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Donor retention: Where to begin

Yellow Post-It Note with Thank You :) written on it posted to a cork board

Successful nonprofits have buy-in from the community, which is a first step to creating donor retention.

A variety of donor bases, such as civic groups, businesses, individuals, and foundations, are the cornerstone of any healthy and sustainable nonprofit. Keeping those generous supporters engaged is one of the keys to nonprofit development and donor retention.

Chasing donors who don’t truly have a connection with an organization may result in a one-time gift on occasion. These crisis-fundraising-type asks may result from creatively searching for ways to bump into prospects, start a conversation, or scheduling that “ask.”

Sadly, once the money is in the bank, we tend to bury ourselves in day-to-day tasks, forgetting all about those key donors until the next crisis.

Today let’s focus on donor relations, specifically donor retention. Here at Funding for Good, we like to refer to the donor relationship process as “donor dating.”

Imagine that you just met your “perfect match.”  You went out of your way to get introduced, build some trust, and finally secured a first date. It went well. More likely than not, you shared some personal information, learned some new things about each other, someone paid the bill, and you set up a time to go out for the second date.

Imagine that a week goes by, and you get a random thank-you text or call, but then there is silence. You begin to question the connection, the motives, and the future of the relationship. If you are interested in a relationship, you work to build communication, and you establish times to connect and share your needs and joys.

How is this different from “donor development”?

When it comes to donor relations, these generous individuals shouldn’t ever be treated like an open wallet or free meal. Donors are looking to invest, partner, and celebrate the impact their dollars help create.

Most development experts agree that nonprofits should make a minimum of seven donor touches per year for a successful donor retention strategy. All touches can’t be asks, and none should be “thasks” (a thank-you and an ask in the same correspondence or conversation). While general mailings can be considered in that seven-touch count, it is crucial to maintain a personal connection.

The donor retention tips below are designed to stimulate your brainstorming efforts. So pull out that pen and see how you can build sincere and partnership-based donor relations with your generous supporters and advocates.

  • Personal phone calls—consider dividing up your top donor list by giving levels or by the programs/projects they support. Pick up the phone and give them a call at the beginning of the year to wish them a happy New Year and let them know what they can expect to see from your organization in the next 12 months. Later in the year, ask a board member or the director of the program the donor is most interested in supporting to pick up the phone to say thank-you again. Include current successes and opportunities for engagement.
  • Handwritten thank-you notespen and paper should never go out of style. A random note in the mail with a photo of a program/person their dollars have impacted can brighten any donor’s day.
  • Recognize important dates or personal milestones—granted, we might not know the birthday, anniversary, or retirement date of every donor off the top of our head, but social media is bringing that information to our newsfeed each morning. Make a point to follow donors on their social media pages. (I say that in the most non-creepy of ways!) If you see they are celebrating, drop them a quick message! There are also very cool ways to capture some of this data in your donor database by identifying your desired demographic info and setting up specific opportunities to collect it.
  • Ask what events are of specific interest to your donor and how they would like to be notified—this will allow you to connect with donors in more meaningful ways and prevent them from getting an information overload from your organization.
  • Find out how donors wish to be recognized and respect their preferences—be intentional and ask how you can show appreciation for their generosity. Some donors, especially foundations and businesses, appreciate a little PR. Others prefer to remain anonymous or choose to give in honor or memory of someone special. Your job is to make those things happen in a timely manner.
  • Give back—an invitation to lunch or coffee or a small token of appreciation are great ways to make sure giving isn’t all one-sided. Any time you see an opportunity to return the favor, be sure to offer.

At the end of the day, nonprofits should view “donor dating” as a relationship-building process that leads to long-term and meaningful partnership, not as a monetary exchange.

These are significant first steps in retaining donors. Are you interested in learning how to grow your donor base? Check out this free YouTube playlist on How to Grow Your Donor Base in 20 Days.

Want to learn more?

Join me on January 14, 2021, at Candid’s webinar “Invest in Your Donor Relations to Maximize Rentention.” I’ll share how to look at donor relations through the eyes of your donors, and you’ll walk away with next steps that you can implement right away to create a stronger development department and happier donors. Register for the webinar.

Keep Growing for Good!


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