Donor retention podcast with Lisa Chmiola

Episode aired Oct. 7, 2020: Donor Retention

With 2 decades of philanthropic development experience, Lisa Chmiola of Fablanthropy knows what it takes to keep donor retention rates high. Whether in a small or large shop, your focus should be on relationship building, not creating shiny reports. In this episode Lisa discusses

  • 4 reasons why retention is so low
  • the importance of an outreach strategy and plan
  • the need to stop being so territorial
  • why immediate follow up- both internally and externally- is critical to retention and
  • 9-to-5: If donors don’t work 9-to-5, then why should we?

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can  implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us an expert fundraiser, my friend Lisa Chmiola. Lisa how you doing?

Lisa: Good. How are you doing?

Ephraim: I’m doing great thank you. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Lisa Chmiola CFRE has more than 18 years of philanthropic development experience. She has served in major and planned giving roles in education and religious institutions, following initial career experience in event-based philanthropy. An AFP master trainer since 2014, Lisa has presented at AFP international conferences and   a variety of AFP and other industry association regional conferences, chapter meetings and webinars. She also serves as an adjunct instructor in Rice University’s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership.

As Chief Fablanthropist for Fablanthropy, she works with nonprofits to improve their fundraising, planned giving and major gifts programs. Lisa is an active volunteer, serving on   the board of the AFP New Orleans chapter and the U.S. Government Relations Committee for AFP Global, an incoming board member of the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners, a sustaining member of the Junior League and a graduate of Leadership Houston. Additionally, she has co-authored several pieces for AFP’s Advancing Philanthropy magazine.

Lisa is the proud mom of Ava, a mini schnauzer with her own social media presence @avalynndog. In today’s episode we’re going to discuss finding the time, so let’s dive right in.

 Acquisition Vs. Retention

Lisa, as a fundraiser you’re extremely busy and probably wearing multiple hats. So where should you concentrate more time: acquisition, freshening the pipeline or retention, cultivating and stewarding current donors?

Lisa: Well it truly depends where your organization is in its life cycle or where your portfolio is that you’re managing for an organization. I would say if you’re a younger organization you’re likely spending so much more time on acquisition, you need to build that base of support. But if you’re in a more well-established organization, you might be spending more of your day-to-day on retention. Or let’s even take something in between the two: You’re in an organization that’s been around for awhile but maybe you have a new project, a new territory that you’re traveling to to work with donors. So again you may be settling more on acquisition in your day-to-day work. 

What’s important to remember no matter where you are in this process, you have to make time for retention, even among the acquisition. It takes so much more effort to convert prospects to donors. If you do all that work and you just ignore the donors later after they’ve made the gift, then like truly what is your point?

Why Is Retention So Low

Ephraim: Absolutely. So follow up to that. The sector retention rate is about 40% and we know as you mentioned, acquisition costs are higher than retention. So why is the sector so bad at retaining current donors?

Lisa: Well part of the challenge is in some organizations the focus is so strongly on numbers and not on the relationships, which is unfortunate.  Even and especially really when it comes to major gifts, bigger is not always better and bigger meaning lots of rows on a spreadsheet, for example. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to bring in say 25 new donors and then you’re ignoring two major gift donors and those gifts were equal to or greater to what’s going to come in from those 25 new donors. But I have to say- and just being in a variety of organizations and visiting with colleagues a lot of times- leadership in the philanthropic sector is so focused on making reports looking shiny.  

It just goes back to a bigger conversation of how we promote management in the fundraising industry and that is a whole ‘nother conversation. You could do a whole ‘nother episode of this, just on how we grow and develop our leadership. I think the other part of it is retention takes work. It takes so much cultivation and continued development of that relationship you can’t   just set it and forget it with the donor. People are being mindful of how they’re being treated.  If you don’t properly cultivate and steward those donorships and continue to put in that relationship work, they’re not going to continue to give. And it may feel really exciting when you’re starting out, you’re in the acquisition prospect, you’re recording the prospect and it’s exciting, right? It’s someone new and they’re fascinated and let’s get them involved. But if you don’t continue investing to keep them excited, then the donors aren’t going to want to keep investing. So it’s an ongoing challenge and I think that we as professionals have to make a greater focus on the retention and the continuation of a long relationship.  

3 Tips For Cultivation

Ephraim: Excellent. So today’s actionable item: Please tell us three things fundraisers must do as part of their cultivation and  stewarding efforts for current donors.

Lisa: First it’s finding a way to keep a track of the contact with your donors and prospects. So whether that’s your organization has a CRM, you know a client relationship management system, if you all have to access is an Excel spreadsheet. Just knowing simple things like when the last time was that you contacted a donor, when is your next outreach plan, what is that outreach surrounding, if they haven’t replied to you by a certain date what will you do and how will you follow up? Making sure that you have a solid system in place and one that works for you is important. 

So then next that means you have to build an action plan to manage your relationships. As you get to learn your various donors, what motivates them to give, what will motivate them   to continue giving, what are things that they want to know about in your organization or in your community in general that you can find ways to continue to develop that relationship, what kind of impact are they wanting to see in your organization and how do they want to hear about that and also what kind of recognition is appropriate to continue cultivating that relationship.

And finally within your organization, I would encourage you to be less territorial. I think we see this a lot more in the larger organizations with development staffs of 100 plus than maybe the smaller organizations. But even in a small organization, among program and development staff, you can see people get very defensive about their contacts. But to really and truly develop a wonderful relationship for your organization, it’s your responsibility to make sure that the donor has various connections. It will deepen the relationship and that doesn’t even have to just be within the development team. Have them meet  different people that are working on the program side, have them meet the beneficiaries of your work, because the time is going to come that we’re all going to move on from our organizations in some way shape or form, whether it’s to take a new position, to go out on our own, to retire. You have to think about the life cycle of that relationship and that belongs to the organization and you don’t want the donor to stop giving simply because you’ve left.  

Juggling Everything

Ephraim: Excellent. When you worked for Tulane University, you were flying all over the east coast to meet current and prospective donors. As a traveling development officer, what work model did you adopt to be able to juggle everything and make sure you were hitting your goals? 

Lisa: I have to say that traveling on a regular basis to see donors and prospects in person gave me a great respect for planning your work and working your plan. Pretty much like a lot of organizations, we had an expectation. There was a certain amount of donor visits to have per day when we were on a trip to justify staying overnight and paying for the travel. So for me the way that I worked that plan is keeping a spreadsheet of my donors, just like I had mentioned before and the contacts and where was I with my progress with them, when was the last time I had seen them, when do I want to see them again. If I didn’t hear back from them when I planned a certain trip, then I reached out to them for the next trip and so on and so forth. That led to making sure that I had a healthy pipeline.

So a lot of times we talk about it’s so important to have three to four times the people that you think are going to give to be talking to them, to account for the fact that everybody is in a different place and they’re not all going to give at the same time. Same kind of thing with traveling. I would have a set three or four days that I would go on a trip and if I contacted a donor they may or may not have been available or they may or may not have been available as my calendar started filling up. It’s well, I have these days and these times left to see you or I’m in Manhattan this day so I can’t just dash up to Connecticut to come see somebody because you got to get on the train and all those things. So making sure that I was over-contacting people definitely made a big impact.  

I would say probably what was most important to my success during that time was making sure that I did the follow-up and I did the follow-up quickly and that was both the internal follow-up, as far as writing and filing my contact reports so that I could document those conversations and make sure that I was truly telling the story of where the donor was in their process. But then also making sure that I was following up in a timely manner on the action items that I had promised each donor. So that was taking good notes in each meeting, always carrying a notebook with me, letting them know oh I’d like to write that down so I can make sure I follow up with you. 

Then thank you emails immediately when I got back from the trip or sometimes even that day in the hotel room at night, I might be crafting thank you emails to quickly say thanks for visiting with me, I’m going to get back to you when I get back home about x, y and z. So it was a lot of process. I’m a big process person, so once I had kind of developed my work plan, it was easy to follow.

Legacy Vs. Annual Donors

Ephraim: Fantastic. Your company, you help organizations with their planned and legacy giving programs. How does that differ when it comes to relationship building and cultivating, let’s say annual donors?

Lisa: Working in planned giving or gift planning, it requires a lot of patience. It is not something that’s going to come in as quickly as an annual gift for example. It’s also a much more emotionally charged type of giving. You are basically asking someone to consider what their legacy is going to be that they’re going to leave behind when they’re no longer here to make those decisions for themselves. So it becomes much more transformational and not as much transactional, not that there’s anything wrong with transactional giving. I mean we need all kinds of gifts for organizational health, right?

The interesting thing is there’s such a crossover between the two. For example, the largest planned gift notification that I’ve worked on in my career, it came from the donor checking the box at the bottom of the annual gift form that said, I have included your organization in my plans and I have not yet told you. So from that first   point where she mailed that in to the point of when we finalized the details and got all the inclusion and the information from her attorney and working with- and that’s the other thing too, working on gift planning you’re often dealing with allied professionals,  attorneys, CPAs, financial planners, so there’s so many more people that are involved   in the process.

So from start to finish with that particular donor it was almost four years. But the happy happy part of that story, it was a seven-figure notification so it’s definitely worth it. But you have to be patient and willing to put in the time and realize that   there’s a lot of psychology around people making these type of decisions, there’s a lot of family members, there’s a lot of professionals involved and they aren’t as quickly decided as perhaps an annual gift. But it can be so rewarding to know that you’re helping somebody accomplish a dream and to leave their mark on this world. 

Let’s Learn More About Lisa

Ephraim: Excellent. Love it. Let’s move to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?  

Lisa: Oh I think that really started when I was a kid. I was a girl scout, so sold girl scout   cookies. I was in dance team in high school, car washes, all kinds of different fundraisers for that   and it was really a little more than 20 years ago I was working in public relations in the tourism industry and had an opportunity to formally begin my fundraising career. Our tourist bureau had a partnership with the city and we managed several large events, a   downtown concert series, Independence Day festival and so it was my entree into event-based plan or event-based fundraising and from there the plan moved on to working in more similar positions with the American Heart Association, then moving more into individual giving and then major and planned gifts. So it just kind of grew from there.

Ephraim: Cool. So given all your years of experience, if there’s one thing you could shake up in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Lisa: Well to be honest I feel like that is happening now. I think we’re seeing a greater support for flexible work and I think that has shifted so much over the course of my career and really truly in the past few years. But not just flexible location.

I now have the great gift to be able to work from my home and to work with people all over the country and potentially all over the world, but also in hours and just realizing that philanthropic development is not a nine to five world. I think really when I was a traveling gift officer I had the best taste of that. You’d have long days of travel and you would work 12, 14, 15 hour days and then when you would come back, it was ‘we knew you weren’t going to be in the office for a full day, we knew you were going to kind of take some re-entry time.’ I mean you’d have like a 3-4 hour flight across the country and so being able to balance that and to get that recharge was awesome.

I think also being able to just learn to work remotely, working in hotel rooms or coffee shops or between offices and even you know from home when needed. I remember that this kind of ties back to listening to a conference presentation from Penelope Burk years ago that said, we need to treat fundraisers like the adults that we are. We need to empower them to get their job done and if that means being understanding of the fact that there’s an errand to be run during the week that has to be done during business hours or there’s a family commitment or someone is ill and not feeling well, then you need to honor that because if we don’t trust each other to be adults and do the work, then it’s going to get in the way of being there for the donors. I mean certainly donors don’t operate on a nine to five schedule, so why would we?

Ephraim: Absolutely. Tell us why is your company named Fablanthropy?

Lisa: So to have a little fun with it. The tagline is: The intersection between fabulous and philanthropy. The concept started as a blog about five years ago and I really wanted to share with the world that philanthropy is amazing and it can be fun and it should feel that way, so why not celebrate the fabulous and what’s being done both on the donor and the professional side? So it went from that blog to starting to share that mantra through workshops and seminars and now I have taken the full leap into directly working with organizations, as well as nonprofit professionals to coach them to have fabulous philanthropic impact in their community.

Ephraim: Love it. Tell me something: Houston and New Orleans. Which one do you like better?

Lisa: Now come on, that is a trick question. There is going to be a group of friends and colleagues that are listening or watching and are not going to be happy with whatever answer I give, if I solidly chose one.

So I consider Houston home so to say because most of my family still lives there. I’ve lived there the longest in my life, even though I have moved around a bit   and a lot of my career, I spent 12 years of my career there, so much career development and opportunity happened during my days in Houston.

But I’m in New Orleans now and New Orleans has always had a special place in my heart. It was actually the first place growing up that my dad’s career transferred us to the greater New Orleans area and we lived here for a few years and you know, there’s just a sense of culture and community here that you can’t beat and I always dreamed that the goal would be to retire here. But over time my connections kept growing so strongly that I took a leap of faith and I moved here three years ago to take that job with Tulane and I have to say it was the best decision of my life. We work hard, we play hard. It’s the happiest I’ve been in a long time and it’s allowed me to really go after and pursue some dreams. 

Ephraim: Awesome. Speaking of New Orleans, you’re part of a dance troupe down in Nola. How did you get started in that and what’s your best Mardi Gras story?

Lisa: Oh so there’s one of those dreams that I’ve had for a long time. So like I said, I’ve danced since I was a child and I will never forget when I started coming back to Mardi Gras as an adult, it was about four years ago there had been the proliferation of the adult dance troupes in the parades. I almost felt like in a way it was like grown-up drill team and I could do all that all over again and so I thought to myself, if I ever live in New Orleans, this is what I’m doing with my life.

So flash forward three years later, every dance group has a support group that walks alongside the groups and keeps the crowd back and pushes the beads that are on the ground out of the way. So I did that in 2019, had an opportunity to help with the troupe that I’m now a member of which is the Muff-a-Lottas- actually got my little water cup right here for those of you that are viewing- so those of you that are listening, our theme is 50’s diner waitresses. We dance to all the great R&B songs of that era, especially New Orleans artists. So think Fats Domino or Irma Thomas. And we have a lot of sassy fun doing it, we even have trays that we use, little pizza trays for some of our routines. The best part are those parades and dancing and marching along. It’s also just a wonderful opportunity to be in a group of like-minded women that want to have fun and do great things for the community.

My best Mardi Gras story isn’t necessarily one set experience but I have to say it is when you’re dancing along in a parade and you see the little girls on the sidelines watching and they’re trying to move along and imitate with us, or if   there’s a point where the floats stop and we have a dance break in the road, it just takes me back to those years when I was a kid living here and I would see and there were a few dance studios that   had groups at that time, back in the 80s, but just looking up to that and thinking I want to do that someday when I grew up and now I see myself in those little girls, watching the parades and it’s just so cool, you just can’t beat it.

Ephraim: Love it. Love it. Let’s turn the table. Your turn to ask me a surprise question. I have no clue what’s coming. Go ahead.

Lisa: Well as I have learned over the years with you, you have such a great love for all things from the 80s. So if you could invite one 80s star to do this podcast with you, dead or alive, doesn’t have to be someone who’s still living, who would it be and why?

Ephraim: Courtney Cox. That’s the simplest answer, except specifically Courtney Cox circa girlfriend of Michael J. Fox on Family Ties. Specifically that, not Courtney Cox Friends 10 years later but Courtney Cox 80s Family Ties. It wasn’t a crush necessarily but there was something and therefore I just like… my friends know that it’s Courtney Cox circa 85, 86, 87, somewhere in there. Yeah that’s who I’m inviting to the podcast and I’m not even going to discuss Friends with her. I go back to the 80s.  I want to discuss Family Ties or anything else. 

If I had to go with the number two, I’d probably invite Demi Moore’s hair from St. Elmo’s Fire.

Lisa: Just her hair?

Ephraim: It’s fabulous. Just her hair. It’s fabulous. I saw the movie but I rewatched it about a year ago and it… she definitely stands the test of time, the movie does also, but her hair. I love big 80s hair and she just had it. So yeah I’d invite her hair to the podcast and do an entire episode with the hair. No problem. I’m happy to do that.

Lisa: I mean why not? You know that they still sell Aqua Net, right, speaking of great hair. It is actually what I use to keep my parade hairdo because we also do fabulous victory rolls and all kinds of old-timey hairdos when we dance, so that’s cool. It does still exist. The 80s are still alive.

Ephraim: Fantastic. Lisa thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast today. I encourage everybody who’s listening or watching to connect with Lisa on Twitter at @houdatlisa  h-o-u-d-a-t-l-i-s-a. Lisa, have a wonderful day.

Lisa: Thank you, you too.

Ephraim: Okay, be well.

Lisa: Thanks.