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The K.I.S.S. Method For Donor Retention Is Best For Most Nonprofits

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Keeping it simple is most often the first step to success in any endeavor.

Improving donor retention is no different, especially for organizations without an effective strategy already in place.

Establishing a strong foundation of simple stewardship practices should be a top priority before investigating the latest shiny object being touted by the countless technology vendors in the space. After all, nonprofits were raising millions before the advent of social media, workflow automation, AI, etc.

Anytime I am speaking to group of professional fundraisers, I like to poll the audience with the following questions. You can see the % of folks who typically respond with a “yes” below each question:

How many send a personalized thank you in 48 hours?

Answer: 50-75%

How many of you track your organization’s donor retention?

Answer: 15-20%

How many of you call or leave a voicemail to new donors to thank them?

Answer: 5-10%

How many send a handwritten note to donors above your avg. gift amount?

Answer: 2-5%

How many survey their donors anytime in the first 2 years?

Answer: 1-2%

The above hardly spurs confidence that the basics are covered since the yes answers to every question but the first one usually comes from smaller charities that are very nimble, and large charities that have a lot of resources at their disposal.

We’ve seen similar results in our own giving experiments.

Some charities aren’t even equipped to take unexpected donations over the phone, as shown by live experiments performed by Simon Scriver.

As more and more technology seeps into our daily interactions, my fear is that we’ll lose the personal touch that is so magical to successful fundraisers.

K.I.S.S. Works for Donor Retention

“Keep it simple, stupid silly” is a catch phrase used too often, however it does seem to apply here.

Yes, every growing nonprofit, especially those with a firm foundation of personalized stewardship, will want to explore high-level, multi-prong digital tools that can aid in donor retention.

But for those who don’t have the basics in place, it’s important to first establish that culture of stewardship within your own organization before investing in technology that promises to do it for you or take it to the next level.

My 12 Basic Donor Retention Actions

Here is my dozen basic donor retention activities and actions:

1. Personalize the thank you letter to every donor (proper use of their name, the project they supported, the gift amount and if you can allude to total lifetime giving are the minimums.)

2. Send thank you letter or email out within 48 hours of gift being received (for emails it should be even shorter in time.)

3. Call or text new donors (yes, they are special, in fact, very special and you truly set your charity apart from others if you do this. Plus your new donor retention will soar upwards!)

4. Send a handwritten thank you note to new donors and/or donors whose gift is above your average gift amount (such notes are special, a truly lost art and many are kept for years and years as treasures. Why not be the special charity they remember?)

5. Segment your thank you’s (obviously, many of the first 4 actions are using segmentation, but it is easy to go further, and segment by project, dollar amount, number of gifts, use of matching funds, etc.)

6. Ensure the name(s) are correct and instructions are followed (if they ask to give anonymously then honor it, if the gift is from a family household then make sure your systems can accommodate, and if they donate via donor advised fund please do not thank the DAF rather than the donor!)

7. Use 3 touch points for new donors in the first 90 days (notice how much we talk about new donors since nearly 80% of them never make another gift.

8. Establish a communication plan with 1-2 other “touches” after the thank you letter/note/call before 90 days expire.)

9. Establish separate communication plans for recurring and legacy donors (They are very special people that form the best of foundations for any successful fundraising program and they should be recognized, as well as treated just as special.)

10. Create a game plan for donors about to lapse (a donor is considered lapsed at the one year anniversary of their most recent gift. If they have not responded to other opportunities to connect or give then a more personalized approach might be needed, especially if they are giving above your average gift amount.)

11. Survey your donors within 90 days of the first gift then annually (there is hardly a single commercial business, even small service-related businesses, who do not survey their customers because the future results are strikingly better. That is the case in the nonprofit world too!).

12. Establish a proper method to handle incoming communications from donors (far too often a donor calling or emailing or even visiting in person is left searching for someone or anyone to communicate with. Think of the impression this leaves…).

Donor relations and communications is everyone’s job (creating a culture of philanthropy and therefore donor communications is a key difference for organizations with higher than average donor retention. This must start at the top and permeate the very fabric or soul of any nonprofit engaged in fundraising).


Any fundraising organization with all twelve of the above donor retention actions in place is not only on solid footing, but should be ready to entertain more advanced activities, products and strategies.

However, if one or more of the above actions is missing, which unfortunately is more often than not the case, then the charity will be much better suited to address the missing ones first. The ensuing upward movement in donor retention will be quite welcome and just might be enough to keep any fundraising program moving upwards in dollars raised for the organization’s mission!

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  • jose Flores

    I am as always impressed by the longevity of those of us putting time and time again efforts into the communities we learn and increment our knowledge into. Looking forward to being a continued effort to do the right thing in these and other upcoming eventful structured learning experiencing. After all isn't that the objective LOL!!!
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