lighthouse counsel logo
Donor Retention Made Easy

Donor Retention Made Easy

November 30, 2015
Dave Fulscher

Most of us in the fundraising field have heard over the past few years that a major concern for nonprofits is the alarming rate of declining retention among their donors.

This probably grew out of the Great Recession where we were so concerned about raising money in very tight times that the emphasis on relating to our donors was overlooked. We could always get back to that later. But, less concern over communicating with our donors became the norm.

I have seen some nonprofits more concerned about the donor’s next gift without taking the very important steps to minister to the contributor’s needs.

Here are some very good time honored best practices to keep donor retention high and making the donors contribute more. Some suggestions are more applicable to the size of the gift. These can easily be displayed prominently on your desk or on your computer to do lists:

1. Thank them. This is probably a no-brainer but you may not be surprised that it is not high priority in some nonprofits. The common wisdom of thanking a donor 7 times within a year, which is a good rule of thumb. Thanking can be in these forms:

The gift recognition letter. A few big no-no’s are to make it a photo copied form with an electronic signature and to go more than 48 hours in sending it. The more personal the thank you, the better. A short handwritten message on the letter goes a long way to donor loyalty. If the gift is recurring, mention of how much you appreciate their number of years as a supporter.
–Public recognition. Unless otherwise specified, list them on your website, in your annual report and other publications. If you are speaking at a public event where the donor is present, thank them in front of the group. Know the names of donor spouses in case you run into them in public.

Recognition events. Host donor thank you luncheons and dinners, invite them to your events and host a VIP reception.

2. Report to them. Most donors want to see that their support has gone to great use. There are many ways to report:

Newsletters, post cards videos. The more personal and concise, the better. No one of us wants a long email to read from our favorite charity.

Phone calls. The personal message on the phone is more for larger gifts. It can also be used when a gift is made. Even if you can’t reach the donor, a voicemail is very much appreciated and remembered. Volunteers can also fill the role of making calls.

Personal visits. These can be structured, such as a lunch or meeting, or can be in the form of “elevator talk” when you run into a donor. Volunteers can also be coached to accomplish these tasks.

3. Listen. Donors increasingly like to be a participating partner in your nonprofit. You can certainly conduct surveys via email or snail mail and they are effective to some extent. During visits or encounters with donors at events or other public venues, make it a point of asking the donor what he/she thinks about your organization. Visiting with a donor or potential donor should be 25% you taking and 75% of the donor talking. Reporting back to a donor about a suggestion or even a complaint also goes a long way to retention and loyalty.

4. Involve them. Some donors only want to contribute money as their part of participation with your nonprofit. There is a large portion of the donor population that would love to be involved if asked. Donors can be involved in these ways:

Events. You always need more volunteers for events and they can be a great way to keep in touch with the donors.

Programs. Most nonprofits can fit a donor’s talents and interests into a leadership role with your programming.

Annual and Capital Campaigns. The donor has already bought into your fundraising plan, so recruit them to solicit others, especially their friends, colleagues and business associates.

Working on donor retention can be part of your year round emphasis in development. Longtime contributors are worth the effort.


Dave Fulscher

In his more than 36 years in fundraising, Dave has overseen more than 20 successful annual and capital campaigns, raising millions of dollars for YMCAs in Ohio, Texas and Florida. Dave has a wealth of experience in endowment campaigns, membership development, project management, facility operations, board recruitment and public relations. His work with volunteers to elevate the mission of the YMCA earned him the prestigious 2005 North American YMCA Development Organization Eagle Award for fundraising excellence.