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The Formula for Sustainable Fundraising

The Formula for Sustainable FundraisingIt’s October, which means that year-end fundraising is looming on the horizon. Year-end campaigns are a ton of work! When you’re planning a year-end campaign, you want to know that it’s going to be effective and that you’re going to hit your fundraising goals. But what happens after you reach your goals? Will your campaign be able to sustain you after the new year?

It can! Applying a very simple formula to your fundraising campaigns will help you recruit supporters, engage them, inspire them, and motivate them to support you again in the future. It comes from Jim Shapiro and Steven Screen from The Better Fundraising Company, and it’s surprisingly simple. Here’s the formula:

Ask. Thank. Report. Repeat.

That’s all!

The formula is simple, but “simple” doesn’t mean “easy.” Here’s what the formula looks like in practice!

Step One: Ask

This might sound a little silly, but bear with me: people won’t donate to you unless you ask them to do so. Common sense, right?

Not necessarily! One of the biggest reasons that donors don’t give (or don’t give a second time) is because they were never asked to give (or give again). That’s why “Ask” is such a critical part of the formula.

I hope you’re still with me, because I’m going to complicate things a little bit.

Asking matters. How you ask matters even more.

To make an effective ask, you have to establish why donors should give to you. Asking for a contribution isn’t enough! Donors want to know how their giving will help solve a problem, and they want to know that their money is going to make a difference. When you ask, show and tell donors why they should give. Make them understand that their gift has meaning! Saying, “Your donation will feed local families experiencing food insecurity” is much more compelling than saying, “Donate to us because we help hungry people!”

Focus on creating asks that:

  • Show potential donors a problem
  • Show them how to be part of a solution
  • Are specific
  • Ask for their help

Want some cool examples? Check out some of the work over at the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration (SOFII). There’s some amazing material over there!

Step Two: Thank

When I was a kid, I absolutely hated writing thank-you notes after birthdays or holidays. Now that I’m older, I wish they were more common! Recognizing and appreciating peoples’ gifts is a great exercise for you and for them.

Sincerely thanking someone for a gift or favor makes him or her feel great about giving to you. That feeling is the key to retaining that donor!

Thanking your donors should be a little more involved than a receipt that says “Thank you for your donation of $__. Please retain the following details for your records.” A great thank-you note includes details like:

  • A sincere statement that doesn’t sound like you wrote it under duress.
  • A statement that reiterates how the gift will make a difference. (This will match the “why” in your ask!)
  • A sentence about how you and your clients appreciate the donor’s involvement.
  • A simple ask—that does NOT involve an additional gift—like following you on Twitter or watching a video.
  • A note that you’ll be in touch.

Those last two pieces might seem unusual to you, but they’re really valuable! Asking someone to do a small, simple favor strengthens their emotional ties to you because of something called the Ben Franklin Effect. It’s a great way to get donors engaged!

Giving donors a heads-up that you’re going to contact them in the future makes them more likely to notice and read your future communications. This is important! These days, nonprofits have to vie with zillions of advertisements, newsletters, emails, social posts, and other communications. Getting people to notice and read what you have to say is a lot of work. Telling them you’ll be in touch will help!

Getting donors to open and read your future communications is especially important because it will make the next step much more effective.

Step Three: Report

In your ask, you captured donors’ attention by showing them a problem, telling them how they could help solve it, and asking them to get involved. In your thank-you letter, you told donors how amazing they were for stepping up and helping solve that problem. In this stage, you’ll report how donors actually helped.

Telling donors how they made a difference is a very important, often overlooked step. You’ve asked donors for their money. You’ve thanked them for giving you their money. Now you need to tell them how their money helped.

Remember, your donors are motivated by the desire to make an impact on the world. If you can report that impact, they’ll feel good about their decision to give to you. You’re fulfilling the desire that inspired them to give in the first place. You’re telling them a complete story; you’re saying, “Hey! You gave to us because you wanted to make a difference. Thank you! Here’s exactly what you accomplished.”

If you don’t report their impact, you omit an important part of the story. You’re only saying, “Hey! You gave to us because you want to make a difference! Neat! Thanks!” You don’t address their desire to make a difference. They’re not fulfilled at the end of this cycle.

I can already hear what you’re saying. “But Abby, how can we possibly tell every donor exactly what their money achieved? We can’t get that granular!”

And that’s true—you can’t. Getting that granular would also get pretty boring. No donor wants to hear, “Hey! You gave to us because you want to make a difference. Thanks! Your $50 helped pay for two days’ worth of water and electricity!”

Instead, focus on telling the stories of the people your organization supports. If you can show a donor a photo of a family that you helped with a note that says, “Your support helped feed this family and hundreds of others,” you’re reporting donors’ impact in a way that inspires them.

Step Four: Repeat

If you’ve gotten to this point, you’ve built a pretty great relationship with your donors. You’ve showed them how they can make a difference, inspired them to get involved, made them feel good about giving, and showed them how they made an impact.

At this point, your donors feel great about giving to you and know you’ll use their gift wisely. Now it’s time to invite them to continue to make a difference by continuing their support.

When you ask the next time around, reference the fact that the donor has already made an impact with his or her past support. Recognizing past involvement shows donors they’re valuable to you!


Great fundraising is more than just asking for money! Great fundraising involves building emotional connections with donors who are invested in changing the world with you. If you want to build a successful, sustainable fundraising program, use a simple formula:

  1. Ask people to join you in making a difference by donating.
  2. Thank them promptly and sincerely for their gifts.
  3. Report how donors made a difference with their money.
  4. Ask them to stay involved with you by continuing their support.

This formula is the starting point for building a base of engaged donors who are invested in the work you do every day. Keep it in mind as you start building your next campaign!

The Formula for Sustainable FundraisingAbby Jarvis is a blogger, marketer, and nonprofit education manager for Qgiv, an online fundraising service provider. Qgiv offers industry-leading online giving and peer-to-peer fundraising tools for nonprofit, faith-based, and political organizations of all sizes. When she’s not working at Qgiv, Abby can usually be found writing for local magazines, catching up on her favorite blogs, or binge-watching sci-fi shows on Netflix.

Topics: Donor Retention Donor Communications Donor Stewardship