Recently I have been on a quest interviewing my faith-based clients about the “one thing” that makes a difference in a successful appeal. What’s their secret idea or magic tactic? Is there a silver bullet? A magic wand? I spoke with development directors who were just getting started and with development directors with many years under their belt. In spite of the difference in years of experience, one thing rang through. 

During my interviews what surfaced again and again was the value of paying attention to details. Details on following up on wrong addresses or expired credit cards. Details on resolving donor problems. Details on responding to email requests from interested supporters. Details on accurate donor contact info. Details on observing donor preferences. And the list goes on.

According to Grammarist, the idiom “the devil is in the details” means that mistakes are usually made in the small details of a project. Usually it is a caution to pay attention to avoid failure. An older, and slightly more common, phrase “God is in the detail” means that attention paid to small things has big rewards, or that details are important. Not paying attention to the details of a fundraising appeal can tilt the most creative campaign toward failure.

Anyone who works in fundraising knows that there are lots of details that can fall through the cracks. Paying attention to these details can build donor loyalty. Ignoring these details can negatively impact your campaign.

Let’s look at three of these details that can become huge missed opportunities.

Missed Opportunity #1: Inaccurate contact and credit card info

You spend a lot of time and energy building a mailing list. These are people who have shown an interest, been to an event or have donated before. Most are onboard with your mission and care about your cause. Everyone knows it is easier to keep these supporters than to find new ones. A good contact list is the basis for all fundraising, but it is only effective if the information is accurate.

I spoke with Kevin O’Connor, former Executive Director of Development at Archdiocese of Washington, and former Director of Development at both Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Archdiocese of Denver. He says, “During any given year, ADW probably has 2,000 to 3,000 returned mail pieces. Some have the new address provided by USPS. These require that we go into the database, update the contact information and then re-mail the letter. The larger portion of the returned mail pieces are letters and billings that don’t have a new address and follow-up needs to take place with these donors, one by one, to obtain a correct new address.” Kevin admitted that this is very time-consuming work but definitely necessary to keep their donor counts from going down and to keep their campaign increasing each year. And successful it was. Over a nine-year stretch, the Cardinal’s Appeal campaign increased in payments received from $9 million to nearly $15 million. 

Another time-consuming detail is following up on wrong or expired credit cards. It is easy to transpose a number on the card or expiration date when filling out the donor card or online form making the transaction invalid. In addition, credit card companies occasionally send you a new card with a new expiration date. Or you receive a new card because your existing card was skimmed, used fraudulently or is missing. Regardless of the reason for a new card, the number on record is no longer valid for the monthly credit card debits on appeals. Most donors don’t think about calling the organization with their new credit card information every time they get a new card.

Wrong numbers can be fixed. Of course, you can assign someone on staff to keep track of returned mail. The real opportunity, however, involves contacting donors personally and requesting updates on declined credit cards. This can get tricky in light of recent credit card scams. Donors might be hesitant to give the info over the phone to strangers. Some organizations handle this by first sending a letter or an email regarding the declined card and requesting the new info or by having a recognizable person make the call. If there is still reluctance, then the donor can input their new credit card number directly on the secure appeal website or mail in the new number. Once updates are received, this up-to-date info needs to be entered in the donor management software. If you don’t have the staff to keep the donor management software updated, hire a temp worker and train them to take on this task of obtaining and updating donor addresses. Sure there will be a cost involved, but the costs are necessary to get your donors back on board. Only full time staff should be working on updating credit card issues due to the potential liability issues related to this work.

Missed Opportunity #2: Lack of follow through (or no follow through) 

The second detail involves follow up on interested supporters. Supporters visit your site and fill out a call to action button or a “contact us” form requesting more info. Something on your site or what they heard about your organization made them want to reach out.

NextAfter, a fundraising research company, recently completed a secret research study to anonymously ask 120 top nonprofits one simple question, “Why should I give to your organization, instead of some other nonprofit, or not at all?” They asked this question through multiple channels: a phone call, on social media, and through the "contact us" form on the organization’s website. The first thing NextAfter discovered is that more than a third of the organizations never respond to email submissions. The results showed that only 26% of the organizations responded within the first 48 hours. After a week, 43% of the organizations still had not responded. After 30 days, 35% of the organizations had completely ignored the request for more info. What a huge missed opportunity.

According to NextAfter, the results for responses in social media were not much better. Only 67% of organizations that were contacted responded to their direct message.

This is a detail that can be also resolved. Assign someone on staff to keep track of submission requests, call to action buttons and Facebook messaging. This assignment involves follow up on the supporters’ questions or comments. These responses should be made within the first 48 hours to be effective.

Missed Opportunity #3: No response to donor issues

A third detail is responding to donors right away when there is a problem or concern. It does not matter if the issue is a minor or a major one. You want to show your donors that you are paying attention. That they matter. That you care. We are all human so something can go wrong in your fundraising process. An issue could be relatively minor such as a wrong amount mentioned in a thank you card or an incorrect salutation in the name (addressed as “Mr.” when it should have been a “Mrs.”). Or an issue could be major like your database got hacked making your donors’ sensitive information vulnerable.

In all cases you need to be responsive to the concern right away and take responsibility for the action. Lynn DeLean-Weber, former board chair of Gateway180 in St. Louis, MO, adds this advice, “Also, consider who is in the best position to respond to the donor – it may not be the development director. Often in these situations, having a member of the board or the board president reach out can lead to a stronger relationship. That touchpoint is important, and if handled well, a mistake can lead to unexpected opportunities to share with and learn from the donor.”

Paying attention to the details shows your donors that you care and builds donor loyalty. Ultimately, Kevin O’Connor’s “persistence and follow up, follow up, follow up” may be the silver bullet we all need for fundraising success.