03/08/2013 12:05 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

Nonprofit Trends: Flight to Quality

In my initial post of this year, I predicted that we won't be seeing much of an increase in charitable giving in 2013. In that same post, I attributed some of this to what I called a "flight to quality." So what does this mean, and why does it matter?

When I say "flight to quality," I'm talking about the observable trend of donors deciding to support fewer organizations, consolidating their giving with those that mean the most to them from a mission perspective, demonstrate sustainability and treat them well. I see it happening everywhere -- both with Boomers who are looking to offer their knowledge along with their money and with Millennials who care a whole lot about being a part of a nonprofit's cause. In both cases, surface relationships just don't cut it.

It's a sad but true reality that many donors don't have good relationships with the nonprofit organizations they support. The key word here is "relationships." Sure, they may get letters and receipts back for gifts and regularly attend events. But the word relationship implies a real give and take, an exchange of ideas and a connection that is growing in a positive direction. Good nonprofit shops know this and understand how relationships equal retention.

Retaining donors is hard, probably more difficult today than it ever has been. We live in a world that gets more fast-paced by the minute. We are busy, often oversubscribed, trying to participate in all the opportunities and demands of the modern world. We move fast, take conference calls in our cars and expect apps on our mobile devices to give us information we need right now, thank you very much.

Earlier in my career, the personas or behaviors we had for work versus "real life" were very different. We walked into our jobs and had tools available to use that we would never have at home. Today, the mobile phones we carry have more technological power than the large box-like computers we used to feed punch cards. We use our mobile devices not only to interact with the world (all the time), but also for the world to be there, on demand. Like with Amazon, suggesting what to read next based on previous purchases, we expect everyone to understand our preferences, to value them and to use that information to provide us quick, customized service.

The same is true for people who donate to nonprofits. Donors are just like Amazon customers, expecting service and recognition that nonprofits know who they are and how they are unique.
So what do donors do when they don't really have true relationships? They flee. My colleague Chuck Longfield says that, over the past decade, almost three out of four new donors failed to stick around for another year (The Agitator shares some of Chuck's thoughts on this topic here). That is one scary statistic. Almost 75 percent of the new people who donated gave once and then went poof! They fled to quality, to the places where they felt the most connected and the most valued.

As Chuck advises, this tells us that nonprofit organizations need to work hard to keep their donors (even harder than they work to get new ones). In other words, they need to work on the relationships they already have. This means investing time in understanding what donors think and asking them for their opinions.

Nonprofits need to resist jumping to tell -- always talking to donors about what the organization is doing. Instead, they should ask donors why they care about a cause, listen to what they say; become inspired by their passion and then ultimately invite them to share their stories with others on the organization's behalf.

There's this beautiful moment that I have observed a number of times recently, when a supporter is at an event, really just there because it's expected. And someone asks "why do you care about this cause, how did you get involved?" When the donor begins talking, explaining to someone who is truly listening, the words become an honest articulation of the passion the person feels for the cause. The donor almost comes alive again, personally renewed about why the cause matters while conveying that energy to someone else.

This ask (not the financial "will you give money?" ask) is one of the most powerful things a nonprofit organization can do in becoming a place where donors want to stick around. I know it's easy to introduce such a simple idea. In reality, technology, strategy and priorities all matter, too. But, in the end, if nonprofits aren't giving donors a way to speak up about their causes, they risk losing them and losing the richness of the relationships they could have had over the long term.