Supporter Trends: Do you really know how many supporters you have?

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How many active supporters do you have? How has this changed over the last year, or even the last 10 years?

On the face of it these seem like very simple questions, but how many of you can truly give unequivocal answers to them? From my experience, it’s rare that fundraising directors, or managers, can easily track these figures. Yet they are vital to understanding the state, and health, of your supporter base.

Focus is all too often set solely on the key income measures: How much income have we received this year? How close are we to achieving this year’s income target? Whilst these measures are undeniably important, they don’t provide a full picture and can often mask what is actually happening.

Recently we looked at a file from a charity who seemed to be showing small but steady growth in their fundraising income – although recent figures were suggesting this trend had peaked and gone into reverse. However, on further inspection, the data revealed that supporter volumes had actually been in long term decline. Higher than average gifts and short-term boosts to income had been holding the income KPIs up, but as the core supporter base fell, the income gap to be filled became bigger and bigger. This is a scenario we have found time and again over the last 10 years.

So, let’s look further into the questions to be addressed…

How many active supporters do you have?

This question is often met by this standard response: “What do you mean by active?” This can be a very difficult term to define. Organisations use various definitions and may even use different definitions to classify different supporter categories. I’ve spent many hours (days even) discussing the merits of different terms, or time periods for that matter, but have concluded that it’s nigh impossible to define accurately.

For this reason, it’s key not to worry too much about the definition, but to ensure that whatever metric you do use is clear, understood and consistent. This way, you can always answer the question, and everybody will understand what the answer tells them – relevant to your charity. You will also be able to monitor changes (as per the next question). As well as an overall figure, you should also be able to answer the question for supporters engaged with different products and activities. Ideally, you can surface insights about how many are engaged across all your supporter touch-points.

So on to the questions regarding changes in volumes.

How has this changed over the last year, or even the last 10 years?

Once you have your clear definition(s) it should be relatively simple to calculate the volume at different points in time and then see how it changes. In our example given above, reporting against this would have clearly highlighted the decline in supporters and allowed the charity to address the issue before it became such an issue. But just knowing there is change won’t give you the full picture of what is happening in the supporter base.

It is also imperative to know what is driving that change, for example, an increasing supporter base could be the result of low attrition with a small amount of recruitment, or could be that attrition is high, but a large and successful recruitment campaign is masking this.

When assessing ‘new’ donors our experience shows that they can be one of a number of different ‘flavours’, especially when you look at a specific product or income line. To look purely at the recruitment campaign response might be misleading.

Another charity client conducted successful multi-channel campaigns across Street, Direct Response Television (DRTV) and Online, resulting in large volumes of regular giving ‘recruits’. But, digging deeper, our analysis found that a significant number of these new sign ups came from either existing or lapsed supporters. So, whilst the highly successful campaign still generated further income for the charity, they were not building the supporter base as they previously thought. This led to an increased focus, and investment, to recruit new donors to expand their supporter base from which they could engage and cross sell.

The new Supporter Trends report from Wood for Trees (part of the InsightHub for Charities reporting suite) will help you answer all of the questions above.

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