Read time: 5 minutes

The 2018 Benchmarks Study was released last month, and as always it’s jam-packed with useful data about online fundraising, email messaging, social media, digital ads, and more.

Every time we release a new study, I start feeling competitive. I jump straight to the numbers I care about most, and start comparing the averages to what I’m seeing with my own clients. And I know I’m not the only one who sees every metric as a personal challenge.  

If there’s one benchmark fundraisers aspire to exceed, it’s their donors’ retention rate. It combines serious impact for your cause with the warm fuzzy feeling you get as a fundraiser when you know your donors like you and think you’re doing a great job.

So let’s take a look at those numbers that make me feel as competitive as a… sports person doing… sportsball… things? Median online retention for first-year donors was 25%, and repeat donors had an average retention of 60%.


One important note: this study is looking strictly at the online retention of online donors. If an offline donor makes another offline gift, or if an online donor responds to a telemarketing call, or if someone buys six boxes of Girl Scout cookies and eats them all by themselves over the course of a single weekend because it’s for a good cause, don’t judge… that won’t be captured here. We’re talking only about online donors who make (or don’t make) a subsequent online gift.

As with so many lovely charts, this tells us the what. But it doesn’t tell us the why: why do donors choose to make another gift to your cause? And it doesn’t tell us the thing that keeps me up at night (I know, it’s weird, don’t judge), the big thing I want to know, the how: how do we inspire donors to make that second, third, or fourth gift?

There is one obvious answer to that how question. We can increase retention just by asking more and more and more. Obvious, maybe, but it may be the most fraught subject for nervous fundraisers.

You may have heard it from fundraisers, or staff you work with, or maybe even your friends: there’s too much email! And it’s so annoying! And it’s got to be driving people away from these organizations! There is a real fear that frequent fundraising appeals send a terrible message that we don’t value or respect our donors. We don’t want to treat a valued supporter as an ATM machine, or even worse as a slot machine, just yanking on their arm over and over in hopes something good happens.

But with email response rates declining (down 6% this year, to an average of 0.06%), one of the only ways left to increase email revenue is by increasing appeal volume. Year after year, we find that volume continues to climb steadily higher, and so does overall online revenue. The people running these programs may fret some, but they generally believe that the increase in immediate revenue is worth the potential loss of donors down the line who may eventually tune you out, unsubscribe, or mark you as a spammer.

Who’s right? And what does this year’s Benchmarks data set of 4,699,299,330 email messages and 11,958,385 donations tell us about how volume and retention are related?

In short, there appears to be a relationship between fundraising message volume and every type of retention we tracked in this year’s Benchmarks. Simply put, sending more messages tended to go hand-in-hand with higher retention.

We saw a moderate (but statistically significant) positive correlation* between overall online donor retention and fundraising messages per subscriber. Every additional fundraising message per subscriber was related to 0.2% increase in overall donor retention for the year.

While this was the strongest correlation we found when it came to retention, there were some other statistically significant correlations as well:

  • New online donor retention: there was a positive correlation between overall message volume as well as fundraising message volume on new online donor retention. While both correlations were weak (at the minimum), they were still statistically significant.
  • Overall online donor retention: there was an additional positive correlation between volume for all messages (not just appeals) and overall online donor retention. That correlation was also weak, but statistically significant.

To be honest, this data doesn’t surprise us. The more opportunities a donor has to give, the higher the chances are they will give, which directly impacts retention rates. We’ve seen this show up in various tests run by direct mail agencies trying to reduce costs while retaining revenue and donors—a low volume cadence can negatively impact retention if appeal volume is dialed back too much. We’ve also seen it when we look at the retention trends for our clients. Two of our highest appeal volume clients also have much higher than average retention rates.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there is no limit. Beyond a certain level, an overly-aggressive fundraising appeal schedule might cause supporters to turn away more than it encourages them to give. It’s unlikely that sending infinite appeals would yield 100% retention rates (though if someone is willing to test this, please send me your results). And of course, message volume isn’t the only factor that impacts retention. But from the data we’ve seen, we believe scheduling regular, frequent, relevant appeals and messages will help you as a fundraiser improve your retention rates.

So if you’re worried you’re pushing the limits of how many appeals you can send, consider pushing a little further. Odds are, adding a few more messages to your calendar will increase revenue and retention.

*Please bear in mind that a correlation is just that—it shows that these two numbers correlate with one another. It is not necessarily evidence that changing one variable will cause the other data point to move. To try to nail down causation, we would ideally run some scientific tests that could control for all other variables. For our purposes, we only looked at correlations that had at least a weak (0.3 or higher) linear relationship. If you’re not sure what all that means or would like a brief refresher on correlation coefficients, here’s a nice summary for a fun Friday night read (and if you think this is fun, you might want to check out our open positions).