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First-Time Donors: Step One in Donor Retention

Conference time is always a source of anxiety and inspiration for me.  I find myself sitting in sessions listening to people talking about all of the things I meant to be doing already.  I know I’m not alone in this.  Maybe you know the feeling?

This weekend I had an opportunity to talk about first-time donor retention with some super-bright people at the CASE IV Conference in Ft. Worth.  It was so inspiring.  There are so many new people in the development field who haven’t heard the message yet and they are full of energy and enthusiasm.

Making the case for first-time donor retention isn’t especially difficult as long as the right minds are engaged and the right ears are listening.  How many times in a day do we see the concept of retention demonstrated?  Today alone I’ve seen it in how it is easier to wash a filthy dachshund if you plug the bathtub, how it is easier to keep the fridge cold if you close the door, how it is easier to retain a caffeine buzz if you keep your diet coke IN the bottle and not down the front of your shirt.

The theory behind the solution is simple as well.  Donors aren’t complicated.  You are a donor.  I’m a donor.  We want (for the most part) the same things.  We want to know our gifts are received, appreciated and used appropriately.  We have all of the proper tools we need to communicate impact and gratitude. We have eyes to see generosity in action, ears to hear how thankful recipients are, hands to write and mouths with which to speak.

First-time donors aren’t particularly different from other donors.  They don’t have remarkably different expectations.  The crucial point is that the first time one makes a gift can be the beginning of a long-term relationship if they have a remarkably different experience.

Acknowledge them with timely receipts, personal notes, and personable calls and you’ll increase your first-time donor retention rate, I guarantee it.  If those receipts, notes and calls keep them informed about your organization, invite them to be engaged beyond the gift and inspire them to give again, you’ll have a donor for life.

Think of it like a really, really, really great first date!  No?


Phil Was Here®: University of Iowa and the Student Philanthropy Group

I haven’t been blogging since November, its true. Moving from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma has been an adventure and a half. The past several months have been about getting settled, getting to know my colleagues and making connections. On any give day I find I’m living my last CASE presentation: Thirty Things for Your First Thirty Days. Believe me, the irony isn’t lost on me. I’ve added a #31: The Freshman Fifteen for Professionals. My pants hate me.

The good news is that my weeping wardrobe is the only down side to starting a new program. I’m in a place with new faces, energy (new everything) and it is taking me back to my roots – where I love to be. These days I am focused on doing good, well. Setting the groundwork for something amazing. There isn’t much time for blogging but there is time for sharing!

So a little about Phil.  I only know a little but what I have seen so far, I really like. You can visit their web page here or their Facebook page here. I love their description on Facebook: “Phil lives on The University of Iowa campus—and far beyond it. Phil is learning in classrooms, researching in labs, and giving back to others. Phil takes to the stage and charges the playing fields. Phil is all of us. Phil is you.”

Phil is a simple and fantastic concept. Its a student philanthropy engagement program – a sophisticated communication tool – that lasts year round. Snaps to you, University of Iowa Foundation! Job well done.

Hot Off The Press: USA Today Reports “Building-naming policies being reshaped by controversies”


This came to me from a colleague a short while ago – something we are considering as we build our naming policies and protocol for the first time. Thought I might share

Where in the World Have You Been?

Oh how quickly life can change! One day you could be in Pennsylvania working away and the next, well, you could be headed somewhere else. And all because of a mis-answered phone call. But that is a hilarious story for another day. Suffice it to say, my colleague and friend, Lynne Wester says to always take a recruiter’s call – ALWAYS – because you never know. Well, I had no idea and while I’m not in a place to give details I can say life is good.

Back to blogging! The irony is not lost on me that I was in the middle of a series about things donor relations professionals should do in their first thirty days and I’ll have you know I am following my own advice. As soon as I get settled here I’ll have plenty to share. I have missed you! I’ve also missed internet access at home and cable television but that will be rectified soon enough.

I hope you are all doing well in stewardship and donor relations land. I’m looking forward to writing again!

Warmest regards, Paige

Foodlanthropy: The Food Drive Gets Personal

This blog submission was inspired by my beautiful friend and local foodie, Rebecca Maclean, author of the blog: Food Me Once. The October 3rd article “Whoops,” is an inside look at a local Pittsburgh food bank and offers excellent advice on what to consider as we enter the season of Thanksgiving and our own institutions prepare for annual food drives.

For those of us who work in stewardship and donor relations – we know how small kindnesses can have a tremendous impact. Indeed, the act of giving is relative. If a billionaire gives a million dollars he still has a great deal of money but if an individual with thirty-five dollars left over from paying the monthly bills gives ten dollars, both are tremendous acts of giving but the latter is a proportionately greater piece of that individual’s livelihood.

The latter was my grandfather, Henry.

Henry and I weren’t related. He was my mother’s stepfather. He met my grandmother when they were divorced and in their forties. They married and within a matter of years he was diagnosed with a degenerative spine disorder and was on complete disability. While he was in terrible pain most days, he was still a cheerful fixture in the lives of his grandchildren. Any day of the week you could find one or more of us playing hooky so that we could be in the kitchen mid-day when the women walked home from work at the university across the street to have lunch around the Geiger family table.

Coldcuts, white bread, salad, cheeses, all were set out on a plain plates for my Grandmother and Aunts – Henry always a gentle presence buzzing about the perimeter where the women in his life gathered for a time and then returned to their various jobs on campus.

It wasn’t until I was in college and coming home for summer visits that it became clear to me that Henry and my Grandmother didn’t have much. In fact, they were barely making ends meet. When I was in high school they moved to their property across Mobile Bay to a tiny place called Magnolia Springs, Alabama. There they built a modest home and inadvertently created Magnolia Spring’s first food bank in the shade of their front porch.

Henry always made friends quickly. His condition didn’t allow him to rest for long periods of time so he was frequently up before dawn greeting the deli ladies from the local Winn-Dixie at the back entrance of the grocery store where they would give him bags of food that were reaching their sell-by date. He would keep them company as they opened the store before dawn and make sure they were safely inside before leaving them to their business of preparing food for the day.

He repeated the routine day after day and pretty soon food vendors from Nabisco and Smith Bread and the like noticed the man at the back of the store. They learned who he was and before long they were meeting him in the parking lot with food for him to take back to his house. Fresh food, not expired, boxes off the trucks.

You see, Henry and my Grandmother would place these boxes of food on their front porch and invite the migrant workers from the neighboring farms to come and take what they needed for their large families. At first it was just a few people that they met at the small church across the street but word soon spread and then something special started to happen.

People started leaving food on the porch in exchange for what they took. Generally these things were leavings from the local harvest, the potatoes, turnip greens, crowder peas and okra that weren’t pretty enough to sell. Squash, tomatoes, onions. In the summertime when we would visit for Sunday dinner the bounty on the table was something to behold. All the while people quietly came and went from the porch and we learned to love this new life of theirs in the country where everyone knew Florence and Henry and the generosity of their front porch.

One day, not long before my Grandmother passed away, the local Winn-Dixie came under new management and the contributions from the deli ceased. It was understandable considering health and safety concerns so there was no bitterness over the end of the arrangement. Instead the food vendors started meeting Henry in the parking lot and leaving boxes of crackers and cereal in the back of his truck while he went about his errands. The generosity and the sense of community – if maybe just this side of legal – was irrepressible.

While we witnessed it often, we didn’t discuss it much. I was twenty-one and I thought it was “cool” but Henry was thinking about it on a much more human level. I never considered what it must have been like to be the child of a migrant worker, knowing little English and coming to school with a grocery-sized paper bag with meager left-overs, if anything at all. And, granted, crackers,  cookies, chips and soda weren’t the healthiest options but sometimes a kid just wants to be inconspicuous in their poverty. I get that – preservatives, aspartame and all.

In the years following my Grandmother’s death, Henry lost interest in his endeavor but he never lost his interest in the people in his community. His own funeral was modest but the church was full of the faces I never saw come and go on the front porch. They came out in droves to honor him. I love him. I miss him. We all do. Such great works were accomplished by the work of such kind hands.

All of this is to say that you, personally, can have a tremendous impact on your community by participating in your local Thanksgiving food drives. When shopping in a store or your own pantry simply keep in mind those things that you would like to have/need/use for family meals. The organization Feeding America is also tremendous resource. And when in doubt, remember that with special discounts provided to food banks a monetary donation can go much farther in their hands than our own.

Warmest regards,


One Million Dollars

I am ashamed to admit this but any time someone mentions a million dollar anything I have to bite the inside of my cheek a bit and think “inappropriate! inappropriate! inappropriate!” But we are all friends here so say it with me: “One…. MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLION Dollars!!!” *gasp*

Most colleges and universities with the luxury to choose to steward according to cumulative lifetime giving are setting the bar pretty high. One million dollars is the standard these days. I’ve seen state institutions as low as $25,000 and $50,000 cumulative over a lifetime and could only imagine how many people they needed to manage that one program.

Conversely, I recall a moment several years ago when I learned about an institution that recognized one-time gifts of five million dollars for a maximum of three years following the fulfillment of the commitment. After that, if you did not continue to give in the million-dollar range you were considered “off the radar.”

My mother-in-law has a very colorful phrase describing what I could have done but I’ll leave it there. May it suffice to say that I had that little tummy flutter you get when taking a hill too quickly. At 22 we call it “butterflies.” At 35 we call in “reflux.”

What prompts this post in particular? Simple – this afternoon I had a moment to chat with a colleague at a peer institution about the re-vamping of their one million dollar donor recognition program and for a moment I got to re-live the roller-coaster ride that is creating donor recognition programs.  We talked benefits, roll-outs, inductions, marketing, maintenance, management, sustainability and what this institution did and that institution did but toward the end of our conversation I found myself sharing what I felt was the most critical advice.

Keep in mind how time and life consuming the process can be and how you can easily fall into the ownership space that authors, artists and families experience. You imagine the program, grow it, nurture it and when it is time to send it out into the world you stand at the window like a kindergarten parent and hold your breath while your little baby heads for the letter blocks all the while sobbing incoherently. Yes, your role is important in the beginning. Its formative and if you are very invested it is even precious. It’s everything your time and energy is worth.

Keep in mind that there will be other hands in the mix. If you’ve done it right there have been other hands in the mix all along but even if you haven’t there comes a time when you have to let go and let others. Incubate that program and at some point be ready to hand it down (or over) to the next generation manager. Chances are really good that you have great people around you but even if that isn’t the case you’ve made it sustainable. Remember that in this role what we create doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the institution and we are stewards of that in addition to everything else we are privileged to touch.

C’est Bon?


Cup of Joe: Morning Musings in 10 Minutes or Less: New Shop in a Nutshell

Ah… so now you see the script for my autumn super powers. Non-fat, no-whip, Pumpkin Spice Latte. It has just been one of those mornings. My husband and I share the commute downtown on Tuesdays so we leave a little earlier so that we can have coffee dates and then he is off to tutoring and I am afforded some pre-work caffeine and thought gathering.

Last night I went to sleep with this question on the brain, “If I am starting a new shop or revamping an established shop — what should my priorities be?” I wish the answer was simple but there is always that caveat to consider: “What does the culture of your institution support?” In corporate America my trail-blazing mother would say “what does the boss want?”

For our purposes I cannot imagine your very specific situation but if I could take the time to look back and counsel the me of seven years ago I’d tell myself about the awesome pumpkin spice latte that was about to make its debut and then I’d say this:

Focus on the following three things, Paige: (1) The gifts you’re getting, (2) the gifts you’ve got; and (3) the gifts you want to get again. More specifically — if you don’t have any designated starting point there are a few basics you can address while you build.

The Gifts You’re Getting

Quite simply put: have a look at receipts and acknowledgments. With the speed and breadth of change regarding what donors want there is always a need to look at who is doing what. Are your receipts blasting out of gift administration at the speed of light? Yes, I prefer separate receipts and acknowledgments though post economic crash budgets dictate that I must do otherwise. So I do the best I can but I have to defer to my friend Lynne Wester, the Donor Relations Guru, who once said that putting a dollar amount in an acknowledgement was akin to sending a thank you note for flowers saying (and I embellish), “On behalf of myself, my husband, my unborn children, my cats and my infrequent housekeeper we thank you for the roses currently valued at $67.99. to be used as a centerpiece for my dining room table which hasn’t been dusted in a month…”

Again, knowing nothing about your institution’s culture, there are a few standards that you can use as a starting point until you learn otherwise: (1) Your highest level signature whether that is your president or vice president should be signing the highest level of gifts. That may be 10K for you or even 100K, (2) Acknowledgments are most meaningful when they come from the person within your organization that knows the donor best or from the person who will feel the greatest impact as a result of the gift. That could be a dean, a gift officer or a student. It could be anyone really. The point is that it is genuine and motivated by affection or gratitude; and (3) It is always prudent to keep an eye on the number of acknowledgments one is likely to receive. Consider a first-time, rated major prospect giving to the creative writing program within the school of fine arts. What would that look like to you? Too little? Too much?

The Gifts You’ve Got

Speaking as a one-time-major-gift-officer, it is easy to forget about the money we have when faced with the prospect and excitement that comes with the next gift we are getting. Matching gifts, pledges – annual and multi-year are not only the much appreciated low-hanging fruit, they are means by which our institutions are tested to be worthy of repeat gifts.

For example, say I gave your institution $25,000 in five installments of $5,000. I know I need to make a payment before the end of the year but I have one kid in soccer and another in ballet. My golden retriever swallowed a tube sock and needs major surgery, my husband is away on business and I am caring for an ailing mother. Your pledge reminder would be greatly appreciated. I can throw it in my stack of bills and after I hand the kids off to my late-returning spouse, pick up the dog and spoon feed her through her cone of shame, I can pay my bills online, including cutting that check I promised you.

You see, life gets in the way. A reminder — a report even — isn’t “bill collection” so much as it is customer service. Don’t be afraid to communicate. Find out who is sending reminders for what and ask yourself if you are doing the best thing for your donors.

The Gifts You Want to Get Again

Statistics (easier for me to locate after latte #2) show that individuals who give endowment-level gifts to your institution are likely to make more gifts to their funds or even create additional funds based on how the institution stewards them post gift.  This means endowment and impact reporting. What is your institution doing to provide evidence that these funds are being spent according to the wishes of your donors? Do your departmental fund administrators know what to do when the money arrives, when it is spent and when there is something left over? Are they helping you to gather impact information from the department and the people in it? If they aren’t, there is a great place to start.

I see John coming down Craig Street which means my ride to work is here. I hope you have a lovely day. Please feel free to friend me on Facebook at to follow our latest and greatest projects!

Warmest regards,

Paige Eubanks-Barrow

P.S. Spell check later — commute now!

30 Ideas for Your First 30 Days #31: Owning Your Job

When starting a new position in stewardship or donor relations — or in any field really — it is important to know what is in your job description. Yes, you can see it and you can read it but do you really know what it means? For example: “will be responsible for developing and managing donor acknowledgement program…”

That can mean any number of things and at some point (yes it seems like a no-brainer) but you have to ask for specifics.  As in all things you need to think it through beginning with the end in mind. What does your manager imagine the end product or program will look like? Will you be managing data and pushing it out to decentralized units or will you be doing high-level acknowledgments of $100k and above for the university or foundation president? It could mean any number of things which is why it is important for you to know what you are responsible for managing and what tasks others will be managing.

Why is this important? Because between the cracks lie the opportunities. If you want to make a reputation for yourself as a problems solver who takes ownership and initiative, this is a great place to begin. Let’s break down the steps for you:

1. Consider the process or program as a whole. What does the final picture look like? What does your supervisor see? What do you see? What do your peers need? Ask questions. Interview peers. Benchmark where necessary.

2. Create an action list detailing what needs to be done and in what order. Determine who your project partners and your stakeholders are going to be. Outline a plan and take that plan to your supervisor.

3. Seek feedback from your manager. Ask the questions that your research have brought to mind — For example, is $10,000 too low a number for the president of your institution to be acknowledging? If not the president them who would better suit? Are there holes in the system linked to the availability of leadership to give live signatures? Is your institutional culture one that would support a signature machine, electronic signature or even an in-lieu-of signature? What is more important to your internal clients? Speed or sincerity?

4. Be decisive. Managers are there to support you and guide you as you grow. In some cases they are there as a sounding board but at the end of the day the job is yours. Own your thoughts and opinions. Come to the table with solutions. Make your recommendations based on what you know and accept that someone else — with different — not better information may be able to make recommendations that will alter your path, change your mind or affirm your choices.

Good luck and warmest regards,

Paige Eubanks-Barrow

Leadership Annual Giving and Society Levels

For those of you who were at the ADRP conference this week I think we can agree that the experience is — and always is — simply fantastic. We have an opportunity to meet with other people in our profession and exchange ideas. For me the best part of the conference was taking the time to share with the next generation of donor relations professionals. It was only fifteen minutes but it was key. Ten years ago, someone did the same thing for me, and to see so many new college graduates entering this field is simply inspiring.

So what did we talk about? Easy. We talked about giving levels in leadership annual giving and programs.

In my short life so far I have had the honor and privilege of serving three institutions – a small historic Jesuit liberal arts college, a moderately sized sport-oriented Methodist university and now one of the nation’s leading tech institutions. Every single one of them has had, in some form, a leadership annual giving society. That is to say, a program that renews on an annual basis and honors donor giving at various levels.

If you are reading this and you haven’t been asked to do some bench marking on levels within an annual giving society, trust me, it is simply a matter of time. So let me tell you what you are going to learn (I’ve done the research three times between 1999 and 2008) and with my institutions (all private) every time they break down in the following measurements: $1,000 – 2,499, $5,000 – 9,999, $10,000 – 24,999, $25,000 – 49,999, $50,000 – $99,999, $100,000+

Serving at a high-profile institution now, I get plenty of calls and emails asking for feedback, data and ideas. “Can we build a better machine?’ The answer is yes and no. Yes, you can build a better program if you are willing to step outside of your comfort zone and work with other departments, gather data, and sync your thank-you responses with your development offices’ solicitation plan. If you aren’t — well, there isn’t much you can do to improve on the model.

This formula, the tiered leadership annual giving program suffers the same challenges from one institution to the next. First, $1,000 doesn’t buy what it did in 1975. Inflation has taken a bite out of that chunk of change yet we are afraid to move the level to meet the need.  The solution for most? Offer more incentives at the next level up and gradually phase out the bottom level. That isn’t a bad idea. Of course you are going to get some push-back from people who have been doing this the same way for twenty-five years but the person who as been giving at the same level for that long is comfortable. They know they have to give “this” much to demonstrate their commitment and if you aren’t raising the bar a bit what you are communicating to this particular constituency is that you don’t need more.

Our donors are savvy — we need to give them more credit. We need to trust them with the information that will empower them to make decisions based on real needs. What is the worst that can happen? You get some push-back? Well, consider this — as more time passes, inflation rates are going to flip your program on its head and you are not going to be able to sustain it without taking into consideration very serious tax quid pro quo issues.

Another issue to consider? Creating and maintaining a hierarchy of “benefits” that differentiate one level from the next in a way that is meaningful and distinguishable to the donor audience. This so very hard to do. First, your primary donor base is going to vary from region to region and the most obvious and inexpensive perceived benefits will typically apply only to those residing within a reasonable distance of your institution. Let us consider an e-newsletter. The impact that access to “exclusive” information can have on a donor constituency isn’t defined by whether a donor gives $1,000 annually or $5,000. If that kind of access to key messages makes a difference are we really NOT going to extend that to another donor for whom that gesture might make a difference?

So what is the key message here? If you are in the throes of revamping a leadership annual giving program — don’t be afraid to allow the culture of your institution and data patterns of your donors to dictate your recommendations. Just because the 1-5-10-25-50-100+ model is being used elsewhere, unless you are up to your elbows with the people managing those programs at other institutions you can’t really know whether the model works for them. So why base your fresh start on their old news?

Just food for thought.

Warmest regards,


Let’s Have a Frank Talk About Giving Societies

This has to be one of my favorite topics to debate and something we donor relations bloggers see coming across list serves on a regular basis. The truth is that there is no blanket prescription for these. The bottom line is this: If you are  hemorrhaging money and man hours without any real sense of the return on your investment, you are missing a tremendous opportunity.

So what are giving societies, exactly? Well, that depends on where you are and the culture of your institution. There ARE places where simple recognition societies just work. Typically those organizations are a hundred years older than the nation in which they reside. Just like some organizations can trace real return on investment to honor rolls of donors. I get that question a lot, too.  Bottom line, if you question its value, it probably isn’t that valuable relative to the amount of work it takes. You already know that – that is why you called to ask.

Should you start an honor roll? Frankly, I have never seen a situation in which starting one would be a sound business decision. I did my undergraduate work at a women’s college and it was always someone on my beloved alumni board — maybe just one — who would mention how important it was. Well, we are aging out of a time in which that is considered a good investment. Recognition? Yes. Four trees, colors and $30,000 in printing and postage worth? No.

The same is true with the old notion of the “giving society.” To be more specific, the “recognition society.” A recognition society that is nothing more than an annual party and list in a brochure is an expensive snapshot of a moment that will never come again. Nothing about reactionary stewardship motivates donors toward continuing these essential behavior patterns of giving. Why? Because they are uninspiring. Think about your high school graduation or even your child’s high school graduation. You and they went through four years of work and at the end of it some stranger snapped a picture  of you crossing the stage, shaking someone’s hand and receiving a piece of paper that said you could pick up your diploma at the guidance counselor’s office. Did that inspire you to go back to high school and do it all again?

Apples and oranges? Maybe. Still.

So let’s set aside this notion of “giving society” and “recognition society” and anything with a “club” in the title.  Let’s consider instead a partnership. An acknowledgement that donor relations and stewardship offices do NOT exclusively own their donor recognition whatever-you-call-it. Because, folks, that is the problem we are facing. Static recognition isn’t engaging.

Have you ever considered video games? Really? Just thought about what it is that makes them so attractive to kids and adults alike? Its simple. Accomplishment. New, more challenging landscapes and rewards and sounds and visual stimulation and conversation with peers about cheats and hidden mushrooms. THAT my friends is the kind of chemistry the most successful donor recognition programs tap in to that make their work so productive. I’m talking about giving over a modicum of ownership to our partners in fundraising – particularly annual giving because if you haven’t heard — donor retention is saving institutions. And lets cut to the chase, folks. Its saving jobs. Our jobs. That means something.

So how can you get started on building or rebuilding or even determining what is right for your institution? Start with the numbers. How much more money does your institution bring in since the advent of your program? I think you will find that those places that coordinate with their fundraising partners to create programs that educate recent and undergraduate alumni, remind LYBUNTS to give again to keep their streak alive, really find ways to tap into the pride of their core audience — that is where you are going to see percentages rising.

Let’s pack up the notion of “club” or “society” and while we are at it — let’s table the notion that  we have no fundraising responsibilities. In the abstract I think I am guilty of having fostered that idea — that I can’t say thank you with my hand out. Well, I can’t. But I can say thank you with my heart out. I can set aside clubs for communities of like-inspired individuals and in the end that is the winning notion. Access, information, recognition: most of it comes without cost and the result — community? Well, that is simply priceless.