Do Donor Societies/Giving Clubs Work?

March 15, 2019

Giving Clubs/Donor Societies have been around as long as fundraising has been around. It is a proven way to steward donors, as well as create/confirm loyalty to your organization. I’ve seen giving clubs based on gender, based on dollar amount, based on years of donating and, of course, based on leaving a bequest.

According to the Fundraising Authority, “Donor clubs and giving societies work to increase donor loyalty and lifetime donor value because they make your donors feel like part of your team. Fundraising is about building relationships with our donors. Giving societies build stronger, deeper relationships with donors because they make your donors feel ‘special,’ which they are.” Even American Express pushed the notion of being part of a club by stating that “membership has its privileges.” It evokes a genuine feeling of belonging to something bigger than yourself.

The article above also warns about giving lifetime memberships. I would tend to agree. The set it and forget it mindset shouldn’t be utilized for these cohorts. Many times we, as fundraisers, are praised for finding low-cost solutions to bring in large numbers of donors (or, in this case, stewarding them). Far too often, fundraisers are looking for a transaction where a relationship should exist. If the membership (and it’s ‘benefits’) are the only time you are interacting with the donor (other than asking for money), you are doing the donor a huge disservice.

Just because you have had a donor giving club for decades doesn’t mean you need to continue the practice (if it isn’t working well for you). Sometimes the program needs to be re-imagined — perhaps redefining the ‘benefits’? Sometimes it needs to be renamed (and what a great way to tie in your mission than by renaming a Heritage Club with something that is more specifically mission-based). I have found that you need not spend great gobs of money on these clubs — sometimes your ‘closest to the cause folks’ are just looking for insider information (i.e. a sharing of a strategic plan before it is made public, or hearing the CEO’s new vision, etc.)

An issue I have with giving clubs is that it may be perceived as the pinnacle of giving. In a former life, we had a Top Donors Club (annual gifts of $10,000+) and entrance to Top Donor events was very exclusive. There was a hard line at $10,000 minimum contribution and exceptions were not made. The issue was moving donors past the $10,000 mark. Could you love them more? After all, they were already in the Top Donor club. One solution (that was ultimately not implemented) could have been to raise the $10,000 to a higher number (it had been at $10,000 for over a decade and we all know that $10,000 from 10 years ago is worth a lot more than $10,000 today).

Do Giving Clubs produce donor loyalty or do they capitalize on donor loyalty? Great question. Glad you asked. The truth is that there isn’t sufficient research out there. Do members of a Giving Club have a higher propensity to leave a bequest to your organization? Dunno, but I would have to surmise that if the Giving Club was part of an over-arching stewardship program (and not the end in and of itself), the answer would probably be ‘yes’.

I have found that Giving Clubs work well when they are small intimate groups. If there was a club for all donors over $25, membership in the club would be relatively unremarkable as there could be thousands of people in this exclusive club. (It’s like the Jeep Cherokee Limited — last year they produced 239,437 of them last year — not quite ‘Limited’.) If the club was for new monthly donors over $x, that may be a different story.

I read an article by Lynne Wester about Giving & Recognition Societies. She states “Recognition and giving societies are best used to build donor retention and to recognize certain behaviors. They should not be used to supplant proper acknowledgment and stewardship and are in no means able to replace proper engagement opportunities. We can and must do better. We can and must be better at meeting our donors’ needs without creating inauthentic means of recognition.”

Definitely food for thought — a Giving Club will not replace good ol’ fashioned relationship building.