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The Ultimate Donor Relations Strategy to Increase Member Retention

Mckenna Bailey

This post was contributed by our partners, Wild Apricot

A common mistake nonprofits make is spending all their resources and efforts on marketing and attracting new donors or members. Your initial conversation rates may be great, but what happens after a year, when it’s time for them to renew? 

A lot of organizations struggle with their retention rates. They work really hard on their renewal appeals, only to see declining numbers month after month.

Of course, a number of factors could be at play here: perhaps the donor is no longer interested; their financial situation has changed and they no longer have capacity; maybe they were supporting a specific program or project that has now been completed.

These reasons are valid but notice that they all focus on the donor. This is the number one mistake fundraisers make  — they think that the reason the donor didn’t renew their support has to do entirely with the donor and there is nothing they could have done to create a different outcome.

Predicting Donor Relations and Retention

In reality, whether a donor comes back for another year is entirely in your hands. And no, the work doesn’t happen during the initial ask letter or the renewal appeal. It happens for the entire duration of the year in between.

When a donor is deciding whether or not to renew, they’re not paying attention to what you wrote in their renewal letter, they’re thinking about the past year of their membership. Did they have a good experience? Did they get value out of being a member of your community? Do they feel an emotional tie to the organization? Do they feel that their contributions made a difference in your ability to create positive change?

Now notice that the answers to these questions are entirely up to you.

In this post, let’s go over what exactly you can do to make sure that your donors answer “yes” to each of these questions. Use these ideas to create a comprehensive donor relations strategy and watch your donors come back year after year.

Please note that throughout this post, I will be referring specifically to donors and getting donations, but this donor relations strategy is entirely applicable to nonprofits more focused on membership. Treat your members like donors and use these tactics to make sure they renew their membership again and again.

Here are the donor relations ideas we will be discussing:

  • Questions to Ask Yourself
  • First Impressions
  • Relevant Content is Key
  • Reporting on Impact
  • Face-to-Face Contact
  • Recognition
  • Donor Experience

Questions to Ask Yourself To Build Better Donor Relations

 In order to understand how best to serve your donors during their first year with your organization, ask yourself the following questions:

Why did they join?

Maybe they directly benefited from your nonprofit’s work and wanted to give back. Maybe their parents and grandparents have supported you for years. Some might be looking for a tax break.

What are they hoping to get out of their membership?

Are they looking to learn something new? Are they looking to volunteer? Do they want to have a direct positive impact on your work?

What do they need from your organization?

This one mostly refers to meeting your donors’ emotional needs. How will donating to your organization make them feel? 

What do they expect from your organization?

How often do they want to hear from you? Do they want to attend events? What level of customer service and personal attention are they accustomed to?

You may be able to come up with answers to some of these on your own. However, if your organization has a number of different functions and a wide range of donors, individual preferences and interests will greatly vary. If you’re struggling to answer these questions as they would pertain to your average donor, it is not a bad idea to have new donors complete a welcome survey.

Answers to these questions will help you determine what areas of donor relations you need to focus on and establish goals for how you want your donors to feel by the time you ask them to renew.

First Impressions

First impressions are extremely important. Your donor’s experience in the first few days, weeks and months of making their first gift can determine what kind of relationship they have with your organization for years to come.

I’ve made a donation before that immediately began a stream of communications — emails and newsletters sent in the mail — that I actually enjoy. It’s been years now but I still feel like I am part of that nonprofit’s community. 

On the other hand, I remember making a few one-off donations and receiving nothing. If you asked me what charities those were, I couldn’t tell you because I simply don’t remember. 

Here are some things you can do throughout the donors’ first year to make a good impression:

First 24 hours:

  • Call the donor and say thank you. If they don’t pick up, leave a nice voicemail and your phone number in case they want to follow up. If they pick up, use this opportunity to learn a little more about them — why did they donate, what interests them about your organization, etc… For instances when the gift was made online and no phone number was provided, send a thank you email.

First Week:

  • Send a timely thank you letter along with their tax receipt. If you had a conversation with them over the phone, try to include a personal note beside your signature.
  • Make sure the donor is added to your email list and receives a welcome email, as well as any subsequent emails you send out to your entire community.

First Month:

  • Send a welcome package. This can include things like a letter from your leadership, a handwritten note from you, a welcome survey, a copy of your latest newsletter, a calendar of upcoming events and any must-know information or FAQs. Some organizations also like to send a small gift or what’s called a premium. If you choose to go that route, just make sure it’s tasteful and will actually be appreciated by your donors (for example, people generally don’t need any more pens or keychains).

First Year:

  • Invite the donor to the events you host throughout the year.
  • Make sure they receive your standard mailings like a holiday card around December, your annual report, your newsletters, a consolidated tax receipt (if they’re giving monthly), etc…
  • Check in with them at about the 6 month mark to ask how their experience has been so far, if there’s anything they need, or if there’s anything you can do to make their experience better. This can be a phone call, an email or a handwritten card sent in the mail.
  • Send an anniversary card roughly a year after they made their first gift. Ideally this should be before you ask them to renew their support, so that the renewal letter doesn’t come as a surprise.

Relevant Content is Key to Improved Donor Relations

While it’s important to send lots of communications and stay in contact with your donors, it won’t be effective if all of your messaging is generic. Failing to personalize your message might even be harmful.

I once made a first-time gift online and immediately received a thank you email that said something along the lines of “Your support helped feed 750 children this month. Thank you for making this happen!”

While their intention was good, the email felt extremely impersonal and, frankly, made me question the organization’s authenticity. Could the $50 I donated 3 minutes ago really have made all that impact in such a short period of time?

There’s nothing wrong with sending an email to showcase your impact — in fact, it is highly encouraged (as you’ll see in the next section). However, don’t forget to think about who you’re sending it to. You long-time supporters will really appreciate it, while a brand-new donor might simply be left confused.

The Importance of CRMs

In order to ensure that all your communications are timely and appropriate, invest in a functional CRM (Customer Relationship Management system) and use it to its full capabilities. Too many nonprofits have purchased a powerful software, only to use it to keep their donors’ contact information.

In reality, you should be using your nonprofit CRM to track just about anything you can think of. You need data about first gift date, amounts, reasons for donating, interests, communications received, events attended, and much, much more. 

Having all this data about your donors will help you segment your data and make sure that everything you send out is relevant, well received and effective in getting your message across. 

When the time comes to send out renewal appeals, you should be able to look at a donor profile and predict how likely they are to renew their support. You can then use this to customize your message or decide how much work you’ll be putting into each mailing. In my experience, a renewal appeal doesn’t just consist of one letter sent to everyone — I’ve used up to a dozen different templates within one mailing. 

Outside of renewal appeals, you can use the data from your CRM to send all kinds of personalized outreach. Keeping track of people’s reasons for joining and interests comes in handy when you’re making a phone call and can help drive your conversation.

For donors at higher levels and long-time supporters, it’s always a good idea to make notes about each interaction. If someone shares with you that their husband’s health has been on the decline, make note of it and be sure to ask about him the next time you speak. Use your judgement on where to draw the line on this — you never want to come across as creepy — but generally, donors with whom you have a strong relationship will almost always appreciate it when you remember (or appear to remember…) details they’ve shared with you in the past. 

Reporting on Impact for Donors

 One of the most important things you can do to enhance your donors’ experience is to regularly remind them how much their support is needed and what impact they are helping to create. Regardless of the size of their gift or what specifically they give to, find ways to report to them about what their donations are making possible.

Here are some ideas on how to do this:

  • Send an annual report
  • Send a regular newsletter
  • Create custom impact reports
  • Include quotes from beneficiaries in all your materials
  • Feature beneficiary stories on your website
  • Send regular impact updates via email
  • Have a beneficiary speak at your event
  • Create a thank-you video
  • Create a program specific impact video
  • Send hand-written thank you cards from beneficiaries

Get More from Face-to-Face Contact 

Relevant and meaningful communications are key to a great donor relations strategy. However, nothing beats opportunities to meet your donors face to face. In-person interactions create a much stronger and longer lasting connection.

The people who are willing to make the effort to come out to see you in person must already be quite invested in your organization’s work — these are the people you should focus on when thinking about cultivating life-long supporters. Give them plenty of opportunities to come out and get involved. Here are some ideas:

Events

Events can seem intimidating to organize. But when done right, they are an incredible way to bring people together. They allow you to connect, inspire, introduce or remind donors of your cause.

The first thing people think of when they hear “charity event” is probably an enormous annual gala, but your events don’t have to be large at all to create lasting impact.

In addition to fundraising events, it’s important to host stewardship events, where you’re not asking people to buy a ticket or donate money — you’re simply inviting them to come out and say hello, get to know fellow supporters and learn about what your organization has been up to lately. Most importantly, it’s just another way for you to say thank you for their support.

It may seem costly to put on an event and not raise any money at it, but remember that stewardship is a long term investment and it will pay off later down the line. What you’re cultivating are life-long relationships, not one-time gifts, so be patient and don’t be afraid to spend the money necessary.

Don’t forget, also, that these events don’t actually have to be that expensive. Generally, your stewardship budget should be a percentage of your fundraising revenue from a given group of donors. Naturally, your events can be tiered, as well. A nonprofit I worked at would invite major gift donors to a five-course dinner, mid-level donors to a catered lunch, while everyone else was invited to attend a small presentation and feast on Whole Foods sandwiches. Most people are delighted simply to be invited to a free event and are happy to eat whatever you provide. 

Tours

If your nonprofit does work out of a designated facility, why not invite donors out for a tour? It can be incredibly impactful for them to see where the magic happens, meet your front-line staff and see first-hand the work you’re doing. This can be done in large groups of people, which takes a little organizing but is very much doable, or you can invite donors one-on-one for a more personal experience.

For major gift donors, why not combine the tour with a quick lunch at a nearby café? Your major supporters should be treated like friends. Spend time with them, get to know them and engage in conversation about things they’re passionate about.

Volunteering

When looking for volunteers, the first people you should be asking are your existing donors. There is a reason why they made a financial contribution, and giving their time and energy is just another way for them to show their support. 

People who sign up to volunteer are looking to build a lasting relationship with your organization, so give them the opportunity to do so. Plus, it’s another chance to see them in-person and strengthen their connection to your cause.

Recognition Aids Donor Relations Over Time

Recognition is an extremely important aspect of an effective donor relations strategy. And you may be asking, how much recognition do I need to provide?

The answer varies greatly from donor to donor, so your focus should be on meeting individual needs.

Some people don’t care at all about how and where you recognize them, some people insist on being listed as anonymous. Some are happy to see their name on a lengthy list on your website, others might be offended if you don’t inscribe their name on a plaque.

The point is, you should make an effort to determine these preferences early on. Be very specific to avoid any misunderstanding and hurt feelings later on.

A welcome survey or gift agreement are great places to do this. Find out exactly how a name should be listed (Will you include the middle initial? Will you include the spouse name? Which of them comes first?) and where they expect to be listed. If this conversation happens in person or over the phone, send an email to confirm these details so that you have record of them. 

Keep in mind that while for some people recognition is a nice-to-have, there are certainly some donors who make a gift with the sole purpose of having their name on a wall, so take great care to meet each of your donors’ needs when it comes to recognition.

Donor Experiences Are Cornerstones to Better Relationships

Lastly, let’s talk about the simple act of great customer service. It may seem obvious, but a surprising number of nonprofits completely forget about this aspect of donor relations.

Your relationship is a two-way street. You can send the most amazing communications, invite donors to the most extravagant events. But if they  don’t feel heard, you can undo all of your great work in a matter of minutes.

I used to support an organization with monthly gifts. When I moved houses, I tried to call them to change my mailing address. No one would pick up. I left several voice messages and emailed with my request. It took them 2 months to get back to me. Take a wild guess on whether or not I still support them…

At the end of the day, your aim should be to make your donors’ experience as pleasant as possible. If they have a request, you should be available to fulfill it in a timely manner.

Remember that their expectations for great customer service are set by hundreds of for-profit companies that they interact with on a daily basis. From the Starbucks coffee they get in the morning with their name on the cup to the pair of shoes they bought online and then easily returned, it has been ingrained in their minds that the customer always comes first. If you can’t meet these expectations, your relationship will suffer. 

And since we’re talking about getting donors to renew their support at the end of the year, think about how easy you’ve made that process. Do they have to fill out a lengthy form, stick in an envelope, pay for their own stamp and walk 15 minutes to a mailbox? Or can it be a button within an email you sent them? Chances are, the easier you can make this process for people, the more of them will take you up on it.

Last Words on Donor Relations

When creating your donor relations strategy, think about your ultimate goal. While you want donors to renew their support year after year, you should be aiming for is to create ambassadors. Inspire people who are so passionate and connected to your cause, that they spread the word on your behalf.

Getting to this point can take many years, so be patient and take great care to cultivate these relationships. A simple way to think about donor relations is that you should be cultivating friends, not just donors. Treat them with kindness, respect and pay attention to their needs, and they will be sure to meet you halfway.

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