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Top 10 Ways To Keep Nonprofit Donors

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Securing donors only to lose them is just silly business. If you want to move away from transactional one-time gifts, and towards longer-term, transformational giving, here is the single most important thing you need to know to keep nonprofit donors:

RESOLVE to rock the power of thank you!

Begin by making donor retention a priority. By now you probably know data from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project (FEP) shows the average nonprofit in the U.S. loses over 80% of donors after the first gift!

It’s not because donors aren’t generous to you. It’s because you’re not generous to them!

Why else would folks dig into their pockets to make new gifts year after year, only to stop giving to those nonprofits in droves the following year?

When donors don’t feel your love and gratitude, they’re unlikely to send reciprocal love and gratitude your way. All successful fundraising is based on a value-for-value exchange – you’ve got to offer donors something they’ll want to reciprocate.

The simplest thing you can offer is expressed with the power of just two words:


Leverage the power of the “3 P’s”

When Penelope Burk’s groundbreaking Donor-Centered Fundraising research first came out two decades ago (it’s been repeated numerous times since), I was bowled over by the primary finding that if nonprofits did just three things donors would likely give again. Or give more. What was this holy trinity? 

The ‘holy trinity’ of successful donor retention (I call them “3 P’s”):

  1. PROMPT thank you.
  2. PERSONAL thank you.
  3. POWERFUL demonstration of gift’s impact.

The more you incorporate this trinity into your ongoing donor acknowledgement, recognition and communications program, the greater success you’ll have in retaining and upgrading donors. A ‘gratitude program’ is more than simply saying “thank you” once and then ignoring the donor until your next appeal. You need a thoughtful written plan with a cycle of communications that:

  • Engage donors without an ask,
  • Express authentic gratitude, and
  • Show donors how they made a difference.

Top 10 Ways to Say ‘Thank You!’ to Nonprofit Donors

1. Mail

The gold standard is a prompt and personal mailed thank you letter. Not a canned receipt. Something you take time with, stopping for a minute to think about your donor’s individual contribution. They took time to earn the money they gave you; it’s the least you can do to return the favor. Next time you think of the old adage “time is money,” think about spending some time to craft a thank you that will be appreciated. That’s how you’ll get more money in the future.

TIP: Add a personal handwritten note. This elevates the thank you from “canned” to special. It’s why I advocate mailing a thank you letter to donors who give online, in addition to the immediate email receipt.

2. Email

This is what you send immediately when donors give online. But don’t use the canned acknowledgement provided by your CRM or email provider. Donors can tell when something is automated, and they’ll perceive it as “I guess they don’t really care about me.”

TIP:  Attach a brief video or a photo showing how their gift will be used. Let them know they’ll receive their ‘official’ thank you later in the mail. Don’t treat online donors as second class citizens. If offline donors get a personal note, welcome package, and maybe a token gift, make sure your online donors get the same relationship-building touches. Yes, it’s easier and less expensive to forego the mailed letter in the short run. In the long run, you’ll likely retain more donors if you send both types of acknowledgements. If you’re doubtful, test this.

3. Phone Call

This is your secret weapon, perhaps the most under-utilized ways of thanking donors, and probably the method that has the most lasting impact. If you do it, you’ll really stand out. In a good way. Do this in addition to sending a letter before or after the call.

If you’re a doubter, allow me to clue you in to a famous experiment by Penelope Burk, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising. In a test with board members calling to thank donors within 48 hours, those called gave an average of 39% more than those not called – and 42% more even after 14 months! Calls have a real lasting value. A subsequent study by Chuck Longfield at Blackbaud reconfirmed these findings. Even leaving a voicemail helps, though not as much; do try to reach your donor in person at least twice.

TIP: Learn: (1) Who to call; (2) Who should make the call; (3) When to call; (4) How to call; (5) What to say, and (6) Next steps by heading over to Clairification and grabbing my free “Donor Thank You Calls E-Book + Script.”

TIP: Ask donors for their phone numbers on your response devices and donation pages, and use them! Bloomerang conducted an experiment to see how 50 randomly selected nonprofits would respond to their first-time gifts. Only 38% asked for a phone number, effectively ruling out communicating easily and quickly through calls or texts. None called to say thank you.

4. Video

Anyone with a smart phone, or even Zoom, can create a perfectly serviceable thank you video – one that is warm and genuine. It can be as simple as pushing “record” and talking while looking into the camera. Watch this little video of me telling you how to send a pre-recorded video to your supporters via Zoom.

TIP: Take photos of staff or program recipients holding thank you signs; then use a free app (e.g., Canva, Animoto, Vimeo) to edit them into a quick slideshow. You can even add music. Just make sure your video is brief (probably under 30 seconds). It’s not a sales piece. It’s a pure appreciation piece.

5. Donation Thank You Landing Page

Your thank you landing page is a valuable, too-often overlooked piece of real estate. Most organizations simply put cursory thank you language there, and may even use canned language from their email service or CRM provider. This is like having a piece of Monopoly property, but never building a house or hotel on it. It’s fine, but won’t help you win the game.

TIP: Include a compelling image or brief video that tells a story demonstrating the impact of your donor’s gift. Like any other thank you, this landing page should be considered an opportunity to predispose your donor to make a next gift. But don’t sell; show and tell. And make sure it’s optimized for mobile or your donor may miss it!

6. Social Media

This is a great way to keep gratitude flowing throughout the year, and it’s relatively inexpensive. Simply send high fives to your donors using the channels they most frequent (which, of course, you can ascertain by asking them using a survey or response device).

TIP: Sprinkle “because of you” throughout your messaging. Include a link to a video, photo or graphic that makes your donor feel good about those being helped – because of their support.

7. Text

Some people, especially younger donors, communicate primarily through text. These folks may actually prefer a text thank you over an emailed one (which may take them a week to open).

TIP: Consider your audience in crafting your thank you strategy. Texting may be a viable primary or secondary strategy, especially if you’ll otherwise have difficulty getting out a thank you within 48 hours. There are programs to help you (e.g. Rally Corp and thankview).

8. E-Newsletter or Blog

The whole point of these communications is to provide an easy, regular opportunity to make your donors feel good. Don’t miss the chance to sprinkle one or more thank you’s and pats on the back to your donors every time you send one out. Donors are the heart of your mission and make your work possible. Give credit where it’s due. Every time.

TIP: In addition to thanking donors in general, consider thanking specific donors. Praise grows in a public setting, and this can be a nice relationship-building touch for those to whom you’re particularly grateful. And don’t just thank major donors this way. Try thanking the kid who saved up all their pennies or held a bake sale. This can get an entire family to hang in with you for the long-term, plus it also inspires copycats.

9. Annual Report

An annual report is a terrible thing to waste. Even if you don’t include a donor honor roll because you’ve decided it’s too resource-intensive, you can still acknowledge you’d have nothing to report on without donor support.

TIP: Thank donors in the letter from the E.D. or board president, rather than simply talking about how “we did this” and “our organization accomplished that.” Make it about the donors. Also sprinkle thank you’s throughout the body of your report copy. When you report on a program, conclude with “this was only possible with the support of our corporate partners, foundation friends, and individual supporters.”

10. Event Program

Whenever you gather a crowd in person (virtual, too) recognize donors who make your work possible. Don’t just include donor names in the printed program; do it from the podium or stage!

TIP: Consider adding special recognition touches (e.g., distribute logo pins; hold a virtual after-party donor thank you event; send screenshots of the event; send a video thank you of students, beneficiaries, or staff singing a special song or reading a poem in tribute to donors, etc.).

Go the extra mile when thanking donors!

Think of it as giving donors a little “tip” for service well performed.

When we’re loved, we’re likely to return the favor.

When you love again and again, you’ll receive gifts again and again. It’s that simple.

Learn How To Thank, Engage, and Retain Your Online Donors.

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