donor fundraising

My last article of this two-part series, “Nonprofit Giving Trends and Future Fundraising Strategy,” began a discussion of smart fundraising strategies to take advantage of best practices and current trends. It covered broad brush strategies all nonprofits today should incorporate into their donor fundraising/marketing mix. Today, I want to offer you some “secret sauce.”

These are my favorite tips to enhance what you’re already doing to attract and sustain individual donor fundraising. 

  • Most are evergreen. 
  • Some are incredibly simple; just not enough people have been taught to use them. 
  • Some take more of a commitment, yet the return on investment makes it well worth the initiative. 
  • The last two are particularly suited to the current, digitally-revolutionized environment. 

Ready for the secret sauce?

Secret Sauce: Easy-to-implement, practical action steps

1. Add a handwritten note to your annual appeal. I know of no other strategy that lifts response as remarkably as this one. One place I worked saw appeals with notes get a 30%+ rate of return vs. a 4% return from appeals without notes! 

ACTION: Get board members to review your donor list. Ask them if they’ll write a brief handwritten note on the next appeal you mail (give them a few sample notes). If they can’t come into the office, send them a bunch of sticky notes to write and mail back to you; insert these into the appropriate envelopes. Ideally, handwrite their name over the return address on your carrier envelope. Personal handwriting screams “open me!” For volunteers who don’t know many donors, ask them to write generic notes (e.g., “Your big heart and support means a lot! Thank you from Claire, member of the board.”). Save these lists so you can ask them to do it again next year. Over time, these lists will grow!

2. Add a handwritten signature to your printed thank you letter. Do you type your signer’s signature? Scan it in? That’s fine, but you want your thank you to be exceptional. After all, your thank you establishes trust and kick starts your ‘next gift strategy.’ So if you think you can’t afford the time, you can’t not afford the time. Let me remind you only 2 out of 10 first-time donors renew. Only 6 out of 10 ongoing donors renew. If you don’t want to waste your donor acquisition resources, you need to double up on your donor retention resources.

ACTION: Put a system in place to hand sign thank you letters. Either ask the gift processor to do this or have someone else, preferably on the development team, take on this assignment. First name only is more than fine; it’s even friendly and personal! If you feel you get too many gifts a day to do this, reconsider. It’s an investment in the next gift and the gift after that. And a relatively inexpensive one to boot.

3. Add a handwritten note to your printed thank you letter. Here’s what one reader of my Clairification blog recently wrote in response to a post I authored on The Real Skinny on Nonprofit Donor Thank You’s: One day in conversation with a donor, the subject of my notes came up. She said to me, “I love your notes, and have them all saved in a shoebox.” ‘Nuff said.

ACTION: Get your executive director to add notes for all gifts above a certain amount; you add notes for the rest. Which thank you’s get assigned to the E.D. will differ depending on your average and major gift sizes and numbers of donors. $500+ or $1,000+ are common starting points. Add notes personally for donors you know below that amount. While you’re on a roll, ask whoever is processing the bulk of your thank you letters to hand write a brief note next to the signature of the person signing the letter (e.g., “Your support matters!” “You are the best!” “You did it, again!”). It’s amazing what a little bit of fresh ink can do.

4. Enclose tribute giving envelopes in mailed newsletters and/or annual reports. At one charity where I worked, these generated about $30,000/mailing (we mailed three newsletters and one report/year). And this was in addition to the $1+ million raised from sending three mailed direct appeals and assorted emails. 

ACTION: Get more proactive around tribute giving. Did you know per the Global Trends in Giving Report 33% of donors worldwide give tribute gifts and the top three occasions are memorials (43%), birthdays (25%), and religious holidays (10%)? Sadly, very few organizations actively promote tribute giving and doing so would likely a result a steady revenue stream. Baby Boomers are most likely to give tribute gifts at 41%. 31% of Gen Xers give tribute gifts as do 26% of Millennials. Get some lovely tribute envelopes printed so donors can easily make additional gifts in honor or memory of loved ones. Put tribute giving up on your website as a donation option. Include it as a drop-down choice when people make an online donation and as a check-off box when they mail you a check. Make sure you have a system in place to notify recipients of the gifts made in their honor. When your donors receive a heartfelt thank you from the recipients, they’ll get a second jolt of dopamine joy; this makes it more likely they’ll want to repeat giving to you.

4. Enclose a tribute gift envelope in a thank-you letter. Sandy Rees found inserting envelopes generated about $20,000 a year at a food bank where she worked. She also found donors who consistently used them were good candidates for their monthly giving club. 

ACTION: Again, make sure you have dedicated tribute envelopes. These differ from campaign reply envelopes, which tend to center around sending you money for a campaign. If you insert these, people may consider this to be another too-soon ask. However, tribute envelopes are different. I consider them a “gift” that makes it easy for donors to accomplish personal objectives – like saying “happy birthday,” “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “congrats on getting a promotion.” Include some suggestions of how the tribute might be used on the envelope.

6. Include an invitation to a tour, or other free event, in a thank-you letter. Sandy Rees reported a donor couple who usually gave $10,000 a year were so impressed with a tour they wrote a check for $10,000 on the spot. I had a similar experience – a $500 donor turned into a $10,000 donor! Don’t have a facility folks can tour? Invite them to a volunteer orientation, lunch with some of your leadership, a virtual behind-the-scenes journey, one-to-one with your executive director, a talk by a program director, doctor, scientist, artist, loan recipient, or anything else you can dream up. 

ACTION: Brainstorm engagement opportunities that don’t involve giving you money. It’s always good to have other ways to keep donors connected to you in between asks. Not everyone will respond to your invitations, but they’ll appreciate being invited. If they don’t respond right away, you can send a reminder; this serves as another “reaching out” touch that lets your donor know you value them and their involvement beyond just their monetary gift.

7. Send at least one dedicated monthly giving appeal. Why is this a good idea? New monthly donors tend to make larger gifts than one-time donors (e.g. $10/month = $120 vs. $100 annual gift). Repeat donors are easy to upgrade (e.g., ask a $1,500 donor to consider a $300/month gift; this results in a $1,800 gift – a 20% increase without breaking a sweat! Also, monthly donors are retained at an average rate of 80 – 90% vs. 43% for one-time donors. 

ACTION: Make a list of what monthly gifts at different price points accomplish. Think of this like “fruit of the month club.” It helps when donors can visualize what their monthly commitment accomplishes. If $5/month may not accomplish the entire job, describe how monthly gifts add up to a specific, tangible impact. Give your program a name (people like to join “clubs” of like-minded people) and invite people to join.

8. Instead of pouring resources into a labor-intensive on-site or Zoom event, try a do-it-yourself peer-to-peer campaign. Money is raised by one peer asking another to support your cause (P2P); they create the fundraising appeal more or less by themselves (DIY), without need for your direction, management and intervention. How does this work? You set up a user-friendly system beforehand. One so easy to use folks can simply push a button, more or less, whenever they want to fundraise on your behalf.

Folks commonly engage in DIY P2P when they’re celebrating a life cycle event (e.g., birthday, anniversary, graduation) and don’t want gifts for themselves. It’s a way to declare their values, and feel really good about helping to further a good cause on their special day. Plus it makes it easy for their friends, who now don’t need to think about what to buy for them. Win for the donor fundraiser/win for the charity/win for the new peer donor! One of the leading implementers of this strategy is charity: water. Take a look at what they do, and consider ways you can develop a similar program. You can find other examples of birthday campaigns here. Charity: water estimates they not only raise an average of $770/birthday campaign, but also acquire 13 new donors! Think this won’t work for you? Studies show donors of every demographic say they’re willing to fundraise for nonprofits via P2P, with over 90% of Gen Xers and Millennials reporting a willingness, and almost 80% of Baby Boomers saying the same. 

ACTION: You may have to spend a bit on software upfront, but it will be well worth it in terms of the ongoing, almost passive income this type of strategy can generate down the line. There are tons of choices; find some here and here. Many of these companies offer tremendous support and will walk you through the process of setting up DIY P2P fundraising pages. Once you do this, you’ll never look back!

Nonprofit Sustainability

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.