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Nonprofit Donor Retention: Problems and Solutions

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Everyone involved with you deserves your gratitude.

After all, without them you’d have no purpose.

The key to showing meaningful gratitude is to think specifically about what you’re grateful for.

And this will be different, both for different segments of donors and even for specific individuals within those segments. You need to match your expression of gratitude to your donor’s expression of generosity.

How Real Life Gratitude Sins Translate to Nonprofit Donor Retention ‘No-No’s

A lot of what I learned about saying thank you I learned from my mother and Miss Manners. Any time you’re tempted to put gratitude on your back burner, I encourage you to resist that temptation with every fiber in your being. Think about your Mom. She wouldn’t like it. Not one little bit. And your donors won’t like either.

In fact, if you’re sloppy about gratitude, you’re apt to lose donors hand over fist. Just like in real life you’ll lose friends. Or you’ll certainly fail to make them! After all:

You wouldn’t send the exact same pre-printed thank you note to everyone who attended and/or gave you a wedding gift.

Right? “Thank you for making a gift in honor of our wedding. Sincerely, the new bride and groom.” That would be considered gauche. And lazy. And thoughtless.

  • PROBLEM: If you send the same ‘form’ thank you letter or email to every donor, regardless of the amount of their gift, whether they’ve given before, whether they participate in other of your organization’s activities, or whether they earmarked their gift for a specific purpose, then you’re committing this same gratitude “no-no.” Even worse is the canned receipt that could be coming from any organization (i.e., “On behalf of the board, thank you for your $100 tax-deductible gift. You may use this for your tax records.”) Ugh! A prompt, personal thank you that powerfully demonstrates how the gift will be used is critical to building a lasting relationship.


  • SOLUTION: To the extent possible, given your size and the capability of your database, CRM and/or email service, personalize your thank you’s. Begin by writing different thank you’s (if even just be a few sentences you can insert using a computer program) for different types of donors. Show donors you know them. Penelope Burk’s groundbreaking Donor-Centered Fundraising (okay, they also want promptness). For example, after beginning your letter with a one-sentence mini-story that (1) grabs their attention and (2) demonstrates what your donor made possible (e.g., Jenny will go to sleep tonight with a full tummy, because you cared,” (3) continue with something specific to this donor:
    • As a board member, you understand better than most…”
    • “As a parent who already pays tuition, your additional gift means…”
    • “As a direct service volunteer, your additional monetary gift demonstrates…”
    • “You didn’t have to increase your gift this year; the fact that you did makes you a hero!”
    • “Your multiple gifts make you among our most loyal supporters; you’re a true VIP!”
    • “Your gift earmarked for school lunches will go directly to help other hungry children like Jenny.”

You wouldn’t send the exact same thank you for a shower gift as for a wedding present.

Right? “Thank you for making a gift in honor of our wedding. Sincerely, the new bride and groom.” First, this one is in honor of the shower. You’re not yet wed. Also, you need to specifically mention what was given, and gush over how much it will mean and how you’ll look forward to using it.

  • PROBLEM: If a donor sends you monthly gifts, or simply multiple gifts over the course of the year, and you send them the exact same thank you letter every time, that’s a big yawn. It makes the donor wish you’d saved your stamp. Or your time. Maybe gift #1 was in response to your annual appeal, while gift #2 was a tribute gift and gift #3 was made in response to a special holiday or giving day appeal. If you don’t reassure folks you’ll be using this specific gift as per their intention, they may begin to not trust you.


  • SOLUTION: Every gift deserves a different thank you. So write different versions and label them #1, #2, #3 and so forth. If you don’t know how to input them into your system to ensure the right thank you is generated, ask your database provider to assist you. For example, Bloomerang is capable of doing a lot more than you may realize! Every thank you, to be meaningful, should match the appeal that generated the gift.

You wouldn’t send a Hallmark card to which you’d added nothing but your name.

Right? I hope you wouldn’t, anyway. I, for one, consider that the height of inattentiveness. And emptiness. I mean, why bother at all? It just seems like you’re trying to check something off your list to make yourself feel good, but not me. Even if it’s a cute card, couldn’t you take the time to write at least something that relates the sentiment to me personally?

  • PROBLEM: If you send a greeting card blast to everyone on your list, without the addition of a personal note from someone the donor helped, or a handwritten note from you or a volunteer, you don’t make the donor feel special.  In fact, you often make the donor wonder why you spent money on this unnecessary gesture. You’re committing the “I couldn’t be bothered to take the time to do something personal” and/or “I don’t know you and don’t really care to know you” “no-no.”


  • SOLUTION: I’m definitely an advocate of sending multiple thank you’s over the course of the year. But don’t make them ‘checklist’ activities that end up backfiring because they seem impersonal and ‘cookie cutter.’ If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I’ve come up with 62 ways to get creative with thank you’s. You can find a few suggestions here. I encourage you to bring your team together with a white board or easel and brainstorm a bunch of different ways you can make your demonstrations of gratitude more personally relevant and meaningful.

You wouldn’t suddenly send a holiday card out of the blue to folks who’d never heard from you all year long.

Right? Maybe you like that; I don’t. Because, let’s face it, I no longer have a relationship with these people. Or maybe I never really had a relationship with them (like the “Season’s Greetings” from the real estate agent who sold me my house umpteen years ago). Maybe the friend didn’t try to keep connected. Or I didn’t try. Or neither of us were willing to admit that particular chapter was closed, and it was time to remove each other’s contacts from our lists.

  • PROBLEM: If the only time you communicate with a donor is annually (one appeal; one thank you) you’re unlikely to build and sustain an ongoing relationship. You’re committing the equivalent of the annual holiday card – and that’s all – “no-no.”  Why spend limited resources on someone likely to throw your card into the trash? The lifetime value of that donor to you will be minimal, maybe even negative, because you didn’t stay in close touch throughout the year.


  • SOLUTION: Develop a written ‘Donor Love & Loyalty Plan using this free e-Book.”  Take a look at the list of creative thank you strategies you’ve brainstormed, and plop them into a calendar. Then assign someone to be responsible for deploying these year-round acts of gratitude in a timely and personal manner.

Guess What the Big Donor Retention ‘No-No’s Are?

‘Canned’ thank you letters and once-a-year demonstrations of gratitude.

These won’t keep donors loyal. If that’s what your donor retention program consists of, you don’t have a donor retention program. And you desperately need one!

Did you know that a 10% increase in retention annually can increase the lifetime value of your current donor base by 200%

Unfortunately donors still aren’t renewing at the rates you need to survive and thrive.

It’s not because your donors don’t love and appreciate you. It’s because you’re not loving and appreciating them!

All those “No-No’s” described above? Grandma doesn’t appreciate them. Your wedding guests don’t appreciate them. Your significant other doesn’t appreciate them. And your donors don’t appreciate them either.

Taking donors for granted.

Gratitude that gives people a warm glow must be thoughtful.

Your constituents are like your family, and deserve to be treated as such (in a good way). You must not take them for granted unless you want your relationship to become dysfunctional. Donor thank you’s must be:

  • Resonant to the recipient
  • Personal
  • Timely
  • Repeated


  • Your constituents love you, because you did something for them (or someone they know) or you helped them do something for someone else.
  • Your constituents need you, because you bring meaning to their lives.
  • Your constituents want to be part of a vision that’s larger than what you do. A vision that speaks to the values you enact. A brand that draws folks in because your values align with theirs. This is your advantage; one to be pressed if you want to sustain donor loyalty over time.

Simply wringing your hands at the current state of your donor retention (or even worse, not even knowing what your retention rate is) is decidedly not a good plan.

To get started – RIGHT NOW — with a good, simple plan, grab this free e-Book: How to Build a Donor-Centered Gift Acknowledgement Program. Also be sure to read all the articles in this four-part series on gratitude and retention.

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