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Donor Retention: 6 Ways to Create Lasting Relationships

Hands holding a circle made of up male and female silhouettes with the title Donor Retention: 5 Ways to Create Lasting Relationships to the left of the images

You can’t build a great building on a weak foundation. You must have a solid foundation if you’re going to have a strong superstructure.”

—Gordon B. Hinkley

The foundation for a strong nonprofit fundraising strategy is building relationships with your donors. By focusing on building relationships, you’ll see better donor retention over time. Better donor retention rates mean a higher lifetime value for your donors, resulting in better return on investment (ROI) for your nonprofit’s donor communications efforts.

Essentially, building lasting relationships with your donors snowballs over time, leading to a more effective and complete fundraising strategy. It looks something like this:

Four arrows progressing from Building Relationships to Improved Donor Retention to Better ROI to Stronger Fundraising Strategy

In order to build these relationships, you need to focus on every aspect of the fundraising cycle as opposed to just one or two steps. That’s why we’ve created this guide. With these six strategies, your nonprofit will be a step closer to building the foundation you need to create lasting relationships with your donors.

Our helpful strategies include:

  1. Decide if building a relationship even makes sense

  2. Start donor engagement early in a relationship

  3. Understand the donors’ perspectives

  4. Provide plenty of opportunities for engagement

  5. Practice listening to your donors

  6. Remain transparent as an organization

Let’s work together to build a strong foundation of effective relationships with your nonprofit’s donor base. Jump in!

01. Early Engagement

1. Decide if building a relationship even makes sense

Even though donor retention is an issue that rightfully gets a lot of attention, it’s important to remember that there are some donors who do not want a relationship with you. Stewardship is almost always warranted, but not always.

Before showering a donor with appreciation, take a critical look at whether or not that’s appropriate.

Peer-to-peer and memorial gifts are examples of situations where attempting to build a relationship might be ignored at best and off-putting at worst.

In both cases, the donor was supporting the fundraiser, and not necessarily your organization. Even though your cause was chosen by the fundraiser, it may not be a meaningful cause to the donor—they were simply supporting their friend, family member, co-worker, etc. who was running the campaign.

That fundraiser is who the bulk of your attention should go toward, not the donor.

While there’s always room for an improvement to your donor retention rate, attempting to get to 100 percent is not only unrealistic, but can also be harmful to the reputation of your organization.


2. Start donor engagement early in a relationship

You never get a second chance at a first impression. That’s why it’s important that your nonprofit focus on building relationships from the very beginning.

The minutes and hours after giving are when a donor feels the best about the act of giving. How you respond in those early moments will help drive the likelihood that the donor continues to give, either monetarily or through other means.

Kick off your relationship by showing your donors that your organization cares.

Be sure you have a response prepared and ready for new donors once they’ve given to your cause for the first time. You should have materials like welcome kits ready to send them that include:

  • A heartfelt thank-you for joining the family of donors

  • A story showing the excellent work made possible by donors like them

  • A preview of future communications

  • An invitation for feedback (why they gave, what’s their connection to the cause, or even just an invite to reply with their questions or comments)

An email series that kicks in after a supporter gives their first donation that communicates upcoming events, volunteer opportunities, and even a second appeal (nothing wrong with asking again in those first 90 days) can also be a powerful follow-up to the initial gift response.

No matter how you decide to kick off the engagement, be sure you have accurate records kept of their first donation. Bloomerang’s guide to buying fundraising software can help your nonprofit choose a fundraising solution that will help engage supporters during the donation process as well as save their data for the future.


3. Understand the donors’ perspectives

Communication is the key to effective relationships. This is true with any relationship, whether it’s with friends, family, or nonprofit supporters. Effectively getting your desired message across to the target audience in a succinct manner will establish a clear and transparent channel of communication.

The first step to effective communication with supporters is getting to know more about them.

Donor data is at its most useful when it speaks to donors interests and values. Ideally, it helps to personalize the interactions you have with supporters. That means you should continue to learn more about your donors, and store that information for future use.

The welcome kit doesn’t have to be the only place you solicit feedback or personal information about the donor. Sending surveys that ask questions about the donor, why they care about you and your cause, and how they feel about your work and communications can be immensely powerful.

The alternative involves making assumptions about donors with similar gift amounts, gift channels, and demographic information.

Two $100 donors who both gave online can be very, very different types of supporters. But it can be hard to know which type without asking.

To bring this technique to the next level, use your donor management software to survey your supporters and store that information for future use.

If your donor, in turn, asks you a question, it’s okay to not know the answer. Instead, you can promise to find out and return with the answer later on. This allows you to conduct the proper research and continue the conversation with your supporter.

Andy Robinson claims that the words “I don’t know” are truly magical.

Donors appreciate authenticity and humility. Not knowing everything about everything reminds the donors that you’re not afraid to be honest with them. It validates their questions and helps everyone learn something new.

If you’re having difficulty deciding how to get started with effective communication with your supporters, try hiring a fundraising consultant. This guide can help you get started finding the best one for your organization’s strategic overhaul.


4. Provide plenty of opportunities for engagement

Just like supporters will want to communicate on various platforms and with various messages, your donors will vary in the types of opportunities in which they want to involve themselves with your nonprofit.

Therefore, be sure to offer various opportunities for your supporters to help with.

This allows them the opportunity to get involved in ways that don’t have supporters constantly reaching for their wallets. Of course, inspiring supporters to donate is important for your nonprofit’s funding, but it can be exhausting for donors to be asked for money in every interaction you have with them.

Therefore, encourage them to get involved in other ways, such as:

  • Advocacy. Encourage your supporters to sign your latest petition, call their representatives, or email their legislators as a part of your next advocacy campaign. When you apply digital advocacy best practices, such as those explained in this DNL OmniMedia article, you’ll be able to apply the communication techniques we discussed earlier too!

  • Volunteering. Ask supporters to volunteer at your nonprofit’s headquarters or at your next event. Volunteering is a great way to encourage supporters to get in the grit of your mission. It’ll be rewarding to see how their hard work pays off and what their hard-earned money is going toward.

Be sure that when a supporter gets involved with something other than (or in addition to) donating, you store all of this information in your CRM. The types of activities with which your supporters involve themselves is a great indication of their interests. Knowing their interests will circle back around to help you with future communication.


5. Practice listening to your donors

Relationships are a two-way street. Not only should you encourage your supporters to get more involved with your nonprofit, but you should also make sure to engage with the feedback from your supporters.

Practice the art of listening with your supporters. They likely have some great ideas that could immensely boost your nonprofit’s strategy. Plus, when you engage with what your supporters have to say, you’re participating in a more reciprocal relationship with them.

Send surveys to your supporters to get their input on your latest fundraising event or your last campaign.

Surveys allow you to get an overview of how donors are feeling about your organization as well as show who is engaging with the survey itself. Plus, from the responses, you may get some great ideas for improvement for your nonprofit’s strategy.

Collect feedback during feasibility studies for major campaigns.

During feasibility studies, you (or a fundraising consultant) will likely ask important questions of your stakeholders, such as major donors and board members. For instance, you may ask about the impression of your nonprofit on the community. Take this feedback to heart and focus on improving any weaknesses they may point out during the upcoming campaign and beyond.

Survey your internal team and give them an opportunity to speak up.

You may ask your nonprofit staff about things such as their perceptions of donor trust, donor retention, diversity, equality, data, technology, and social media. You should ask all of these questions to yourself of course, but getting team members’ opinions is also valuable. They may see things you can’t. Their answers may help your nonprofit implement successful strategies and develop a strong internal network for better operations.


6. Remain transparent as an organization

Your supporters appreciate transparency. A recent study shows that nonprofits that earned a GuideStar Seal indicating transparency earned an average of 53 percent more in contributions the following year.

Remain as transparent with your supporters as possible through accurate and frequent messaging and documentation. For instance, your nonprofit should be sure to have extensive and accurate:

  • Annual reports

  • Tech updates

  • Campaign goals

  • Sponsorship records

  • Tax forms

Storing all of the information about each of these elements in the same place is an efficient way to ensure you’re remaining on top of effective transparency.

However, not all of this software is the same. Because you’re storing sensitive information about finances, personal donor information, and nonprofit activity, it’s imperative you choose a software solution you trust.

Be wary of free software when you go to make your decision.

First, if you’re transparent about the type of software your nonprofit uses, but it doesn’t have a good reputation (which free software generally doesn’t), your donors may not trust your nonprofit by extension.

Second, much of the time free software is limited in safety or functionality (or both!). Your nonprofit should be transparent about the things you want or need to share with supporters, but not with personal information or information that could cause trouble.

Closing Thoughts

Building relationships is an important aspect of any nonprofit strategy, especially as a technique to boost your donor retention rates. All of these tips help your donors feel respected and your organization become more responsible. Once you’ve laid the foundation of these relationships, you can continue to build a strong superstructure for your organization’s strategy and impact.

Steven ShattuckSteven Shattuck is chief engagement officer at Bloomerang, which helps nonprofit organizations to reach, engage, and retain the advocates they depend on to achieve their vision for a better world.

Topics: Donor Relations Donors Donor Behavior Donor Retention