How to Grow a Nonprofit Organization in 3 Steps

Megan Donahue

Do you want to grow your nonprofit, but aren’t sure how? Are you finding that your traditional fundraising strategies aren’t delivering like they used to?

It’s not just you!

The world has changed, and donor expectations, habits and trends have changed with it. 

This doesn’t mean that nonprofits are doomed. It just means that you’ll need to think differently about how you engage with your donors if you want to grow your nonprofit. By becoming responsive and personal, and making some changes to your strategy, it’s entirely possible for nonprofits to thrive and grow in this new giving climate.

What Happened?

Before we can adapt, we need to understand what we’re adapting to. What’s so different about the world today? Why do fundraising strategies that used to seem fool-proof suddenly underperform? Why is growing a nonprofit suddenly so different?

The short answer is: technology.

Technology has democratized access to information. Now, individuals don’t need to rely on institutions to interpret and deliver information to them, they can seek out the raw information themselves. 

Think about how different the process of buying something is, compared to thirty years ago. These days, if you’re gearing up to make a major purchase, you’ll probably read online reviews, ask your friends and family for input (maybe on social media) and do your own research. You’re much more in charge of the process than you used to be because you can access information independently. 

The power has shifted from institutions to consumers. This is echoed in the nonprofit world, where donors want to be more in charge of their giving experience than they ever have been before. 

Donors Want Something Different Now

This power shift, fueled by technology, puts the donor in control. Social media has enabled people to live inside personal, and personalized, feeds. They expect this personalization to extend to the causes they care about. 

Charitable giving is not transactional for these new donors, it’s part of their identity. They want to feel like a part of the cause as much as they want to give to it. 

Think about how you engage major donors. You learn about and engage with them personally. You tailor your communication to be relevant to their interests. You’re always looking for ways to deepen their connection to your organization. That’s what every donor expects now, not just the ones writing checks for thousands of dollars. 

When someone is looking for that kind of engagement, but a nonprofit only offers them a one-way, impersonal transactional relationship, a generosity crisis is a predictable result. Donors who want to give drift away, while nonprofits struggle to raise money. 

How Should You Adapt? Responsive Fundraising

Here at Virtuous, we’ve identified a way to adapt to the changes in donor preferences. We call it responsive fundraising.

This turns traditional fundraising upside-down. Instead of sending out messages and waiting for donors to respond, responsive fundraisers listen to donor signals, and then respond to them.  They connect personally with donors, and then suggest personal giving options. Using modern technology, responsive fundraising builds trust, fosters genuine conversations and creates personalized engagement for every donor.

Responsive fundraising puts the donor at the center and grows giving through personalized donor journeys that respond to the needs of each person. It invites people to move closer to the cause through authentic engagement. It’s the way nonprofits can build lasting relationships with all donors, grow generosity, and do more good.

Responsive fundraising means you:

  • Earn trust, instead of “expanding your reach”
  • Converse with donors one-to-one, instead of through one-to-many mass marketing
  • Listen, connect, and suggest, instead of blast communications
  • Use multiple channels to conduct one central conversation
  • Grow generosity, not just giving
  • Create personalized donor journeys for every donor, not just major gifts

The 3 Levers To Grow Your Donor Base

We’ve identified three growth levers that should be top of mind for nonprofits that are trying to grow. These three categories are the foundation of any donor growth strategy:

Acquisition

If fundraising was a party, acquisition would be sending out invitations, and convincing people it will be worth attending. It’s about making sure they know that a party is happening, they are invited and it’s going to be awesome. 

Acquiring new donors gets everyone excited, but remember it’s only part of the growth puzzle. Think about how you will connect and engage with new donors, and introduce your organization to them. 

Retention

If fundraising was a party, retention would be all the ways you make people want to stay at your party, like greeting each guest warmly, getting them a drink and making sure they’re comfortable. 

Donor retention numbers are quite dismal across the board–the nonprofit sector hasn’t topped 50% retention in the last decade.  The good news is that means there’s a lot of room for growth! 

Retaining donors is less expensive than constantly acquiring new ones, and long-term donor relationships are deeper, and ultimately, result in greater generosity. Ask yourself how you will intentionally build lasting relationships and earn donor loyalty.

Cultivation

If fundraising was a party, cultivation would be ways to get people more invested in the party, like offering activities they want to participate in, introducing them to other people and listening to their suggestions about snacks or games for your next party. 

Also known as “stewardship” or “donor relations,” stewardship is the process of constantly building connections with your donors. Not just for major donors anymore, cultivation includes giving donors information that’s relevant to their interests, offering opportunities for them to get more involved, and fostering connections to your donor community. Ask yourself how you can deepen the engagement each donor has with your cause to grow giving. 

How to Create a Donor Growth Plan

Your donor growth plan should involve all three donor growth levers. While you may focus more heavily on one or the other at different times, all three should be in the mix to foster the greatest growth. 

To make your plan, begin by brainstorming activities for each growth lever. Make a list of everything you could conceivably do to target this lever. Then, choose your plays and omissions, the things you will and won’t do. Finally, identify Key Performance Indicators (KPI), the metrics you’ll use to measure success. 

Brainstorm

For example, say you’re brainstorming acquisition activities. You could, conceivably: 

  • launch a brand marketing campaign
  • place social media ads
  • do more content marketing
  • work with a PR agency
  • start talking to strangers on the street
  • put ads on public transit
  • rent/or buy a list of strangers who’ve given to similar causes
  • host a “bring a friend” event for donors to introduce you to new people

Choose Your Plays and Omissions

You can’t undertake every activity you’ve thought up, and some of those ideas might not even be a good idea. Buying or renting a list is quickly becoming less viable, because it relies on making cold contact with strangers that they didn’t ask for–the opposite of the authentic, personal, responsive experience today’s donors crave. Ditto talking to strangers on the street. And of course, budgets, time and resources will influence your choices, too. 

So next, you’ll identify your plays and omissions. That might look like this. 

  • launch a brand marketing campaign
  • place social media ads
  • do more content marketing
  • work with a PR agency
  • start talking to strangers on the street
  • put ads on public transit
  • rent/or buy a list of strangers who’ve given to similar causes
  • host a “bring a friend” event for donors to introduce you to new people

Identify Target KPI

In order to know how a play is going, you need to decide how measure success, your KPI. For acquisition that might look like: 

  • % of growth in contact list month-over-month
  • # of new donors
  • % of giving growth by source
  • % of donor growth month-over-month or year-over-year

Try It!

Once you’ve chosen your plays and decided on your metrics for acquiring, retaining, and cultivating donors, all that’s left is to put your plans into action. Over time, your KPI will let you know how your plan is working and if you need to make adjustments. 

Grow Your Donor Base

Ready to grow? Get started with Virtuous’ webinar, How to Grow Your Donor Base & Increase Donor-Loyalty in Today’s Distraction-Filled World. Director of Research and Insights, Noah Barnett, will teach you how to create a donor growth strategy, pull those growth levers, and start building real, responsive relationships with your donors. 

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