Retention is a word that will send any otherwise rational fundraiser into a panic. It’s also a hot topic in the sector, as we all know that it costs more money to acquire new donors than to retain current donors. But even knowing this, somehow we’re still not great at retaining donors. So what can we do about it?

In the bigger scope of our work – philanthropy – relationship building is key. A successful fundraising program with low donor attrition focuses on building meaningful relationships with donors in between the asks by providing donors with communications that connect them to their impact. Whether you work with annual giving donors or major donors, consider putting together a communications plan that further integrates relationship building into your fundraising program.

Communicating With Your Donors Is a Must

For several years now there has been a lot of donor research published that very clearly tells us that after making a gift, donors want to know how their gift was used, what the impact was and other opportunities to be involved in meaningful ways with the cause. It’s not rocket science – we already know what donors want. So how do we put this information into practice for the benefit of our relationships with donors?

The answer is pretty straight forward. It’s about staying in touch with donors in between appeals and not making an additional ask. By providing donors with communications that are purely informational, educational and interesting, you are building up their familiarity with your non-profit while gaining their trust, which in turn improves their loyalty over time.

Bernard ShawBut as George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Creating a communications plan that complements your fund development activities is the easiest way to begin communicating more consistently with donors.

5 Elements of a Stellar Communications Plan

As you think about putting together your communications plan, keep these five components in mind:

  1. Situational Analysis – This is the best place to start when developing your communications plan. Think through things such as past communications efforts – what’s worked and what has not worked – and consider performing an audience analysis. Also include some information about your current messaging and branding, as this is relevant to all communications you create.
  2. SWOT – A classic, yet underutilized planning tool, a SWOT analysis can help you get a big picture of what has and hasn’t been working for your non-profit. It’s an opportunity to take stock internally and externally.
  3. Goals, Strategies & Tactics – This is the nuts and bolts of your communications plan. Consider creating three to five goals for your communications and then list out how you plan to achieve these goals. The “how” can include things like your newsletter, blog content, social media content, special reports, videos, etc.
  4. Who’s Responsible – Creating a plan is great, but if you don’t know who will carry out different aspects of the plan it can easily become a wasted effort. Include a place in your plan to detail who will be doing what in terms of execution.
  5. Timelines – Taking action is vital to any endeavor. To keep yourself accountable and on track to your communications goals, create timelines for each of your tactics. Be sure to plug the important dates into the calendar that you use and make sure that any pertinent collaborators know about the deadlines that are relevant to them.

From Plan to Implementation

Getting your plan down on paper certainly increases your chances for a successful year of donor communications. As you begin to implement your communications plan, there are ample opportunities to assess and modify your plan to continue to meet your donors’ needs.

Develop a few metrics to look at on a regular basis. This could include things like response rates or open rates. Notice changes over time and look at variables that may have had an impact on its success.

Another way to assess the success and effectiveness of your communications plan is to simply ask your donors what they think! Call them or create an annual survey to get their feedback. Since your goal is to create great communications that they love, feedback is critical in honing your efforts.

Do you currently have a communications plan for your donors? What has worked well for you when it comes to implementing your plan? Let us know in the comments below!


Vanessa Chase
Vanessa Chase is President of and co-founder of Stewardship School. Her goal is to help nonprofits connect in more meaningful ways with donors through stories and stewardship. She works with nonprofits throughout North America—including BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, Union Gospel Mission, and Cancer Care Connection—and is an internationally recognized speaker. Vanessa is also the Board Chair of Women Against Violence Against Women.