3 Fundraising Experts Sound off on Donor Retention from the Donors Perspective

How do your donors feel about you?

Seems like a good question to ask yourself once in a while. Better yet, it seems like a good question to ask your donors once in a while!

Relationships are complicated. You and I both know that. I have to check in with my wife all the time to be sure everything is OK. Sometimes it’s as simple as paying attention to how she says good morning. Sometimes it’s a long conversation. Sometimes it’s a look or gesture. Sometimes it’s the underlying tone of her voice. Many times it’s more than one of these things all coming at me at once 🙂

The point is that maintaining strong and healthy relationships takes time, energy and regular attention. Without these things relationships fade away – out of sight, out of mind.

Coming back to the reason we’re all here. Average first year donor retention rates of 27% would suggest that donors don’t have the best feelings about the nonprofits they’re supporting. Not that they have negative feelings, but they’re not coming back which is a good sign that something about the relationship is broken – repairs are needed.

With that in mind I give you three long time fundraising experts – Rachel Muir, Shanon Doolittle and Pamela Grow. They’ve shared some very valuable insights below – stuff that get’s right to the heart of the matter – the relationships we have with our donors and how to improve our donor retention rates.

Rachel Muir on how donors want to be treated.

We (nonprofits) think about our donor’s life cycle as a linear process – identify, determine linkage, gauge interest and determine ability.  If we have a possible match we launch off a series of cultivation steps to bring our donor closer to our cause.  This all culminates in “the ask”, which is followed by stewarding the donor’s gift.

Our donors experience is completely different!  Their first step is awareness of the cause.  Then they become interested.   Next they become educated.  After that get involved.  And finally, they make the momentous leap and invest in our cause.  Now they’re an investor and they want to know how they are making an impact.  They need to know their first gift made a difference before they are sold on making a second gift.

Knowing how their gift made a difference is our donor’s ROI.

Something transformative happens the moment someone makes a gift.  They cease being an interested party and they become an investor. Our mistake is that we don’t see this and we continue to treat them as a prospective donor.

The secret to retaining and upgrading donors for life lies in honoring how making a gift to us profoundly changes our donor’s expectations.

Shanon Doolittle on how donors want to be treated.

Supporters are much happier when you see them as people and not donors.

Too often we (fundraisers) focus on the transaction. But guess what, generosity isn’t about giving money, it’s a lifestyle. Most supporters don’t expect anything in return for making a donation, but what they get in return makes a big different in how they perceive your organization. We need to be eager to return their favor of kindness by celebrating the difference they make the world—and telling them as much as possible, you matter.

And while most organizations know they need to take better care of their donors, very few are especially good at it. We send a form letter after a receiving a gift, add their emails to our newsletter list, and then soon forget about them.  How sad is that! Yet, that’s the state of stewardship in our sector.

Stewardship is not an obligation, it’s a privilege. And we need to hold ourselves to a much higher standard of donor happiness.

Pamela Grow on how donors want to be treated.


Last year was my unofficial “year of being a donor.”  I made a number of small gifts, ranging from $10 to $50 to a number of nonprofit organizations.  Many of them were impulse gifts — I received an email and was touched, I watched a video on YouTube that captured my heart — and some were monthly gifts to organizations I wanted more of a commitment with.

I saw a post on Facebook, of all things.  It was the Humans of New York page, which I love, and Brandon had photographed a young ex-con who was trying to put his life back together.  In the comments, someone referred the fellow to an organization that gets these folks a college education.  Well I looked up the organization and made a $10 monthly contribution (not a lot, mind you, but hey $120 a year). Again. Crickets.

A few months passed.

After this period of three months with no communication from this organization, I decided to get in touch.  I had a lovely chat with the CEO.  “Oh yes,” he told me, “we got in quite a few donations from that Facebook post.” They even received a $500 gift from someone in TX (they are NYC focused).  “Wow,” said I, “What did you do?”  “Do?” he replied, confused.  “Yes, did you call?” (I would be bursting with curiosity, wondering what prompted an out-of-the-blue $500 gift).

When was all said and done all this nonprofit did was send a thank you email.  No further communications.  Look at the opportunities missed!

Let me ask you a question:  how do you like to be treated?  When I make an online gift (and 100% of my gifts these days are online), I expect to be thanked.  Immediately.  Is there any excuse why I shouldn’t be?  I’d love to get a follow up thank you letter in the mail.  And then, gee, I would like to know how my gift is making a difference.  Send me your newsletter, drop me an email.

Don’t forget about me.