Peak of Ideal Customization for details.

One additional retention metric to be aware of is an output from retention rate: lifetime value.  Here’s the formula for lifetime value:

Because everyone loves calculus

Wait!  Please don’t leave!

This is the overly complicated version.  You can ignore discount rate because the cost of money is so low. What you really want are “what is the net value of a person’s donations to an organization going to be?”  The key inputs to this are:

  • What are they giving?
  • What does it cost to get them to give that, initially and ongoing?
  • What is the likelihood that they will give gift 2 from now (and three and four and five) – that is, what is their retention rate? That’s the calculus portion of this – you sum each donation that someone will give, discounting it by the likelihood that they will give it

Retention rates, like compound interest, are magical, rippling through your program for good or ill for years to come.  Tomorrow, we’ll look at the inverse of the retention rate – why people stop giving.

How to measure retention

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