I Asked a Simple Question: How Long Does the Average Donor Stay With a Charity?

Prepare for a shock, below. World-sourced answers from a gilded pantheon of remarkably well-informed experts.

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A few years ago, I asked my extended family of mentors a simple (well, simplistic) question: “What’s the average age of the typical donor?”

I was shocked by how WRONG my assumptions were.

Turns out that in the US, a YOUNG donor is 60, says direct mail maven Jeff Brooks; his data shows that almost half of US donors are 65 and older. Donors to a major hospital system I know well average 75 years of age. And according to Pareto, 83 is a prime giving age in Australia. Heck, my mother-in-law, Jane, was “direct mail responsive” into her 80s.

So now, when I write direct mail, I write to Jane: well-read, well-traveled, well-groomed, somebody I enjoy being with, dining out at the Faculty Club.

BTW: the next big cohort of givers in the US will be baby boomers … until about 2035. The oldest are almost 70 already. Time to get with that, charities.

Does magical thinking explain your boss’s demand for younger donors?

Yet dark overlords will ever insist:

“We must find younger donors!”

As if that made incredibly evident sense.

As if maybe, once gained, a donor would generally last a lifetime … so the earlier you acquire one, the better.

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But how long IS the “giving span” of your average donor?

I asked my global family of beloved colleagues another simple/simplistic question:

“How long, do you think, the average donor gives to the same charity? 5 years? 10 years? 25 years? Off the top of your head.”

And here’s how my choir of expert-angels answered:

Dr. Adrian Sargeant had a precise number:

“4.6 years in the UK. Based on an analysis of 5 million records. It’s an amalgam of all forms of giving, so it lumps together very different types of giving. But as a number, it’s nice. And it’s getting lower each year.”

Professor Stephen Pidgeon, international consultant, co-founder of mega UK agency, Tangible:

“With [one major UK charity] we used the figure of 6 years for a cash donor,” he said.

Jeff Brooks, senior creative director at Truesense, a leading US direct mail house:

“We truncate lifetime value at 7 years because that captures almost all of the giving. Most donors give only once. It’s rare even for a long-term donor to stay longer than 7 years.”

Rory Green, Associate Director of Advancement, Faculty of Applied Sciences, Simon Fraser University:

“Many of my donors have given consecutively for 10+ years … BUT we’re a bit of an anomaly. I would imagine the answer would differ, too, across generations: [older people] longer and less so as donors get younger.”

Beth Ann Locke, a veteran fundraiser in both Canada and the US, now also at Simon Fraser:

“I think older donors are more loyal. [At one hospital, there were] donors who had had hips and knees replaced who just gave and gave, as long as you kept asking, for 20+ years. I’d say with some universities it is the same, once the habit takes hold.” In contrast, Beth Ann saw a different pattern at an art museum: “You would bring them into the fold as donors after being members. Then they would fall off in a few years.” Her overall conclusion? “I would guess 3-4 years is about average.”

What her answer suggests to me is that a deep personal connection to a charity will strongly influence how long a person remains a supporter. Graduating from college or enjoying a happy outcome in a big health crisis: these are deeply felt, core life events. Looking at art exhibitions? Not so much.

John Lepp, co-founder of Toronto’s remarkable Agents of Good, said:

“This is a tough one. Our beloved Jane Donor, I see her give to one charity for the first and last time. And others she supports on and off for 10 years maybe?”

Lisa Sargent, the Grand Guru of Thanks, passed along this piece of wisdom from a heavyweight agency guy she knows:

“The old rule of thumb I was taught is that half of all donors acquired through conventional acquisition (provided an organization has a proper acknowledgement program and then mails appeals on an average of every six weeks) will remain active for an average of two to three years. During this period these donors will make three to four additional contributions. Their average gifts will be 1.5 to two times the size of their inception donation. The other half will never make a second contribution.”

Roger Craver, co-editor of The Agitator, and one of the Founding Fathers of modern direct mail fundraising, stated:

“‘Top of my head’ would be about 4 to 5 years. The single donors who only ever give one gift weigh down longevity. If you’re looking only at donors who make two or more gifts, I would say the span is closer to 7 or 8 years.”

“There is no ‘average donor,'” protested Sean Triner, co-founder of Pareto, Australia’s top fundraising agency. “Street acquired monthly giver? SMS donor? Emergency responder? Event participant? Direct mail? Major donors? Digital acquired monthly giver? Direct mail donor who starts a monthly gift? To average across all of them makes no sense.”

Still, he humored me. “The average will be around 2-3 years,” assuming you include in your calculation one-time donors. Those one-timers “account for more than half” and drag down the average.

Mark Phillips, founder and manager of Bluefrog in London, “I’m probably closer to Sean. I find that the best 5% of the file tend to stick with you forever. The problem is the other 70% of people who only ever intended to give once. They really drag your average down.”

Summary

Don’t overestimate the “stickiness” of donors. Over half give just once. Very few donors stay longer than a few years: precisely 4.6 years in the UK, according to Adrian’s research. Which means a program for regularly acquiring new donors remains vital to your financial health.

Pay special attention to the “4%.” According to the Pareto Principle, generally speaking, 20% of your donors will account for 80% of your charitable income. But, as Damian O’Broin, founder of Ask Direct in Ireland, teaches, you should run the Pareto Principle twice. Because 20% of your first 20% (4% of your givers, in other words) will usually account for the bulk (64%) of the giving. That 4% deserve extraordinary attention.

Not all charities are equally compelling, as Rory and Beth Ann note. The more intimate and personal my connection to you (e.g., I sweated out my degree in your classrooms or you cured me in your surgical theater), the longer I’m likely to give. Beth Ann added this, “The rise of peer-to-peer giving shortens the lifespan of donors. They give to a ‘charity’ but are really usually only giving to their friends. This certainly has the great opportunity of casting a wide net, but the net is gossamer.”

THANK YOU, ALL!!!

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