Mid-Level Donors Hiding In Plain Sight

July 22, 2014       Patrick Sullivan      

Mid-level donors might live in a strange place in your development department. They’re not serviced with the same automation that your direct mail file is handled. They also most likely don’t warrant the personal touch of the major giving department.

“In spite of the fact that they’re producing revenue, they’re neglected,” said Cathy Finney, deputy vice president of strategic services at The Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. “We’re not paying a lot of attention,” she said.

Finney and Newport Creative Senior Vice President Craig DePole presented a talk during the Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Federation 2014 Washington Nonprofit Conference. “You need to steward (middle donors’) commitment and loyalty,” said DePole. “They want to be more a part of your organization. On average, middle donors are on file for five-plus years after making a $1,000 gift.”

The first step is determining what exactly constitutes a mid-range donor. For the World Wildlife Fund, said DePole, it’s donors who give between $1,000 and $10,000 per year. Those donors are called Partners in Conservation. They need to make a single gift of at least $1,000 to be a Partner, and have another cumulative $1,000 within two years to stay in the program; otherwise, they’re funneled down into the regular direct mail program.

“All organizations will vary,” said Finney. “When looking at your program and the people to invite, look beyond RFM (recency, frequency, monetary value). Think about if you’ll include them based on cumulative gifts, a single gift or some hybrid. Utilize wealth screening and other qualifying overlay data.” Finney added that wealth screening can show false positives and miss prospects, so use caution.

Awareness was a struggle for WWF, said DePole. The organization did a survey of 30,000 donors in 2012. The survey revealed fewer than 9 percent of the donors in the Partners in Conservation program knew they were in the program. WWF decided to keep the name despite the low awareness. “People expected a name at that level,” said DePole. The survey also showed that members want access to organization leadership; they want to feel like insiders.

Mid-level donors at Finney’s TWS are called Advocates. She said her organization has an advantage in that all fundraising sits in the philanthropy department, which has a collective $26.4 million annual goal, so there are few issues of donor ownership. The program has 600 Advocates out of 125,000 members. Advocates enter the program by making $1,000 single gifts.

“Stewardship, cultivation and staffing are the most important pieces of a mid-level program,” said Finney. Advocates get fewer, higher quality direct mail appeals and renewals. “Stewardship is the most important thing we’ve done to increase the value of the program,” Finney said.

TWS added a dedicated Director of Advocates, with a special emphasis on donor migration: funneling advocates up and down to major gifts and membership, and receiving members and major donors. “It’s not just about moving people up from membership, but also down from major gifts,” said Finney. “There are people in the major gift portfolio that shouldn’t and don’t want to be there.”

The position has expectations for interactions per month and per year, and has a small travel budget. “She’s got 600 in her portfolio,” said Finney. “That’s high; you won’t find a major gifts officer who wants 600. But because she’s not going out to meet them all, it’s semi-manageable.”