Donor Engagement: Back to Basics


A foundation to the success of your fundraising program, donor engagement measures how attentive and involved donors are with your organization. It’s the key to donor retention – and while we’ve already talked through how effectively thanking our supporters inspires loyalty, donor engagement is the broader, all-encompassing strategy on ensuring that donors stick around by interacting with them in meaningful ways.

We can start by defining what we definitely don’t want – which is for our donors to feel like an ATM. Building a solely transactional relationship is a guaranteed way to disengage supporters by not bothering to learn anything about them or involve them in your organization in any way other than writing a check. If this is the main approach, those who have given are a lot less likely to give again.

Engaged donors, on the other hand, have a deep connection to your organization, and feel integral to your mission. Higher engagement levels will lead to things we as fundraisers dream of, such as:

  • Larger gifts
  • Recurring gifts
  • Increased volunteering
  • Higher event attendance
  • Mission advocacy
  • Lifetime engagement

Going even one step further is what can happen when you start tracking your donor engagement. Identify which key performance indicators (KPI) might make the most sense for you to measure, like website visits, email opens and clicks, survey responses, number of events attended, or months/years spent as a donor. Once you do, you’ll be able to take your program to the next level and be able to do things like:

⮕ Segment your database. By tailoring communications based on gift date, donation amount, or donation frequency, you can create a more meaningful approach for each segment.

⮕ Incorporate more personalization. You’ll be able to better stand out from the crowd by taking a more intimate approach to how you communicate with your donors.

⮕ Identify opportunities to upgrade. Using your database, you’ll be able to see which of your donors might be primed to become a sustainer, join your mid-level program, or even help identify potential major donors.

⮕ Get ahead of potential lapses. When you notice a lower engagement rate from a group of donors, you can get ahead of the curve by making a plan of action to re-engage them the best you can. We all know how hard it is to come back from lapsed territory!

⮕ Use data to make decisions. Tracking and measuring your progress will allow you to determine patterns, trends, and what the best strategies are for earning engagement with your audience.

While successful donor engagement approaches can certainly help eliminate future budget woes, the benefits go beyond the financial aspect. It shows respect for those who help fund your mission, builds long-lasting relationships, adds value to the lives of supporters, and showcases the impact of their generosity. A robust engagement strategy adds dimension, meaning, and significance to a donation – and the same is reflected in your relationships with the person who made it.

Here are some outreach tactics you can incorporate to keep donors interested and make sure your mission stays top of mind.

Welcome Series Campaign

A welcome series is typically an automated email campaign made up of 3-5 sends that both educates and familiarizes your brand new donors or subscribers with your organization. It’s a vital part of continuing the relationship with those who have more recently come across your organization, as it shares your mission, vision, and stories of success or impact.

Your welcome series should be clear, consistent, and have a unified brand & design. These emails set the tone for what type of communication your audience can expect to receive from you moving forward.

Impact Communication

One of the best ways to build engagement with your donors is by regularly informing them of what their donations have helped accomplish. By tying them directly to the incredible work your organization is doing to advance your mission, they are likely to increase giving, share with their network, and generally continue their support.

You can even separate this out between internal and external audiences. For external, use something like social media to share graphics that showcase transparency. Internally, you can engage your donors and other strategic partners with a quarterly update, or yearly with your annual report.

Engage Board Members

Board members are a great resource to conduct stewardship activities. If it’s a possibility, encourage them to help your fundraising efforts by making thank you calls, writing thank you notes, scheduling one-on-one meetings to express their appreciation, or generally offering any type of outreach they can.

Not only will this make your donors feel extra special, your board members will provide credibility for the solicitation and increase the chance of future donations.

Donor-Driven Surveys

Surveys are a tried and true practice that help boost retention, and it’s a tool that’s commonly under-utilized at a lot of organizations. While you might be worried about over-soliciting information from your donors, surveys are well worth incorporating into your strategy because go beyond helping donors stick around. They can not only help you collect data, they will show your audience that their opinion matters to you and therefore connect them more strongly to your organization.

From year-end surveys, to post-event surveys, to post-donation surveys, there are many approaches that can be taken to integrate this into your communications. It’s two birds, one stone – you’ll get valuable feedback while engaging with your donors that goes beyond a monetary ask.

Donor Recognition

Who doesn’t want to feel appreciated in one way or another? Recognizing your donors who have contributed to your cause makes them feel valued, and can easily motivate existing donors to give again. The type of recognition can be within proportion to the size of someone’s gift – with an obvious special attention to major or legacy donors – but no gift is too little to be recognized.

You can highlight a donor in your newsletter or email appeal and share their story of why they care about your cause, or include all your donors names in your annual report. You could have a donor wall on your website, or send a small personalized gift. However you want to approach it, the hope is that this appreciation will lead to more support in the future.


We’ve heard it once, we’ll hear it again. But it doesn’t get any less important! Donors make a choice to trust us with both their information and money, and so it’s only fair that we remain transparent with them on how we use and spend it.

Transparency can come in many forms, and doesn’t mean that you’re sharing every single thing you do with your audience. It’s incorporating things into your strategy that lets them know the impact that they’re having – whether it’s an annual report, implementing privacy or conflict of interest policies, or even securing an accreditation from a recognized body.

While the above are some best practices, there’s no one size fits all approach to donor engagement. Only you know what’s best for you and your donors.

At the end of the day, robust donor engagement should be ingrained in your fundraising strategy. You should be providing opportunities for your cherished donors & supporters to do more than just give. Empower them to be involved to be able to build a strong relationship with them, and watch your program flourish.

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