Strategies to Build Donor Trust and Retention

Strong relationships are built on trust. Without it, your efforts to cultivate and steward donors won’t go very far. A trusting relationship with donors contains shared perceptions and values, openness, transparency, and a willingness to grow the connection. Here are some strategies your organization can consider for improving donor retention by building donor trust in your brand.

Your Perception of Your Donors

I’m sure you can remember an interaction that felt purely transactional. No emotion, no humanity to the interaction, just an exchange of currency, goods, and services. Perhaps you’ve received an acknowledgment letter for a donation that gave you a transactional vibe. I know I have. I’ve received appeal letters that made me feel like I was being invoiced. It doesn’t feel great, and it certainly doesn’t inspire trust.

Every interaction with donors communicates how your organization views them and their gifts. There are steps you can take to make sure donors know they are valued. There are ways to assure donors that you are a fundraiser who can be trusted, and also that your organization is worthy of their support.

In 1993, AFP, AHP, CASE, and the Giving Institute created the Donor Bill of Rights to commit their members to values that would inspire the trust of the public. Many of these organizations have Codes of Ethics that their members adhere to as well. It’s likely that you or your organization is a member of one or more of these organizations and adheres to the Bill of Rights and Codes of Ethics.

  • Are your donors aware of your commitment to ethical fundraising?
  • Have you considered creating a Donor Bill of Rights for your donors specifically?
  • How about a Code of Ethics for your organization and team, designed with the needs of your community at its heart?

Such a pledge can be your foundation for trust. From there, for any donor interaction to have humanity, the exchange needs to offer value greater than whatever currency is changing hands. Evaluate how your organization’s and your community’s core values are being articulated and experienced in the stories you tell, in your interactions with the public, and in your communications with donors.

Your commitment to your donor’s rights—essentially, your ethics and values—can be expressed by actively listening to your donors and honoring their preferences. Understanding their perceptions of your organization and what philanthropy means to them can help you take actions that build trust.

Your Donor’s Perception of You

There are countless factors that could impact a donor’s perception of your organization, to either encourage or dissuade them from trusting you with their support and to keep giving. To maintain and improve that perception, focus on key aspects of your brand, important moments in a donor’s journey, opportunities for deepening connections, and organizational transparency.

Start the relationship on the right foot with confidence-building touchpoints. Develop two-way trust from there:

1. Deliver a welcome series for new donors. It engenders trust when you provide newcomers with the information that interests them:

  • Detailsabout your mission
  • A thank-you message for their gift
  • Insight into how their funds will further the cause

2. Ask donors for their opinions. A trusting relationship requires listening and openness to feedback. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable to criticism about where your organization and your team can be improved, you learn from supporters and demonstrate that you trust them.

  • Send donor surveys
  • Ask for advice in person
  • Follow up on substantive feedback  

3. Demonstrate your personal interest in donors over time. Trust is about consistency. Celebrating moments and milestones that matter to your donor, especially those not attached to a dollar amount, lets them see your commitment to the relationship and encourages them to branch out in their support as time passes:

  • Recognize birthdays
  • Send invitations to events they’ll love
  • Share important news from your organization

4. Hit the mark on high-value interactions. While long-term trust is built on countless and often subtle exchanges, consider the high-value interactions you have with your donors and how those interactions might be perceived by them, such as when you bump into them out of the context of your job as a fundraiser:

  • Is it a genuine interaction with another person who cares about your organization’s mission?
  • Or could it come across as an encounter with a representative of a brand?

5. Reveal your failures. The strongest bonds are those that have been tested. With every campaign and goal, there will be missteps. How you share those moments with your donors has value.

  • Embrace mistakes as learning experiences
  • Show your donors that growth is taking place
  • Invite supporters to chip in and help you across the finish line when you slip up or miscalculate (some people need to know there’s a struggle before they’ll step in to help)

Your Donor’s Perceptions of Giving

What does a donor’s gift mean to them? This perception plays a significant role in their trust of your organization.

  • What kind of support do donors see being solicited and how do they see that support being valued?
  • Is the support of a corporation or a government agency going to be lauded and celebrated more than that of an individual?
  • Is a volunteer’s hour of service considered similar in value to the $30 of support it’s typically valued at?
  • Is the expected gift of a pledge payer or sustaining donor valued similarly to an unexpected gift that comes as a delightful surprise?

Assess how you value a donor’s support. The intent and perception of both the giving and the receiving can play an important role in how donors connect with your mission. Financial support is just one element of how a donor may want to be involved. If a donor is motivated by a sincere belief in your organization’s vision for the future, other modes of support and engagement should be presented to them, such as volunteer opportunities or service on a committee. Gaining a deeper understanding of a donor’s motivations is an important step in earning and reinforcing their trust.


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