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We all want monthly sustainers—here’s how to acquire them

Monthly donors—or sustainers—have long been touted as the fundraising jackpot for many direct response programs. What’s better than a loyal donor giving month after month to your cause?

However, acquiring monthly sustainers is still a challenge for many nonprofit organizations. Which channels work best? How often should we present them with a monthly ask? Should we take them out of our regular communication stream? This list of questions goes on and on.

So, I recently teamed up with a few RKDians to create a taskforce that analyzed our clients’ data and defined the top strategies and tactics that make a successful monthly donor program.

Here’s what we found:

Diving into the data

Going into this project, our team had three main hypotheses we were testing based off our experience with clients and trends within the industry. These included:

  1. If we make it easy for donors to sign up for a sustaining gift, organic sustainer growth will increase through converting first-time and second-time donors.

  2. Donor loyalty is no longer the driving force for converting a donor to a sustaining relationship through digital channels.

  3. A sustaining offer is the pathway to younger donors.

To determine whether our hypotheses were accurate, we examined several of our clients’ sustainer donor data. This revealed two key findings:

  1. 60-70% of digitally acquired sustainers who come on file do so at the point of first gift.

  2. Half of the remaining 30-40% of digitally acquired sustainers convert at the point of second gift.

These data points not only confirmed our hypotheses, they also gave us the insight we needed to optimize our clients’ programs for sustaining gifts.

An always-on, digital-first approach

Why digital-first? Let’s face it, with Netflix and the thousands of other monthly subscriptions services out there, donors are used to making monthly recurring payments online.

Between this and the data, we know that the secret to acquiring sustainers successfully should be to approach it with an always-on, digital-first mentality. Most digitally acquired sustainers come on at the point of the first gift, meaning it’s critical that the ease of making a sustaining gift is everywhere.

But it’s not as simple as adding a little check box to your donation form. We’ve identified a few key optimizations that will help drive organic growth in your sustainer programs.

Donation forms

Always include the option for monthly giving! As we often like to say, don’t make assumptions for your donors. You never know who is willing to give monthly.

We recommend testing whether monthly giving is selected on default. In addition, we recommend the donation button read “$x/monthly” to further enforce that the amount the donor is giving is a recurring gift.

Paid media

We mentioned the “always-on” approach earlier. For paid media, this means an evergreen monthly donation campaign that runs throughout the year outside of year end.


You have a donate button at the top of your website (if you don’t, you definitely should!). Why not include a monthly giving link right next to it? This will keep monthly giving top of mind for all as they navigate through your donation options.


We saw a strong correlation between second gifts and monthly sustainer acquisition. Thus, we recommend adding a monthly ask into the second cadence of your email welcome series.

In addition to your welcome series, it’s always a good idea to incorporate ongoing monthly asks whenever possible.

While digital should be your primary focus for sustainer campaigns, direct mail still provides a solid opportunity to acquire monthly donors. You can optimize your direct mail campaigns for sustainer giving in many ways, including callouts about the impact of a monthly gift, through URLs with a monthly giving option or by adding monthly giving as an option in the reply device.

Monthly sustainer programs are essential to the growth of your overall program. By maintaining an always-on approach, you’ll see more and more sustainers come onto your file.

For more information about monthly sustainer programs, check out these resources:

Megan England

Megan has worked on direct response accounts for more than a decade in the nonprofit industry. As an account director and integrated strategist, she brings an effective combination of data-driven strategy development, strong communication skills and the ability to collaborate with all team members to ensure timely, cost-effective service implementation.

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