Development Planning from Scratch – Current Donors

Development Planning from Scratch – Current Donors

If I was planning a membership program from scratch, I would start with a membership drive in the Spring months and an end-of-the-year appeal letter in the Fall. Everyone would get at least two letters – one asking them to renew their membership and one asking for a second gift.

Those of you who have experience with this will know that you quickly end up with two groups that way, because there are those who give every year in the Fall and expect that gift to renew their membership. So effectively you have a Spring membership group and a Fall membership group. Just let it happen, but add in a Spring appeal letter so that the Fall group gets invited to make a second gift as well.

After my membership group grew to about 500 or so, I would move to more of a “seasonal” plan with Winter members and Summer members. I wouldn’t move to a monthly program until I had 6,000-10,000 members or so. It’s just too much work otherwise.

For those of you who may have inherited a monthly membership system, there are probably some months you could eliminate. For example, if your July group has twelve members, and your August group has eight, perhaps you could move the Julys into June and the Augusts into September and take a break during the summer. Using this method, you might be able to get down to just six groups and save yourself a lot of time.

Even then, I’d try to offer a chance to make a second gift to everyone if at all possible using the Spring and Fall appeal letters.


Setting the Goal

If you’ve been following this Planning Sequence, you’ll know that I have a special plan for members who have recently given $250 or more in recent years (See Annual Giving Leaders), so let’s define this segment as “Members who have not recently made gifts of at least $250 or more.”

This segment will represent the majority of your annual donors. Each of them will be asked to give more this year than they did last year, but not all of them will even renew at all. For the purposes of initially setting goals, we will expect these two factors to cancel each other out. In other words:

  • Start with the list of people who gave less than $250 this year.
  • Add up their annual giving total including both their membership renewal and any appeals to which they may have responded.
  • Use that number for the segment goal for next year.

Keeping track of your actual performance in this regard over the past several years will help you more accurately predict income and set goals from this segment.


The Renewal Sequence

Use a four-letter sequence for these renewals.

In the first letter, ask for $100 from those who gave less than that last year. Ask for $150 from people who gave you $100 last year, and ask for $250 from those who gave more than $100 last year. The response card in each case simply offers the ask amount and “Other.” For example:

______$100                 ______Other

In the second letter, ask for the same upgrade amounts, but also include language about what they gave last year. The response card lists the amount they gave last year, the ask amount, two amounts greater than the ask amount, and “Other.” For example:

______$50      ______$100      ______$150      ______$250      ______Other

In the third letter, remind them again what they gave last year and ask for a “renewal gift of a similar amount.” The response card looks the same as the one for the second letter.

The fourth letter is a much longer letter and reads more like a new member recruitment letter than as a renewal letter. This is appropriate, as they may need to be re-convinced of the importance of supporting the organization. The response card will also be very similar to the one used for recruitment.

Separate these letters by four to six weeks, and (obviously) don’t send the follow-up letters to people who respond to one of the earlier ones. I also like to precede the first letter by a renewal email sent about two weeks ahead, and use a phone call between the second and third letters.



There are several metrics to consider in addition to meeting the revenue goal. First, keep track of the renewal rate. You want it to be over 70%. 75% is not too much to ask for unless the number of new members overwhelmed the number of renewals last year. The second is the number of “second gift donors” – those who made first gifts last year and are now being asked for their first renewal. You want this number to be 40-45%, and 50% or better would be tremendous.

In terms of membership growth over the next few years, moving your organizational renewal needle overall from 70 to 75% will help, but moving the first renewal needle from 45 to 50% makes an even greater difference.

Strategies for first year members include:

  • Phone call thank yous for joining.
  • Sending a special newsletter right after they join jammed with information about land trusts work and how they can plug in.
  • Focusing some proportion of the social media and emailed communications to people who have just recently joined and may not understand the significance of what they are seeing and reading.
  • Hosting special new member events such as information meetings or field trips especially for new members.
  • Checking in with them using a postcard at the three, six, and nine-month marks to remind them of the difference their contributions make in your programs. Mention especially any leverage their giving made possible, for example as match for federal or state funding.


Monthly Auto-Withdrawal Programs

Finally, let’s touch on monthly auto-withdrawal plans. These are people who authorize you to charge their credit card or to automatically withdraw a monthly amount from their bank account. These plans are gaining in popularity and making larger gifts possible for some people. Relatively painless amounts ($5 or $10) given on a monthly basis add up to more than some might give otherwise.

However, I believe that expecting the withdrawals to run indefinitely in the background is not good membership relations. The folks still need to be treated as if they were annual donors. Instead of thinking about their giving as a monthly withdrawal, I suggest thinking about it as an annual pledge with 12 payments.

At the end of the year, they still need to be “renewed,” and it is very appropriate to ask for an upgraded gift as well. “January’s withdrawal will mark the anniversary of your wonderful monthly giving pledge of $5 to XYZ Land Trust. I am writing to ask that you renew that gift for another year and consider even increasing it to $7/month. If you wish to continue unchanged, you do not need to do anything at this point. If you wish to adjust your gift amount in any way, please use the response form below.” In all other respects, I recommend including them and recognizing them as if their total gift was made in a single lump sum.


Now Map It!

We’ve been using a Development spreadsheet with rows for each donor segment, and columns for each activity. For this segment, you’re going to want rows for each membership group (either use the “seasonal” groups or the monthly groups). For the columns, use just one column for the entire renewal sequence, but use two columns for Spring Appeal and Fall Appeal.

Last, a point I’ve made before on this blog: By the end of January, you should know who needs to renew and at what ask amounts for your entire membership. It would be possible for you to print the entire years’ worth of first renewal letters all at the same time – in January. Just use different dates for the letters, fully assemble and seal the envelopes, and box them up with the drop date noted on the box. Each month, just dump the correct group in the mail.





Photo by Dabir Bernard courtesy of

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The Development Planning Sequence so far:

The BIG Picture


Soliciting the Board

Cultivating the Board

Cultivating Top 100 Donors

Annual Giving Leaders

Corporate and Foundation versus Individual Donors

Corporate Funders

Foundation Funders


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Fundraiser’s Almanac
Here’s what I’ve been thinking about for November. What are YOU thinking about?


Fundraising Planning for 2017

For me, November is my planning month. My appeal is long gone, my grants are out, and the few personal visits I have left are scheduled and happening. It’s time to set the stage for next year.

Last year, about this time, I posted on how to grab a first take on what might be a reasonable goal for next year based on this year’s work. You can find that post here: Annual Giving. I also posted on using a Planning Calendar, and a fanciful Dream of Board Fundraising – Getting board members started building relationships with donors next year. (Hint: start by asking board members to call people making gifts this year to say Thank You.)


Giving Thanks

If you’ve managed your work well this year, you should get to spend a great deal of time between Thanksgiving and the Superbowl party writing Thank You letters. Here’s a refresher:

  • Remember that your thank you letters can and should carry your annual communications theme, too.
  • Get your thank you letters out right away. My aunt used to say that the value of a thank you note is reduced by half for every day that goes by. Aim for either the same day or the next day.
  • Mention the specific amount of the gift unless your organization will be sending a separate receipt. And if the actual gift was not cash, always describe the actual gift rather than assigning or declaring a value for it. Thank them for their gift of “100 shares of XYZ stock,” or the “twelve conference chairs,” or whatever.
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1 Comment
  • Zach Shefska
    Posted at 07:40h, 08 November

    Great post David. Thanks for sharing both strategies and tactics — I appreciate how in depth you get in your articles!!