Getting Donors/Keeping Donors

The board fund development committee members were sitting around, talking about who hadn’t yet made their annual gift and what they needed to do to get that gift. It was an important conversation, but it wasn’t the only conversation they needed to have. The annual campaign had been going on for several months now, and many donors had already made their gifts. They’d been duly thanked at the time of the gift, but there was never any conversation about what needed to happen with these donors now.

The sense—as it too often is—was that they had made their gifts. Our focus needs to be on those who hadn’t. And after that? Well my guess is that they will be focusing on other gifts that they hope will be made. And after that? Well, it will be gala time and the focus will move to getting donors to buy sponsorships and tickets. Those who had made the gift they were expected to make were old news and the committee needs to focus on the new.

Or do they? Do we spend so much time on getting new gifts that we overlook the gifts that have been made? Do we spend too much effort on getting new donors that we ignore those who have already shown their commitment?

By now, we all know that donor retention is horrendous. As many donors—if not more—leave our organization as new ones enter. Every new dollar has a cost in a dollar not retained.

But donor attrition is not the only cost of not taking care of the gifts you get and the donors you have. Many donors who still give will give at levels way below capacity. They care but if they don’t perceive that you care, they will only give to the point that they think it is enough.

Taking care of donors should be a full time job. That’s probably why larger organizations have lower attrition rates than smaller ones. An organization with many development professionals has the resources to care for existing donors; smaller organizations frequently don’t even have the bandwidth to secure new gifts effectively.

But there are things—easy things—you can do to make sure that your donors know that their gifts matter, and that they are valued.

The most obvious and critical is that acknowledgement. This is a thank you letter or receipt that says yes, we got your gift, we appreciate your gift, you could get a tax deduction for your gift and here is the information you need to take that.

Beyond that, there are the thank you letters that explain why the gift was important, how it helps to move your mission forward. These come from the organization’s leadership, including and perhaps especially the board.

Sometimes there are plaques, naming opportunities, gift club recognitions. All those are great for making your donor feel important. But then, typically, it is radio silence (at least as far as personal gratitude goes) until you are asking them for another gift.

So how about:

  • Sending a note a few months after the gift has been received and tell the donor how their gift is, right now in real time, making a difference.
  • Take a short video of your clients saying “THANK YOU and send that off.
  • Spotlight them and the difference they have made for your organization an your clients.
  • Ask them to be a part of something special—not a gift club, or a donor to a big project—but with their time or their expertise or their opinions.
  • Look to them for help in cultivating another donor or hosting a small event that thanks others like them who have given at a certain level or for a specific purpose.
  • Invite them to join you in making a presentation to a service club, a group of community leaders, your staff, your board…whoever might be appropriate.

Think of your donors as your partners, and treat them as such. You will find that your attrition rates will go down. Even better, your average gift size will probably increase.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase their fundraising ability. She also helps to train boards so they can become fundraising powerhouses. Learn how at While there, sign up for the monthly newsletter.