Last night I gave a presentation about gratitude and donor retention.

At the beginning I shared this quote from Mark Phillips of Bluefrog Fundraising:

“They are not one of your donors. You are one of their charities.”


They’re Mine!

When it comes to donors, subscribers, social followers, names on a mailing list, event attendees, many of us get territorial and claim them to be “ours.”

They’re our supporters, our online followers, our enews readers.

But the truth is it’s the opposite: You’re one of “theirs.”

You’re one of the nonprofits they donate to, one of the organizations they follow online, one of the charity enewsletters they subscribe to.

And there’s a HUGE difference between the two.

Your donors have choices of who to give to. There are plenty of nonprofits out there. They see messaging and posts from all kinds of organizations every single day. Plenty of your supporters are targeted by ads trying to convince them to become a donor to a different organization.

If you’re not doing everything you need to ensure you stay as one of their charities, they’ll leave. Your donors today will donate their money elsewhere tomorrow.

When donors leave you have to find new ones. Acquisition costs 5-10 more than retention. That means you’re spending more time, effort and money to find donors- none of which you have in spare.

The current average sector donor retention rate proves that we do a lousy job of making sure donors stick with us year after year.

Houston Food Bank shows the impact of donations

One Of Their Charities

So what can your organization do to make sure donors feel connected enough to your organization to want to continue giving year after year? Here are some ideas:

Great gratitude: Data shows that when your gratitude game is great, donor retention goes up and so does donor lifetime value.

Are your thank you’s post gift businesslike and boring? Or are they genuine, heartfelt and full of love for the donor? The latter is the way to go. The former makes your thank you transactional and will not help your retention efforts.

One simple idea: Stop opening thank you letters with “Thank you for your donation of $25.” That doesn’t give the donor the warm and fuzzies! It makes your letter all about the amount given and not the act of giving itself.

When your opening paragraph is full of gratitude and thanks donors for being generous and giving, they’ll feel the love.

Demonstrate impact: Donors give because they want to help solve a problem in their community.

On their own, they can’t solve the homelessness issue. But through your organization, they can. This is why they give to you.

But they’ll only continue giving if your organization demonstrates the impact of gifts! You can do that in thank you letters, emails, annual reports, your website, blog, videos and social media posts.

Share the data. Communicate how their gift impacts one person in their community. If your fundraising ask outlined a problem for readers to solve, then tell them how they solved said problem after they’ve donated!

Tell stories: Know what donors want to read? Stories. And not just stories about your beneficiaries.

Share stories about the people at your organization. Share stories about donors, foundation funders and corporate partners. Let supporters see how many wonderful people are involved in your mission’s execution.

Share stories via video, email, direct mail, website, blog, social media, on phone calls and in-person meetings. Build the relationship by sharing stories and making donors feel more connected to your organization.

Consistent and constant communications: Here’s a conversation I’ve had multiple times with clients.

“We only send an email once a month because subscribers will be upset if we send more than that.”


The Alzheimer’s Association sends me an email almost every single morning at 6am EST. I kid you not. They know that most people aren’t going to open and read every email you send. They also know that constant inbox visibility is important.

This is why you need to have an email strategy which includes a variety of content. Your goal should eventually be sending an enews once a week. Speaking of sending emails and sharing content…

Earthjustice asks their subscribers what topics interest them the most

Earthjustice asks their subscribers what topics interest them the most

Variety of content
: If every time donors hear from you it’s because you’re asking again, they’re gonna go elsewhere.

Share stories, data, impact, quizzes and surveys, events, educational material, latest news and research and even fun odds and ends to keep their curiosity piqued. The more variety, the greater the chances people will want to open and read your emails, letters and posts.

As far as how often to ask, here’s my answer: You’re not asking often enough!

I know organizations who won’t ask more than once or twice a year because of “donor fatigue.” Hogwash! You’re assuming something about your donors that has no factual basis.

If you have a weekly enewsletter, no reason not to ask once a month. The other three weeks of the month you’re providing subscribers with information about your mission and work. You’re connecting with them by sharing stories and data. You’re building the relationship by asking them to read a blog post, download an ebook, share a social media post or sign up to volunteer.

Don’t be afraid to ask! Give donors the opportunity to experience the joy of philanthropy, a joy they can feel more than once a year.

Make them feel part of a community of do-gooders: One of the reasons people donate is to be part of a collective of humans who are working together to solve an issue.

Your organization has to create that community both online and in-person. Invite people to come and see your programs in action. A chance for them meet other donors and see they’re part of a larger group.

Have monthly donors? Create an annual gratitude event (hybrid: in-person and virtual) where you celebrate them in person. Again, now everyone in the room knows they’re not alone. They see with their own eyes all the other monthly givers and that makes them feel part of a community of do-gooders.

Did your fundraising campaign end? Send an email to ALL your subscribers thanking everyone who gave and sharing the impact of their collective gifts.

  • Campaign donors who gave online already got an email thank you letter. But they need to know the campaign was a success and what impact it had.
  • You let campaign donors know they were part of a larger community of givers who came together to solve a problem.
  • Donors who couldn’t give this time around should still be told about the successful campaign. They also want to be part of the winning team. A post campaign update highlighting how the collective funds were used could spur current non-donors to give the next time you ask.

Not The End Of The Road

One of the worst things you can do is consider a donation the end of the road.

It’s not. It’s only the beginning!

Once a donor gives, a cycle begins. You share with them a warm thank you. You demonstrate impact, share stories, stay in touch, build the relationship before you make the next ask. Doing that will help your organization stay one of their charities.

I opened with a quote and so I’ll end with one:

Shanon Doolittle explains why you need to love every donor

Listen to Shanon.