Reimagining Recurring Donor Programs

Reimagining Recurring Donor Programs

May 22, 2020
28 minutes

Cara Schwalbach · Development Director, One Tail at a Time | Top experts recommend: Make it A ThingThe economic landscape is changing due to COVID-19, big time. And while your recurring program may currently be reliable, it's pretty clear that now is the time to be drawing up plans to make sure that reliability grows stronger.


Justin Wheeler, Funraise CEO and Co-founder, sits down with Cara Schwalbach of One Tail at a Time, a Chicago nonprofit that makes pet adoption a joyful and accessible experience, to talk about the success of their recurring program, their COVID-19 response, and making it A Thing.

Tune in as Justin and Cara think through questions like...

  • How can we ensure our donors know that we notice each and every one of them? (Because we do!)
  • How can we upgrade first-time donors into recurring members?
  • What kind of exclusive perks can we offer as we can only socialize distantly?
  • How can technology make it possible to scale or jumpstart a recurring program? (Because I'm a department of one!)

You can make sure that your recurring program is strong enough to sustain your nonprofit through any economic crisis—it's all about nonprofit-specific technology, long-term planning, and the empathy that nonprofits are known for. (And animals, if you have them.)‍


Hello, I'm Justin Wheeler, and welcome to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit. I'm excited to sit down with Cara, the Development Director of One Tail at a Time to learn more about how they've grown their monthly donor program by nearly 1,000% in the last few years. During times like now, having a predictable revenue stream could not be more important. We're going to dig in with Cara to learn how they've expanded so quickly and what they're doing today to keep their donors engaged and retained. Let's dive in.

Justin Wheeler All right, well, Cara, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about your amazing organization and the amazing work that you guys are doing, along with how you have built up a really strong monthly donor program. So thank you. And please tell us more about yourself and the organization.

Cara Schwalbach Sure, I'm Cara, I'm our development director at One Tail at a Time, we're an animal rescue in Chicago, we're One Tail at a Time dog rescue, but we also rescue cats. We have a cat and kitten program - a cat program. And let's see, last year we rescued about 975 dogs and cats. We've been around since 2008 and in 2008, we saved 12 dogs. So we've grown pretty quickly since then and it's largely well, essentially all because of the community around us and just Chicago's awesome community of rescue advocates that have joined our cause and volunteered or fostered and adopted or just follow us on some social media to pitch in.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. I think that's in fact, that's where we Funraise, I think learned about your organization was through Facebook because you guys have done a lot of Facebook fundraising and just a pretty big social media presence. So how did you get involved with with the organization and become the Director of Development?

Cara Schwalbach Sure. Well, this was my first fundraising gig. So to speak, I actually have a background in musical theater, and that's what brought me to Chicago. But during the summer, I would go away and perform out of state. And I was in Missouri one summer and during the day I would volunteer at the local Humane Society there. And I just came back to Chicago so inspired, I had no idea there were so many, just amazing pets still waiting for a home and shelter. Still waiting for their home in a shelter. So I started researching local rescues here and found this awesome group called One Tail at a Time. I felt like such a nerd because I would go to events where they were there, just casually introduce myself. Like Hi I'm Cara, I've heard great things. Thanks for all you do. And then one day I just sent an introduction to myself to our Executive Director Heather. And she wanted to chat right away. And that, realizing has been the foundation of One Tail, is just being so open to support from anyone eager to save lives with us.

Justin Wheeler That's great. I love the persistence of, you know, tracking down the organization and getting a meeting.

Cara Schwalbach Not creepy at all.

Justin Wheeler That's how you get stuff done. You know. I mean, not being creepy, but just that persistence. So tell us a little bit more about your guys's fundraising strategy. Like overall, like how do you guys raise funds? How do you support the overall mission day to day?

Cara Schwalbach Yes, we raise funds in a lot of different ways and mostly through individual donations through our membership program, which is our monthly giving program. We also do a lot of social media fundraising and peer-to-peer is huge for us. So we have like our annual gala at the end of the year, our annual health review. But during the year we're launching really big social media campaigns. Our peer-to-peer campaign right now is our annual sit in for shelter dogs and I'm trying to grow our sustaining donor, our recurring donor program constantly throughout the year.

Justin Wheeler So your membership program, let's talk about that, it sounds like it's something that has been well established, you know, before COVID 19 hit and you know, this is something that we're seeing, you know, as a pretty critical component to any organization's revenue channel is a strong membership or recurring donor or subscription program just, you know, repeatable, predictable revenue month over month. So tell us about your guys's membership program, how it started and what are the kind of the core elements of it today?

Cara Schwalbach Yeah, I'm happy to. So our membership program was in place when I joined in 2016. And I know that our first members joined in 2012. So it was around for four years when I joined the One Tail family. And around that time we had about 200 members and our membership program was essentially the big yellow PayPal button that lived on our website. And then if you signed up for, we had one level of support. It was a $10 monthly donation. Or you could give a one time annual gift of $120. And then you got a new membership gift, a cool piece of swag each year. So we thought about it more and realized if 200 supporters are willing to make a monthly gift for a membership program that we hadn't invested a ton of time in, maybe we should spend some more time developing our monthly giving program and see where it takes us. So from 2016 to now, we went from 200 monthly donors to over 1,600 monthly donors.

Justin Wheeler Wow, that's amazing. And so do you still only allow them to give $10 a month or have you expanded yet?

Cara Schwalbach Heck No! So our starting monthly gift is $10 a month. But then they're able to give at different levels. We have them been branded our mission. So we have the chihuahua level, the beagal level, the great dane level of monthly support where they can also make custom gifts. And those levels have been really important for us. As we think about how do we move donors up, the supporter our pipeline and how do we do some upgrade campaigns throughout the year?

Justin Wheeler So over the course of just a few years, essentially, you guys grew this community by over a 1,000%. And what was the driving factor behind that? How did you go from 200 to 1,600 members in just a few years?

Cara Schwalbach I think by, I always call it making it a thing. We made our membership program a thing. We made it this community, this inner circle or this like club of supporters, if you will, where we did, we do a quarterly newsletter now. We have an open house just for our members to come and play with puppies. Throughout the different levels, you know, if you're giving $50 a month, then you get to name one of our rescue dogs. Or if you're making a monthly gift of $100 a month, you get to actually go to the shelter with our executive director and save a dog's life. So just making it fun and just making it something that our members really want to be part of was huge for us and making it easy as well, like going from the PayPal pay, to actually being able to accept stripe and brand our donation form, we saw all of those things make a difference.

Justin Wheeler That's awesome. So I love that, like, make it a thing. I think, you know, that's gotta be like the headline for this podcast. Because I mean, I 100% agree with it, I mean, I've talked to so many organizations. I've been a part of building, you know, monthly recurring donor programs as well. And you're exactly right. The more that you make it a thing, it just opens up new opportunities. And the fact that you guys tie, what I love and I think there's like, organizations typically go two routes with making it a thing. One is they provide kind of benefits and values and perks that really aren't tied to the mission. But what you guys do, I mean, get to come in and play with the dogs, get to name dogs. It's so tied to your mission that I'm sure the big part of that growth is because it's resonated with your community and people want to be a part of the mission and giving monthly and being able to have that sort of access is an amazing program. So great job to you and the team for thinking of that. So you said something really interesting I wanted to also come back to, was, you talked about like the expanding your recurring donor base, right? Cuz a lot of times nonprofits think about building a donor, a recurring donor program like they need net new donors to actually grow the overall, you know, annual revenue. So talk to us about some of the strategies you guys have used to expand your recurring revenue by targeting your existing recurring donors.

Cara Schwalbach Yeah, well, something that I'll throw out there to start with is that half of our recurring donors are first time donors. That's a huge percentage. So half of our donors are folks that made a gift to us  before, but half of them, this is an awesome entry level for them to get engaged, like $10 a month and they get some cool swag and some perks. That's getting new donors through the door as well, which is awesome because they become lifetime supporters. Which is this the goal. But as far as activating our existing supporters, we speak a lot to our volunteers, our fosters. We have a lot of folks who are interested in being on the ground with our animals and then life happens and maybe they can't. But this is an awesome way that they can still support our organization. We also set up a welcome series. So when someone joins our email list within three weeks, they're asked, would you consider making a monthly donation for dogs like little pugs too?

Justin Wheeler That's really impressive going back to like that 50% stat, 50% of your donors first time are monthly. This is super important because as you're well aware, recurring donors have a much longer lifespan. They don't churn as much as a single one time donor. So why, I mean, what is it that's, what is it that you're doing, whether it's on your website or in your communications, that's causing you to convert 50% of your donors on the first donation to a monthly give or what's the secret sauce that you can share with us on that point?

Cara Schwalbach I think talking about it a lot, I think sometimes we can get in the habit of, well, if it's on our website and we mentioned it this week then people know about it, but having it in your tagline in your email signature or including it in every single newsletter that you send out, making it really easy to see on your website. We include it in our volunteer and foster emails as well. Just making sure that you're reaching everyone where they are. Has been a really big difference for us.

Justin Wheeler Got it. So it's so far. The two main points is make it a thing and make it a thing times two? Right? It's just consistently talking about it to bring exposure to it. That's awesome. So another interesting thing you said is you migrated from a PayPal button to a more branded giving form, which is Funraise. And so talk to me about how that experience has been for your donors. It sounds like it's helped grow the program. Would love to hear why you think that is and how it's been impactful for you and the team.

Cara Schwalbach Well, what I loved about switching from PayPal only to being able, because our first, now we're with Funraise, which is awesome. But before then, we had a very simple, like customized online donation form. And what I loved was just simply being able to set the amounts at different levels. That was awesome. And gave donors more of a choice. Like when you only have PayPal as your option, like PayPal isn't going to speak to everyone. And I would say that was one of the first really big initial boosts that we saw is adding card. Just simply like card or PayPal made a huge difference for us as well. And just being able to customize some of the text on your donation form as well as, you know, like you can only customize so much in PayPal. But when you're working with a donation form where you can change the, so it doesn't feel like they're going to a totally different website to become a monthly supporter to your organization that they're with you the whole time. I think that makes a huge difference.

Justin Wheeler Totally. I mean, being able to contextualize the giving experience for the donor, creating that brand trust. Right. They trust you, not some third party tech vendor. And so the more that experience can be a part of your brand, you know, you're going to see better results. And so that, that's good. Yeah. And, you know, that's also something that we see at Funraise. You know, it's like no donor is the same. Everyone has their preferred giving method. And so being able to expand that, all the different options in which you can give. Right. So like PayPal is obviously is a big one. We've introduced in the last year Apple Pay, more sort of a cryptocurrency, I don't know if you guys are using crypto today. But some interesting, interesting ways to take continue to give. So expanding the options for donors is definitely an important strategy. And it's awesome to see that as you guys have done, that your donor base has begun to grow.

Cara Schwalbach Yeah, we just actually enabled our Apple Pay. And it's really cool to see people start to use that as their choice.

Justin Wheeler Oh, that's awesome. That's cool. I would love to follow that and see how the conversion rate is and what the lifetime value of Apple Pay donors is versus credit card donors, because it would be interesting if there is any difference there. It sounds like based on what I'm hearing so far, it's  really like your membership is really like the cornerstone sort of revenue channel for the organization. I mean, I know you guys do a lot of different things and I've talked with you in the past, I think as well about event fundraising and auctions that you guys are doing. But where do you foresee or what's like the next sort of iteration of your membership program? Like are you guys talking about ways for continual growth or new things you want to experiment and try out as we kind of enter this really digital-only fundraising environment as of as of today?

Cara Schwalbach Well, I was giving a big head nod earlier, because having our membership program built out before COVID-19 was just huge. The last thing we want to do is stop all of our programing like dogs are not ceasing to come into the shelter. So we wouldn't have been able to increase our intake like we were talking about earlier. We would have had to stop completely if it wasn't for that really reliable support that we already had in our pocket. So right now we're focusing on that again because personally want to grow even more before the next crisis happens. So we're asking ourselves, well, we've really added some exciting technology and different engagement opportunities for our members. So how do we make those? How do we take those to the next level? So working on that, especially in an age, it's like not being able to be face to face with our donors as much, we're thinking of digital engagement opportunities and thinking about one thing that we started doing just less than two years ago was an actual upgrade campaign for our monthly donors. So every year we have a membership drive. That's another part of making it a thing, is that every January on our birthday, January 8th, for the whole week, we recruit new members and it's all we talk about across all of our social media channels. But we also added in  an upgrade element to that. So continuing to just let our supporters know that if they're in a position to say it's very easy to increase their support and maybe you could name a rescue dog if you do.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. And is that is that is that also for expansions? So if you expand, you get more access to different things or what's driving people to expand their monthly gift? Is it more of just communicating the impact? Or are they getting something for the expansion?

Cara Schwalbach I hear that a lot of our donors just hadn't thought or didn't know that it was very easy to upgrade their support. So just making sure that you're even like planting the seed in their head, that that's an option. I think is really important. And just like talking about it and sharing stories of your other monthly donors or your recurring donors who have decided to upgrade. I think that's a really valuable tool.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, that's that's that's good advice. And when I was fundraising, every December, we would run upgrade campaigns. And it would be basically a call campaign. We would call, you know, hundreds of donors thanking them for their support. Talking about, you know, what we had accomplished in that in that year and what we want to accomplish in the next year. And, you know, and we would share in order to do that, I think the organization has to grow by 10%, 20% or 30%. Like, can we count on you to upgrade by 30%? Right. And we saw a lot of traction with that sort of outreach as well. But when you're starting to get into the, you know, the thousands, that becomes a little bit more challenging to call every single donor. So what do you guys do to keep your donors engaged and cultivated and ensuring they feel part of the community? What are some of your guys' strategies around that?

Cara Schwalbach I think that's really important because we see that our members are our most engaged members of the community. They're the ones who are engaging with us on social media. They have like, the open rate for our membership emails is usually like 15-20% higher than our general communication. So we know that they're there. They want to hear from us. So they do hear from us. We talk to them more. We send them more communications throughout the year, special announcements than we would for our general supporters who aren't committed monthly just yet. And on top of that, just for example, when our shelter in place started here in Chicago, we had our associate board, which is our young professionals board. They started contacting every single monthly donor to thank them for their support. Just to check in and let them know like, if it wasn't for you, this time would look so different from us right now. And we just want to take the chance to say thank you. So we're constantly looking for ways that we can just say, hey, to our monthly members and make sure that they know that we noticed their support because they think as we're sharing, we no longer have 100 members. Now we have 1,600 members. We thought a lot about how do we make sure that every one of those members knows that they're just as important as the member who signed up next to them and that we noticed their support coming through our checking account every month.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. Now, that's really interesting. Have you seen any sort of, as it relates, kind of like the health and economic sort of situation that we're going through today? Has it caused you and the team to kind of rethink some of the engagement strategy? I mean, I'm thinking specifically like coming to the shelter and petting dogs, like, are there certain things that you have to think about for the rest of the year? We can't offer, you know, X, Y and Z. We have to do some new things. Have you guys thought about that or strategized and what have you done, if anything, differently as a result?

Cara Schwalbach Yeah. Well, the open house are at our shelter is always a big one for the members, especially members who are new to the organization, like our volunteers are there all the time. But if someone's never visited, they really look forward to that event. And it's an awesome opportunity for us to get to know who our monthly members are and for them to get to know us. So we're thinking about how can we do that digitally this year? How can we get the impact in front of them if not in person? So it is something we're thinking about. We haven't figured out the perfect solution just yet, but in the meantime, we're spending that time just actually talking to them and reaching out one on one.

Justin Wheeler That's awesome. I saw something, well actually our V.P. of Sales, he hosted the happy hour for the sales team. And it was with a sanctuary, it was like a virtual like tour of the sanctuary. And so we saw like all these different, you know, animals and like the owner of the sanctuary was like introducing, it was really clever. And they had said something like, they're getting so many requests they can't even fulfill this sort of, you know, virtual tours because they're just way too many. So maybe that could be a way to engage with some of your recurring donors, is some sort of virtual dog petting exercise on Zoom or something.

Cara Schwalbach Yeah! Virtual dog petting, I'm all for it. And cats too!

Justin Wheeler Okay. I want to get a little bit nerdy for a few minutes. And want to look on the kind of like behind the scenes of managing a membership program, you know, obviously with 1,600 individuals, that's a lot of volume. Right. And in order to keep 1,600 people sort of feeling engaged and feeling just as important as the last person that came in behind them, what are the things or what are the tools that you use to help maybe automate some of that or to stay in the loop on how kind of the health of your donors sort of segment or the health of your recurring donor is?

Cara Schwalbach I could talk about this all day. So this was actually as, I'm not a one woman development shop. I'm our one-woman development staff shop, but we have so many awesome board and volunteer members we couldn't do any of this without. But as far as the day to day operations, it's me. So it was a huge piece for us when we were actually looking for our CRM platform and obviously we went with Funraise. And because we not only have our monthly giving program, but we have various levels of support that people can sign up for a monthly giving program. And we want to make sure that it's really easy to track who's received their opportunity to name a rescue dog or who's our executive director who reached out to to take along to the shelter for a rescue mission. Who have we sent out our swag to? So automating tasks, actually, for our members when they sign up for a different level of support has been huge. And then I can coordinate with our volunteers on making sure those get fulfilled. And another thing is the Intelligence of Funraise the intelligence recording tool. So I'm able to look every week at who's had a failed donation so that we can be proactive and reach out to them right away to see if they need any help updating that donation information. And we get a lot of responses on people who are like, oh yeah, I'm actually about to update that right now. Thanks for the reminder. And there's no way to know, of course, how soon would they have upgraded their donation information. But what we do see is that when we take the time to just reach out to them personally, that they're upgrading it pretty soon after or updating their information pretty soon after.

Justin Wheeler That's great. Yeah. I mean, I remember when I was managing our recurring donor program, you know, prior to Funraise, we didn't have that information of when a donation failed. It was 30 days after the fact. Right. Which is like the fires out, like this person probably has lost interest at that point. And so one of the first things we decided to build at Funraise was that like real-time notification, not just for like the admin, you know, in this case you, but also the donor. So they're getting that e-mail right away if their card fails for whatever reason. Actually, I'm a donor for an organization, my card just failed for some reason and I got that notification right away. I was like, oh shoot, I gotta update it. So that makes a big difference. But also the, you know, as you continue to scale what's going to be important is the increased efficiency that you're getting with technology. So, you know, think about the last time you had to update your credit card on Netflix or Amazon. You never have to because behind the scenes they're talking to the banks, getting those updates in real-time. And that's something we've implemented at Funraise as well with subscriptions is if someone gets a new credit card, we'll know about that and therefore that donor won't lapse. So hopefully that will play a small part in your guys' amazing membership growth over the next several years.

Cara Schwalbach It totally does. That's happened a couple times. And we've explained to our donors it's just Automagic.

Justin Wheeler Automagic, I love that.

Cara Schwalbach It just happens Automagically, don't worry about it.

Justin Wheeler Automagic, you're giving us so much good content. I love it.

Cara Schwalbach I can't explain the technology behind it, but it's great.

Justin Wheeler So what are some of the big goals over the next two years, membership wise or actually, let me take one step back before I asked that question? When you're going into a given year, how do you plan for growth with your membership program? Like what are the things that you look at and what are the goals that you set around growth for membership?

Cara Schwalbach Well, it's really interesting because we're well aware that at some point our growth and our membership numbers should not exponentially grow. We hope that they continue to. So that's how we continue to plan ahead, is what can we do to see that kind of growth again this year? And when we start seeing that's not the pattern, we'll reevaluate to just how do we sustain and possibly grow a little slower. But right now, we're still thinking big. How do we make make the next membership drive even bigger? How do we reach more people? How do we utilize the 1,700 new willing fosters that we've recruited through this crisis to also continue supporting us each month? So we're still thinking all the time about bigger and better.

Justin Wheeler Over the last several years, you've grown like a rocket ship and it's like it's going to be very hard to go from 1,600 to 4000. And, you know, and continue to double year over year. But keeping that like at the forefront of like what is driving the growth? Why do people engage? What do they care about? Are things that really help kind of align that. And so it's exciting. I'm excited to see where you guys are in the next 12 months. On the membership drive are you guys doing any sort of paid advertisments around around it or is it all organic, sort of just community mobilization that's driving the acquisition?

Cara Schwalbach It's really organic. It really wasn't until this year that I figured out what the heck I was doing with Facebook advertising. So we're utilizing Facebook advertising and the Google ad grants now as well. But in the past, it's always been very organic.

Justin Wheeler Well, there you go. There's some more opportunity for growth then! Well Cara, those are lots of the questions I wanted to answer. That was very informative. Thank you. Thank you so much for making yourself available. I know how busy everyone is right now, especially in the nonprofit sector. And so I really appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule to chat with us and to be a resource for all the nonprofits out there that are looking to build their recurring donor program.

Cara Schwalbach No problem. I'm so glad you had me. Thank you.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. Have a good rest the week.

Cara Schwalbach Yeah, you too. Bye!

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