Donor Retention: Finding the Gold in your Membership Renewal Program

I was reminded recently of a song I learned many years ago in Girl Scouts; the refrain goes:  Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold.  Wise words for young scouts…and fundraisers too!  For while much energy goes into acquiring new donors (new “friends” so to speak) comparably little has been written about how to keep your “old friends.” However, if you unlock that secret, you’ll find true gold in your database.

Membership organizations like museums, zoos, associations, public media organizations, and a handful of environmental groups that fundraise around a membership model, face unique opportunities, as well as challenges, that donor-based organizations do not.

For membership organizations, renewals are focused around an “expiration month.” Typically, the renewal series starts three months prior to the member’s expiration date, with subsequent monthly messages of increasing urgency as the expiration date approaches. This deadline provides a natural sense of urgency and is a powerful tool for any fundraising copywriter – use it to your advantage!!

Getting members to renew early has positive cash flow implications.  If you can get a member to renew nine months after their join date or previous renewal (rather than 12 months later), it’s likely you’ll be able to mail them an additional appeal within the year, thereby improving your chances of increasing the revenue per donor.

The most successful renewal series have a consistent look and feel.  Typically, the letter form is the same throughout the series – as are the outer envelopes – but with varying teaser messages. Letter copy often varies for new members compared to multi-year members.  And, of course, members are encouraged to renew through whatever means is easiest for them: via mail, online or even by telephone.

An E-Renewal series should mirror the mail in appearance, key copy points, and timing.  One successful strategy is to deploy E-Renewals the same day that the mail drops.  The one exception to this rule  is  the member’s expire month, when two E-Renewals may prove to be most effective – one on the day the mail drops, and a second 3-4 days before the end of the month, alerting the member to the fact that their membership will expire in just a matter of  days.

This renewal model comes with its own set of challenges, too.  Testing and rolling out new creative in the mail can be a slow process. Don’t let your desire to quickly impact the program send you down the wrong path.  Be sure to test over a 3 – 6 month period to ensure a large enough mail quantity and a statistically valid result.  Testing over several months will also enable you to take into account any fluctuations due to seasonality.  Because of the prolonged time it can take to establish a new control in a renewal series, focus your efforts early in the series where any improvements will have the most impact.

It takes a lot of time, money and effort to find new members.  Be sure you’re doing everything possible to renew them.

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