Two Secrets to Donor Happiness


Recently I led a training that covered a wide range of fundraising fundamentals. Afterward, I asked participants what they learned. Overwhelmingly – and, honestly, to my surprise – most said they now understood the importance of thanking and reporting back to donors.

Why did this catch me by surprise? Often fundraisers just want to learn “how to make the ask” and “how to respond to donors who say no.” But for this group, research insights about donor psychology and the effects of poor stewardship really resonated. They understood that fundraising is more than just asking for money.

It’s true: The top motivator for donors is making a difference and seeing that their gift has had an impact on solving a problem. Knowing their gift mattered is vital to building a lasting relationship.

Penelope Burk’s fundraising research uncovers what keeps donors feeling satisfied:

  1. Prompt and meaningful gift acknowledgement.
  2. Designation of gift to a program, service, or project narrower in scope than the charity’s overall mandate.
  3. Measurable results on the last gift, before being asked for another one.

These predictors of donor satisfaction matter now more than ever.

Why? The latest update from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project tells us that 2018 donor numbers are lagging behind last year, and donor retention has slipped to 45.5%.

Many external economic and political factors may be influencing declining donor numbers and reduced donor retention. But one factor lies squarely on the shoulders of charities: how they communicate and engage with their supporters. I receive more poor examples of gift acknowledgement than I do memorable ones. I’ve also stopped personally supporting organizations when I feel they only contact me asking for money. It all comes back to two words: Thank and Report.

I know what you may be thinking. You’re a small development team pulled in many directions. It may seem impossible to personally steward all of your donors. But there are many ways to thank and report to build strong relationships.

Try out these ideas:

  • Replace your standard (and probably tired) annual report with a gratitude report. Change your writing style and invite your donors to see how they helped you solve a problem. Use stories and profiles of beneficiaries and donors, talk about your vision and why you still need your donors.  If the donor can see how they made a difference and there’s still a role they can continue to play in your work, they are more likely to continue to give. Want to learn more? Check out Lynne Wester’s (aka The Donor Guru) blog, Demonstrating Donor Impact.  The Agents of Good team also has excellent examples of Gratitude Reports.

  • Use your newsletter to regularly convey how important your donors are to you. Create a cadence of thanking, reporting, and asking in each newsletter.  Don’t believe me this works? Check out these words of advice from the “Godfather of Donor Communications” Tom Ahern.

  • Check in with your donors through surveys. How are they feeling about their experience as a donor to you? What do they want to know more of? Less of? Let their feedback guide your donor communications strategy. For survey guidance, I turn to Rachel Clemens of Mighty Citizen. Be sure to sign up for her upcoming webinar with Rachel Muir, CFRE.

  • Segment your top donors and develop a personalized plan to thank and engage them. You can take this step even if you are a tiny development team! Consider major and/or your larger annual donors, long-term donors (at any gift level), and those who have given the largest cumulative amount over their lifetime. Be sure to also include your lapsed and first-time donors. Once you’ve determined the right number of donors you can personally steward, build into your schedule time to call and write them to get to know them better, learn more about the values that inform their giving decisions, ask them what they like and don’t about your organization, and offer them additional ways to be involved.  I recommend getting your Board member involved in this outreach, too.

  • Host a “behind-the-scenes” event in which your donors can meet key staff, beneficiaries, and experience first-hand how much they mean to your organization. Use these more structured events to create mini “mission moments” where your attendees understand and learn about your organization before, during, and even after the event.

The Bottom Line

According to the 2018 Abila Donor Loyalty Study, “nearly 75 percent of respondents say they might stop donating to an organization based on poor content, including vague content, dull content, irrelevant content and inconvenient formatting.” They will also stop donating if they don’t feel their gift was needed. In everything you write and send to your audience, stop and ask: “Am I communicating in a way that makes the donor the hero in my story? “Have I given a good update on what we’ve been able to achieve with our donors?”

Repeat after me: Thank and Report. That’s the key to donor retention.

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