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Q & A: tenure and the donor loyalty thing

Howard Lake | 13 March 2009 | Blogs

Part two of a three-part blog on donor loyalty: measuring and using tenure.
Q: if tenure is years of continuous giving, what is the range of tenure values we might expect?
A: the minimum tenure, of course, is 1 year, but donors often show great commitment. Tenure can rise to many years.
I’ve looked at databases that were commissioned 18 years ago and found appreciable numbers of donors with 18-17-16-15 years of continuous giving. What amazing, special people. Founding fathers and mothers. Veterans. Partners. Advocates. Words are not enough.
Q: so tenure measures loyalty then?
A: you could say that, and for a charity with both a long organisational history and a database that has been carefully – make that scrupulously – managed, loyalty-as-tenure is there for anyone to see. But of course it does not indicate at all WHY the donor is loyal. For that we have to probe the heart, mind, values, experience-of-the-cause of the donor and that is another discussion entirely. It means listening to long term loyal donors intelligently and finding out about their motives.
Q: does tenure differentiate how donors behave?
A: Yes. There is not a great deal of experimentation or testing around (that I know of), but one instance I will tell you about gives a powerful illustration of tenure in action. A membership-based organisation was contacting its supporters by mail, and cut a second, small slot-like window in the envelope. In it they lasered ‘Member since <1985>’ or whatever date it was.
Q: that is so simple. What happened?
A: it was the most successful appeal of all time measured in both response rate and revenue. It is nothing more than simple recognition of the member’s commitment. It shows that simple data can be used to great effect. In the example here the use of tenure was in the envelope, to get the thing opened, but it could have been used just as easily in the body of the letter.
But donors can surprise you. This same mailing had a higher than usual complaint rate (‘I don’t want my neighbours/family/partner knowing I’ve been a supporter of yours for many years!’). And some long established non-profits believe that, regardless of what the database says, they have supporters who have supported them for 30-50 years.
Q: does the for-profit world use tenure too?
A: I can’t say I am an expert, but I remember when I belonged to the AA (Automobile Association, roadside rescue). I had a membership card and on it was embossed ‘Member since 1973’. And when I started Rodd Associates in 1989 I used the well known office supplies firm Viking. After a few years of buying from them, a letter arrived out of the blue from the finance director thanking me for my loyal custom. They really won me over on that day.
Q: so what should fundraisers do with tenure when they’ve got it?
A: that is another story for the next blog.