"no ask" donor engagement

Everyone has that one wonderful friend or relative that you only hear from when they need something. And usually it’s money. Don’t let your nonprofit be that friend or relative!

Donor cultivation events, fundraising campaigns, appeals and special events are all highly effective tactical components of a comprehensive fundraising strategy. A donor-centric organization, however, demonstrates good donor engagement through positive, relevant “no ask” donor engagement. Yes, you read that correctly. 

Asking for financial support is central to all fundraising activities; however, contacting donors and prospective donors to ask only for financial support is actually counterproductive.  

It’s important to engage your donors and prospective donors with exciting news and updates about your organization; to share inspiring narratives; and, most importantly, to take time to learn more about them instead of always talking about your organization. It’s about relationship building, so the same rules apply to donor relations that would be applicable to any other type of valued relationship. After all, people donate to other people. Technically, people donate to organizations and causes they care about through other people.

Although good news or exciting updates can’t be planned, your fundraising and communications strategies should include regularly scheduled donor engagement which doesn’t involve asking for a financial contribution. Regular program updates, local events, relevant headline news or holidays all provide a legitimate excuse to let your donors know you value them as much as you value their dollars. Check out this guide for more strategies to foster donors and engage with them consistently.

Email and social media serve as excellent, cost-effective tools to engage donors as actual people and not just the mechanism behind the check writing. Both should be an integral part of your organization’s marketing, branding, communications and outreach plans. You will want to have the means to manage and monitor your online presence as well as systems in place to track the effectiveness of various types of engagement. 

Learning more about individual donors provides excellent opportunities for personalized donor engagement throughout the year. A thoughtful card on their birthday or anniversary, a congratulatory note on a personal or professional accomplishment, or forwarding a particular article or cartoon of special interest to them ensures they will feel appreciated and valued. Setting aside 15-20 minutes per day for this type of personalized engagement will have tremendous impact on your fundraising results and donor cultivation activities. 

If you have a particularly large donor base (a wonderful problem for a nonprofit to have), then assign key donors or groups of donors to specific Board members, organizational leaders or staff so they can build and maintain meaningful one-on-one relationships that should include frequent, thoughtful “no ask” donor engagement – and systematize donor recognition.

Gratitude equals retention. Effort creates an upgrade. It’s just that simple. 

One of the most beneficial methods to raise donor retention rates is to recognize the value of both donors and their gifts. For a donor-centric organization, recognizing donors is not a supplemental process; it is an organizational priority. From the thank-you screen for online donations, personalized thank you cards, giving societies, tokens of appreciation, public listing, publicity, special events to program or facility naming rights, donor recognition equates to good donor engagement, elevated donor retention rates and enhanced donor relations that serve as a solid foundation for all of your functions.

Donor recognition is a vital element to your fundraising process that should be systemically managed, methodically maintained and flawlessly executed. Good donor engagement has built-in recognition for every campaign; special recognition programs; and recognition events integrated in both the comprehensive strategy and fundraising plan. Boasting about your wonderful donors or a highly successful fundraiser costs virtually nothing, yet it can have a huge impact by reinforcing donor relationships while expanding awareness and support for your cause.

Promptly and appropriately thanking a donor is a private process, a direct, personal exchange between your organization and the donor. Recognition, on the other hand, is a public act that requires absolute compliance with the individual donor’s preferences and wishes, irrespective of the size of the contribution. A crucial part of any major gifts or planned giving discussion with an individual donor should always include the type and level of recognition the organization would like to bestow as well as the type and level of public recognition the donor is seeking or comfortable with receiving.  

Exceptionally large donations may justify a program, chair or facility being named after the donor or possibly a role on the Board. Other major gifts may warrant press releases, special presentation events, or public announcements via social media, while matching gifts are usually presented to other prospective donors with anonymity unless a donor’s celebrity is likely to spur additional donations. Always confirm with your donors their preference, then unequivocally honor their guidelines.     

Online announcements, features in newsletters or press releases should recognize both the generosity and leadership of the donor while explaining the significance of the donation to the organization and its Mission. Public donor profiles as expanded features in newsletters, press releases, online announcements or any other external publications inspire other donors and potential donors to personally identify with your organization and its community. As a standard courtesy, always offer the donor the opportunity to be involved with the preparation of these types of publicity or final review and authorization of the release of any such announcements or press releases. 

Many nonprofit organizations have highly visible giving walls or giving trees prominently displayed in their facilities, which highlight the donors’ partnerships. Donor walls and namesake space signage are frequently used for major gifts and capital campaigns but can also be part of annual donor recognition or to recognize lifelong giving. Standards and policies for maintaining and preserving such monuments should be established and consistently adhered to. They should also be clearly communicated with donors or their heirs when such gifts are being planned. 

Unless absolute anonymity has been requested, both your annual meeting and annual report should recognize and name all donors. The need for complete transparency and accuracy of donor listings in annual reports is paramount, so always check and double check that no donor has been overlooked or misrepresented.  

As previously mentioned, giving societies, giving levels and honor rolls are an integral part of a highly effective donor recognition strategy or donor appreciation event serving to demonstrate the organization’s value of donors and their contributions. However, it all starts with donor engagement and how it makes a donor feel; it’s not just about where they can find their name listed or published.

Brian Lauterbach
With more than twenty years of experience as a fundraiser, consultant and entrepreneur, Brian has helped hundreds of nonprofits and the professionals who lead them to raise money. Throughout his career, Brian has led the process redesign and integration of fundraising channels that raised $400 million from more than 3 million people. He is the founder of TheNonprophets.org, a 501c3 public charity that provides no-cost and low-cost direct fundraising services to organizations with a small budget but a big vision for their missions and impact.