Guide: Growing Recurring Revenue for Nonprofits

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Funding is the lifeblood of nonprofit. Our team at New Story, a global housing nonprofit, has felt the struggle first-hand. We have funded programs of all shapes and sizes. From the 3D home printer to our data collection tool, every project has one thing in common: a need for funding.

As we’ve grown, the importance of recurring giving has only become more apparent. A recurring program allows for increased stability and deeper donor relationships. It provides more space to focus on what matters most: Impacting the lives of those in need.

If you have been considering building a recurring giving program for a while, it’s time to move forward. This guide outlines the basics of getting a program up and running.

Recurring giving programs allow nonprofits to forecast more effectively and increase their impact. While many teams boast the benefits, few provide a step-by-step guide to establishing a program. We hope to inspire and assist more organizations in building out a thriving program.

This guide is not comprehensive– it’s a start.

Step 1 — Define Success

“Expectation minus communication equals frustration.”

What are the goals of your program? These should be a mix of long-term vision and short-term milestones. Success, when clearly defined, helps inform decision making. It illuminates when to stop, start, or continue the path you are on. Determining success could include a revenue target, conversion percentage, or growth goals for the quarter or the year.

As your organization begins thinking in terms of recurring revenue, it’s helpful to define a few metrics.

Examples

At New Story, we watch the average donation amount, monthly recurring revenue (MRR), and churn. Ideally, the average donation amount is growing, MRR is increasing, and churn is decreasing.

Other examples of goals for a recurring program include:

  • X% of donations are recurring
  • An average recurring donation amount of $XX
  • $X,XXX.XX within the first X months
  • X Star rating from our recurring donors

Step 2— Define an Audience

“Who do you expect to give?”

Who is your target audience? The target audience should consist of your highest value donors. Of course, we would accept donations from almost anyone, but defining a specific persona adds clarity. Attempting to tailor your messaging to too many will often result in it resonating with no one. 

Speaking the language of your chosen persona will be crucial as you begin marketing and fundraising efforts. The following characteristics are not requirements, but can help you think about who your target audience might be:

  • Age
  • Location (and time zone)
  • Language
  • Spending power and patterns
  • Interests
  • Challenges
  • Stage of life
  • Motivations

Age

You don’t need to get too specific here. Focus on learning which decade of life your social media target audience is in or their generation.

Location (and time zone)

Where in the world does the core of your audience live? Location helps you understand which geographic areas to target. You’ll also learn what hours are most important to reach out and be online. And when you should schedule your social ads and posts to ensure the best visibility.

Language

What language does your target audience speak? Don’t assume they speak your language or speak the dominant language of their current physical location. Get to know your prospective donors and their customs.

Spending power and patterns

How much money does your audience typically spend? How do they approach purchases in your price category? Do they have specific financial concerns or preferences you need to address?

Interests

What does your target donor audience like to do — what TV shows do they watch or brands do they follow? Getting to know their interests will help you connect with them on a personal level. 

Challenges

What pain points is your audience dealing with?

Stage of life

Does your prospective audience include college students? New parents? Parents of teens? Retirees?

Motivations

Why would this person give to your cause? Have they been personally impacted by your work or motivation? Or Does your cause appeal to a broader audience? Knowing why someone will give helps you identify who to target and how to craft your messaging.

Step 3 — Lead with Value

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” – Theodore Roosevelt.

Defining your audience prepares you to empathize with your ideal donors. We make decisions based on motivations and incentives. Understanding what your donors’ value is essential to creating a compelling ask. That’s right, regardless of the amount of planning, you will still need to craft a compelling ask.

What is in it for your donor? Why should an individual get involved? How can you make them the hero of your brand?

Donor’s Journey

As you explore ways to provide value, consider the Donor’s Journey (commonly referred to as the Buyer’s Journey). Ideally, value is provided at each step along the way. 

  1. Awareness – The first time potential donors hear about your story.
  2. Interest – The donor becomes interested in your brand and offerings.
  3. Consideration – The donor evaluates your offering to match their interests.
  4. Decision (aka Purchase) – The donor commits to giving toward your cause.
  5. Post-donation – The donor decides how they feel about their decision to join your cause.
  6. Evangelize – The donor gives more and tells others.

Step 4 — Establish a Brand

“Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

What comes to your donor’s mind when their card is charged each month? Those giving every month are a unique subset of donors. Consider naming this community. A name will help you with launching this group through marketing and communication.

While a name is helpful, there are additional elements that factor into a strong brand.

Key Elements

  • Positioning
  • Story
  • Personality
  • Promise
  • Artistic Direction

Positioning

How do you differentiate yourself? In a world inundated with choices, it’s essential to know where you fit and where you don’t. When given a choice, why are you different than the alternatives?

Story

Humans are captivated by the story. Stories stick in our minds and spark our imagination. Pictures might be worth a thousand words, but stories manage to survive thousands of years.

At New Story, we work to include the stories from the actual families each dollar serves. Not only did we have photos, but we connect each donor with the real family their donation supports. They get a family story, but they get pictures and reports on their funds’ impact over time.

Personality

What is the character that represents your brand? Establishing a successful brand personality brings your brand to life.

How would you describe the personality of your brand? Your brand’s personality should reflect and amplify your objectives and values. 

Promise

Trust is built when promises are kept. A brand promise is a commitment made to donors. Much like healthy relationships, keeping promises help brands build strong communities. 

The most vital brand promise at New Story is our 100% Model. We have a separate segment of donors that funds our operations, allowing 100% of every donor dollar to build homes. To protect the promise, we operate from two different bank accounts. One account funds overhead, and every penny from the other account funds our aid work.

A compelling brand promise has the benefit of also serving as a unique differentiation.

Artistic Direction

A branding strategy wouldn’t be complete without discussing its impact on design work. These are eight essential elements of a brand:

  • Logo (with variations)
  • Key colors
  • Typography
  • Imagery Style
  • Library of graphics

Exercises

When thinking about a brand, these questions can prompt discussion. Having a group think individually, then share their answers will tease out meaningful insights.

1. If your brand was an actor, who would it be?

2. What car (make and model) best represents your brand?

3. If your brand was a person, describe what their home would look like?

4. Is the brand masculine or feminine?

5. Which one of your friends best represents your brand? 

Stay Organized

“A place for everything and everything in its place” – Benjamin Franklin

After building a brand around your recurring giving program, it’s useless if it is not accessible. It’s essential to keep the guidelines, assets, and information within reach of the team. Going a step further, it grows your space by making it available to all team members and key donors as well.

Step 5 — Plan your Communication

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

How do you write landing page content, email copy, digital campaigns, and social media content? What is your posting schedule?

Your communication strategy includes, but is not limited to, the language you will use — viewed through the lens of the Donor’s Journey mentioned above. A simple framework to follow is Story Brand, which focuses on ensuring you guide the donor to become the hero of their story.

Communication Channels

There are a lot of channels of communication. Team size and preparation time will likely be the biggest drivers of how many channels and strategies you can cover. As with most things, there is a tension between quality and quantity. Many poorly executed strategies are likely less ideal than a few implemented high-quality strategies.

Local Marketing: Newspaper, In-Store Marketing, POP

Public Relations: Public Events, Sponsorships, Press Releases, Webinars, Conferences

Content Marketing: Sponsored Content, Landing Page, White Papers/e-books

Web: Development, Pay-Per-Click Marketing, SEO

Social Media: TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn, Online, Blog, Website, Email Newsletter

Advertising: Online, Print, Outdoor, Radio, Television

Resources

Google Analytics

A free resource, Google Analytics provides valuable information about how donors are navigating your digital assets. From the screens they use to their journey through your donation flow, the insights can be priceless.

The Pear

An online directory of email newsletters, The Pear is a great resource to find organizations with lists to market toward.

Traction Channels Book

There are 19 different channels to explore. Traction by Gabriel Weinberg does a fantastic job of outlining each channel and the thoughtful approach of experimenting within your organization. 

Scheduling Distribution

The market is full of solutions for scheduling digital content. While we resonate with the commitment to transparency and values from Buffer, Hootsuite and Sprout are other popular tools.

Step 6 — Secure a Tool

“Discover the tools to build your vision” – Mary Anne Radmacher

Technology solutions can seem endless. With so many options, what is the right choice?

We’ve found tech tools fit into two categories: Scalpels or Swiss Army Knives. Some are generalists, while others are specialists.

Swiss Army Knife (The Generalist)

The Swiss Army Knife is about breadth, not depth. It can do a lot of things, though rarely specializes in anything. This type of tool is likely compelling and feature-rich. Unfortunately, the increased capabilities come with increased complexity. For nontechnical or less-than-technical teams, these solutions become too clunky and cumbersome.

Popular Examples include:

  • Salesforce for Nonprofits
  • Blackbaud
  • Hubspot

Scalpel (The Specialist)

A Scalpel provides fewer, high-quality features. In many cases, it can even feel limited. What it does, however, it does very well. If users can live without the excess, they often reap the benefits of a useful tool.

At New Story, we default to choosing the scalpel. While this can lead to more tools over time, we’ve found the overall output to be worth it. When we set out to build our donation system, we had three goals:

  • Increase the number of donations
  • Increase the amount of each donation
  • Convert more one-time to recurring donations

We were willing to compromise on nearly everything else in pursuit of a tool that outperformed in those three areas.

Keep it Simple

Decisions naturally trend toward complexity. The larger the team, the more true this becomes. We champion simplicity. To get started without much effort, we suggest three tools:

  • Landing Page
  • Donation Flow
  • Email Marketing
  1. Landing Page

It’s tempting to want an entire site, but most visitors spend less than 10 seconds on a website. A landing page is a single-page experience covering all ‘the need,’ ‘the value,’ and ‘the ask’ that donors care about essential details. The “call to action” should be clear, concise, and highly visible throughout the page. 

  1. Donation Tool

We suggest a tool with little to no commitments that also allows credit card processing. Fortunately, Stripe has no monthly fees, low processing rates, secure, and setup is simple.

We built our donation system to run atop Stripe, and it also has no monthly fees. It’s built to accomplish three goals, at the exclusion of all else:

  • Increase the number of donations
  • Increase the amount of each donation
  • Convert more one-time to recurring donations
  1. Email Marketing

Consistent correspondence with donors keeps your cause top of mind. It also allows you to deliver updates on how you put their funding to work. These touchpoints will enable you to weave in new ‘asks’ as well. We’ve vetted dozens of tools. MailChimp is our top pick (and they don’t pay us to say that) that keeps things simple. More robust solutions can be helpful as an organization grows, but it helps to keep it simple.

Step 7 — Take Action

“Vision without action is just a dream, action without vision just passes the time, and vision with action can change the world” – Nelson Mandela.

It’s time to put the plan into action. 

A robust recurring program takes consistent attention over the long haul. When done well over time, the results can be astonishing. There are few overnight successes, and many of which were still years in the making. At New Story, our recurring program is young and constantly evolving. 

What is Next?

Recurring programs are invaluable. Doing consistent, high-quality work is hard. More often than not, the start is the most challenging. Rather than getting caught up in all the details, it focuses on ‘the right next step.’ 

One of our values at New Story is “think big, break down, and execute.” It’s an ordered list of how to plan and prioritize. Regardless of the size of the undertaking, anything is achievable when broken into small enough pieces.

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