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New donor retention: Let’s go back to the basics

Nonprofit organizations work so hard to bring in new donors. But what good does it do if these donors don’t stick around?

Donor retention is critical to the long-term success of a nonprofit fundraising program. Investing in acquisition is a necessary expense that pays off down the line if and when donors build a meaningful connection with the organization.

As we prepare for the most uncertain year-end giving season we’ve ever seen, it’s critical to engage and retain new donors – especially those who gave out of emotion due to the pandemic. Yet I continue to see too many nonprofits coming up short in this area of donor stewardship.

Take the time now – before the crunch of Giving Tuesday and year end – to review your retention program. Let’s start by going back to the basics of how nonprofits build relationships with donors after the first gift.


Donor acquisition can be a very tactical, analytical process across channels. In direct mail, for example, success can be attributed more to list optimization and audience modeling than to the creative message and the offer. In digital media, it’s all about targeting, lookalike audiences and AI-led segmentation.

Once you’ve brought donors to your door, however, the focus shifts to a more personal, welcoming approach. And this is where the disconnect begins for some organizations.

People are excited about giving because it makes them feel good. Scientific research backs this up by connecting generosity to the release of dopamine in the brain. Inevitably, they want that good feeling to continue.

Donors also seek appreciation, recognition and information about how their gift is being used. With so many recent scandals across the nonprofit industry, donors want to know that they can trust your organization.

If all they receive is a boring, impersonal receipt, then those good feelings start to fade. The connection begins to break. And, as we learned in RKD’s own research in 2018, that feeling of connection plays a huge role in which charities donors pick in December.


We know a bland gift receipt isn’t enough, but what does it take to boost donor retention?

It starts with a simple, heartfelt “thank you.”

You’d be amazed at what a difference you can make with those two words. After all, when we ask for money, we’d better express our gratitude for it.

When a donor provides a gift, it needs to be acknowledged as soon as possible – instantly in digital channels and within 48 hours in direct mail. This acknowledgement can be automated, but it must include warm, sincere appreciation for their donation. For larger gifts – and this threshold is unique to each organization – a personal “thank you” by phone is necessary.

In either case, tell the donor what the gift means for the mission, and talk about the people or animals they’re helping. Make them feel important and appreciated.

The goal is to keep that good feeling going by reminding donors that they’re making a difference in the world.

From here, nonprofits must create a meaningful donor journey that builds upon the foundation of the first gift and guides donors to that important second gift. Impact reports, newsletters, video updates and more keep donors engaged with the organization and the mission.


As we head into the fall, take the time to perform an audit of all your automated responses to gifts. Make sure you are communicating in a thoughtful way in the donor’s preferred channel – and across all channels.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the message warm and sincere?
  • Is it personalized to the donor?
  • Are we showing genuine appreciation?

The key is to be intentional about donor retention. You have to make the effort. From there, examine the rest of your welcome process with a few more questions:

  • Are we doing enough to show the impact of the gift?
  • Do our communications keep the donor informed about the organization?
  • Are we offering opportunities to engage with us (Facebook fundraisers, food drives, fostering, etc.)?
  • Are we offering opportunities to volunteer?
  • Is this building an emotional connection?

Speaking of volunteering, we have a unique opportunity for donor retention during the pandemic.

With so many people staying at home, nonprofits can ask volunteers and board members to help make thank-you phone calls to new donors. These can even be combined into a wellness call to see how people are doing during this difficult time.

It may seem daunting to call all those new donors, but it’s worth the effort. Start small by giving each staff member 3-5 donors to call each week. That way it isn’t so overwhelming.

Another option is a simple voice broadcast message to donors under a certain threshold (e.g., first gift below $100) during the day. Most times the donors don’t even realize it is recorded.

Many organizations only think of reaching out to their major or mid-level donors, but we all know that core/multiyear donors typically make up 60-70% of our annual revenue. Don’t forget to show a little love to them as well.

The benefits of building these connections by optimizing your donor journey are tangible. They can be seen through metrics like higher donor retention, increased gift frequency, bigger average gift and higher lifetime value.

Before the chaos of December arrives, take a good, hard look at your efforts to retain donors.

Don’t view this as a burden. It truly is a great opportunity to make this an exceptional year-end giving season.

Perry Moore

Perry Moore brings three decades of professional fundraising experience to her role as Executive Vice President, serving food bank, animal welfare and rescue mission clients. She has deep and diverse experience in marketing operations, sales and client service, data management and strategic program design. Perry is also an accomplished leader in organizational redesign, change management and process improvement.

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