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Want Loyal Donors? Communicate Well

communications donors fundraisers fundraising major donors relationships Jul 03, 2023

I believe that the most effective fundraising is connection-based fundraising.

Sure, you can "get donations in the door" with simple transactions. But most nonprofits are in it for the long haul, to create lasting, positive change in the world. So you want lasting donor relationships.

Have you noticed that every time we make an Ask that we assure donors that they are investing in change? Whether the "every penny counts" or the mega-gift solicitation, we mention the future acre saved, the family fed, the child cured, the animal healed, the community more resilient. 

And then those donors who have donated to be partners in the change hear... not much. Maybe:

  • an auto response thank you (if the gift was made online)
  • a thank you, (if the gift was at least $50)
  • a general annual report (but no specific impact/ gratitude report about the gift) 

Most nonprofits do send a thank you - because they are legally obliged. Some nonprofits send an annual report - because they are legally obliged to create the report. Some things, "Why not share it with everyone on the database?  We can mark stewardship as done."

Fundraisers and nonprofit leaders, you can do much better by your supporters and improve donor retention because of it.

Just as there is no "one Ask fits all donors," we must remember that there is no "one gift report fits all." The "one and done" method may be inexpensive and efficient, but it doesn't help make better connections between the givers (donors) and the change-makers (nonprofits). 

Blanket thanks once a year doesn't create connection, it creates a communication void. Let's do better. Over this summer, you (or your team) can take 5 hours to audit the thanking and gift impact reporting opportunities. Then spend another 7 hours on brainstorming, planning, and re-writes. Here are my suggestions on where to focus:

  • Warm it up. For online gifts, is your gift receipt messaging (the auto-response) warm and personal or did you use the default text? A few well-placed words of impact and heart-felt gratitude help this initial communication make more of a connections.
  • Speed it up. Are you thanking donors promptly? This makes a big difference in retention. This can be as simple as prioritizing thank yous to twice per week or more often. And please - begin  thank you letters with a sentence about the impact of that gift, not the dollar amount given. Do you really think the thing the donor is most eager to read is the dollar amount they sent in? No... they want to hear about promised impact, and you should start with that. 
  • Talk it up. Do you have a type of impact report for gifts that are designated? If you asked for a dollar to go to work in one area - are you sharing with the donor what happened over the last 3, 6 or 12 months? Even a short email or graphic explainer helps the donor see why the gift mattered.
  • Add it up. For undesignated gifts, we often are unsure what to say - but these are the gifts most nonprofits desperately want. So - what are the strategic steps you're making toward promised change? Talk about that. These unrestricted dollars often allow nonprofits to be nimble - or just keep going. Add up what's happened over the last 3, 6 or 12 months into a narrative - and how the gift made a difference. 
  • Mix it up. If your nonprofit has a large volume of donors, you can still offer repurposed thank yous with more personal touch to donors up the giving ladder. Major gift donors, monthly donors, and mid-level donors should receive an additional or different thanks, especially if they are meeting your major gift threshold. 
  • Pick it up. The phone! Adding in phone calls of thanks or inquiry - even Discovery Calls - are a great way to connect, especially with donors who grew up in an era where good news and business was conducted via the phone lines. It also begins to make conversations easier with major donors and prospects. 
  • Make it easy. Make sure you show AND tell in your communications. Shift your "telling" to storytelling. Bring the reader in as a partner in future change/ success. Add a few visuals. And be aware of those donors who may have visual challenges - use larger font, more white space and easy to comprehend visuals or images. Create a donor-shaped hole in some stories (so they can step in and support the solutions!). Allow donors to easily read your communications - even skimmable. 
  • Spread it around. Don't forget to thank volunteers, third-party supporters, and even lapsed donors for their support that got your work to where it is today - and ready for new tomorrows.

Get reviewing this summer and implement ahead of the busy (crowded) fall giving season.

I continue to say to my clients that meaningful gifts come from meaningful conversations. Those conversations can start with better communications about why the gift had impact - and how that impact is occurring.

One more tip: if you are working in the major gifts space, start conversations with your donors earlier this year. This makes the comment, "Is now a good time to talk about your support for <charity impact>?" a much more natural segue. There are already too many fundraisers who will make the first outreach for the 2023 gift in November, trying to close a gift by December 31.

Want loyal donors? Be a regular communicator with those donors. The fundraising results will follow.

P.S. The inspiration for this post was this report  The Giving Environment: Understanding How Donors Make Giving Decisions from the Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis Lilly Family School of Philanthropy from January 2022. I was struck by this a comment from a major gift donor in the report:

“For organizations that I’m making significant contributions to, it’s about how are they educating me to incentivize and to give more. If I’m making a major gift and I’m getting the same communication that someone who is giving $10 a year is getting, that organization is not going to elevate my giving to them. The ones that identify that opportunity and make the right type of engagement with me are going to be the ones that are much more likely to get increased giving from me.”

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