new donor acquisition

For the last 5 or so years, there has been a trend in new donor acquisition: Response rates continue to drop while average gifts continue to rise. This means that fewer people are donating to charities, but those who do are giving larger amounts. There are a variety of theories on why this is happening, and while it is fascinating to see the speculations on this topic, the bottom line question most nonprofits have is: What can I do about it? 

As we look specifically at direct mail or email strategies for new donor acquisition, the way to improve this global trend is to mail fewer people with a focus on connecting with the right people. Most of the time, people think of acquisition as casting a big net and trying to get as many fish (donors) into it as possible. In the past, this was actually a great tactic, but today, instead of going big, we recommend you go MICRO.

M = Mail to proven donors

There are many data sources out there for direct mail and email acquisition. These are often referred to as Response Lists or Donor Files. Usually, organizations use large compiled files that actually contribute to lower response rates. 

You know the lists I’m talking about: the homeowners or voter lists, for example. Just because someone owns a home or is a registered voter doesn’t mean they’ll give to charity. It only means they own a home and are a registered voter.

Be sure the lists you choose include people who have a proven history of giving to other charities or organizations. It’s so tempting to use these massive compiled lists due to their lower cost. But remember: You get what you pay for. If you’re unsure about the different types of lists to use, seek out a list broker who works with nonprofits. Don’t just trust anyone who sells data to know what nonprofits need for new donor acquisition. If you want my recommendations for list brokers that I trust, please drop me an email.

I = Improve your selects 

There are additional selections (selects) that you can add to most lists. When you add these additional selection criteria to the list, you’re narrowing the universe to those who will hopefully be a perfect match to your target audience profile. For the good Response Lists (aka Donor Files), you can select based on monetary amounts or recency of their last gift (some organizations make their lapsed donors available to rent, so please do look at recency). In addition to prior giving history, you may be able to add a select for religion or ethnicity or even geographical requirements, just to name a few. 

Yes, adding selects to your list will increase the price of the list a bit. But by mailing fewer people, you’re saving money on the printing and postage, which is much more costly than a few selects. And it may help your response rate because you are mailing higher-quality potential donors. With that in mind though, keep in mind that adding selects on to compiled files is still probably not going to get you the response rate you are looking for. 

C = Captivate your audience

No one can respond to your message if it gets lost in the mail or in their inbox. You want it to stand out. For direct mail this could be including a better teaser on the outside envelope. Or it could be having a different shape or feel to the package. Not all design choices have to cost an arm and a leg. We had a client who was raising money for a school and included a piece of chalk in the mailing. This really made the piece stand out in the mailbox, and the campaign was a huge success for them. 

For email, the key metric to review is your Open Rate. If your open rates are low, really look at your subject line. Are you turning away people before they’ve even read what you have to say?  

R = Reach their head and heart

Once you have your potential donor’s attention and they’ve opened the envelope or email, reel them in with a heartwarming story of how your nonprofit has changed lives and give them an ask that makes sense to them. 

Finding the balance between reaching someone’s head and heart can be a true artform — and takes a lot of practice. Read through your acquisition appeal. Does it include a story of your mission in action that really tugs on someone’s heartstrings? Are you balancing that with clear information about what your organization does and how the potential donor can help? 

This isn’t about making a super long letter. It’s about ensuring your communication is right for your audience and giving them what they need to make their decision to donate.

O = Optimize the timing 

Believe it or not, there are better times of the year for acquisition. Potential donors are very particular about when they’re in the mood to give to a new organization. By and large, this is in the fall months. If you’re only doing one acquisition campaign, then do it in the fall to maximize your response rates. Look at your past campaigns and see if you see any patterns that you can replicate going forward.

Remember, when it comes to new donor acquisition, bigger is not always better. Try going MICRO to improve your response rates and then slowly build from there. And we’re here if you get stuck along the way.

donor love and loyalty

Jackie Smith
Jackie Smith is a leading new donor acquisition strategist with over 20 years of agency experience. She has worked on behalf of some of the largest nonprofits in the country and improved acquisition results for every client that she has taken on. As a co-founder of The Nonprofit Consulting Shop, Jackie gets to help nonprofits of all sizes with their acquisition plans and donor communications—and she can’t wait to connect with you!