surcharge your sustainer program

5 Secrets to Supercharge Your Sustainer Program

Elevate donor loyalty with these actionable tips

As donation revenue has declined in the last few years, one of the few bright spots for nonprofits has been their Sustainer Programs. In a world where more and more of us are used to getting charged monthly to listen to music (Spotify), watch movies (Netflix), get products delivered (Amazon) and even to budget (Rocket), signing up to give regularly to our favorite nonprofits makes sense. 

For nonprofits, these recurring donors are a way to bring a steady, reliable income stream to your organization in this age of declining giving and multiple, successive crises impacting philanthropy. Sustainers are the most loyal and frequent givers, so nonprofits are smart to ensure they are doing everything they can to maximize revenue from this important group of donors. 

With all that in mind, here are five tips for getting the most out of your nonprofit’s Sustainer Program:

1. Go beyond the Monthly Gift 

Most Sustainer Programs focus on signing people up to give a monthly gift. In fact, many organizations refer to their Sustainer Program as their Monthly Giving Program. However, not all donors want to give monthly. Successful Sustainer Programs have options for quarterly, annually, weekly or even biweekly (which coincides with when most people get paid!). One organization I heard of even had a number of donors who signed up to give biannually… they had no idea why people would want to do it, but they were smart to offer it because it brought in more donors!

2. Create an Upgrade Plan

It seems like every month I get a notice from Netflix or Amazon or Hulu letting me know they are increasing their monthly charge. Although I don’t like it, at least I kind of expect it! Of course, you can’t treat your donors this way and just increase their gift… at least not without their buy-in. This is why some organizations are now asking new sustainers when they sign up if they would be ok with a 3% yearly increase. This builds a baseline of growth into your Sustainer Program and helps the organization stay on top of inflation.

3. Stem the Decline

One of the challenges with Sustainer Programs is that a sizable percentage of your sustainers’ credit card charges will be declined. These declined payments are problematic as you not only lose that gift but also all future gifts.

Update your data regularly. I recommend updating account information with your payment processor around 10 days before you plan to charge your donor’s recurring gifts. This pre-billing effort will retrieve any new expiration dates, account numbers, etc., from their credit card company, putting you in good shape not to miss a donation.

Use a credit card transaction recycler to retry any charges that may have been declined. Donors may have made a large transaction or had a problem with a payment and are not even aware they missed a donation. Trying again ensures you get the gift they intended to give you.

Actively work to move your donors toward payment methods with less failure rate. For example, an Apple Pay Card will decline at a much higher rate than a donor’s normal credit cards. And consider this: an Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT), which is a payment directly from a bank account, has much less of a decline rate than credit card giving.

4. Don’t Stop Communicating!

Many organizations are excited to get Sustainer Donors because they see it as a way to get donations without the cost of mailing donors. While this can be true, remember that donors do not become sustainers because they want less communication from you. These are your most committed donors, and you need to stay in regular communication with them. 

While it is true you need to cut back on the number of “asks” you make of them, you still want to regularly let them know about their impact and show them all the ways they are making a difference. Sustainer Programs that are successful build a sense of community and connection between donors and your nonprofit. This can only be achieved by creating a meaningful and compelling communication stream to these donors.

5. Continue to Cultivate

Sustainer Programs are a great source of stable income for your nonprofit organization, but your investment in them will also help your other fundraising efforts. These are your most loyal and frequent donors and are great prospects for your Middle and Major Donor programs, Capital Campaigns and Planned Giving programs. Donors’ abilities and interests change over time; get to know them and create new ways to connect with them. Include them in things like Middle Donor mailings or Planned Giving Surveys. Invite them to your events or on tours of your organization. Let them know the opportunities you have for them to grow in their support of you. 

Final Takeaway

Regular donors are like financial rockstars for nonprofits, especially in tough times, so it’s crucial for your organization to amp up how you engage with these loyal supporters. Doing so keeps the money flowing steadily, and BDI is here to help you set the stage for more donor love and long-term success!

Check out our last Quick Shot: “Stop the Cycle of Underfunding”>>

  • Matthew Rayburn

    Matthew Rayburn, Strategist/Senior Account Director

    For 20 years, Matthew has worked on both the agency and nonprofit side to bring faith-based solutions to issues of homelessness, poverty and addiction. Prior to joining BDI, he was an Account Manager at an agency serving nonprofits and provided leadership at Christian nonprofits, including as Executive Director of Family Promise of San Gabriel Valley, Director of People Assisting the Homeless and Development Director at The Jonah Project. In these roles, Matthew spearheaded fundraising efforts to increase housing, as well as coordinated a highly-successful shelter network of faith communities in the greater Los Angeles area.

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