Digital strategy, Fundraising

Donor Cultivation Plan: Strategies for Stewardship & Retention

Acquiring new donors is a costly but crucial undertaking for nearly every nonprofit, and in today’s nonprofit landscape, costs are only rising while organizations strive to raise more revenue with fewer resources. Many of our nonprofit partners approach us to help them with donor cultivation and retention strategies in order to return their investments sooner and retain donors for the long term through their marketing programs.

With a strong donor cultivation plan, we can be confident that a new supporter will pay for themselves several times over in the course of their relationship with a nonprofit. Keeping donors around for the long haul is a top priority for so many – so read on to learn some of the top strategies that can help your organization keep your donors active and engaged with your mission for years to come:

Strategies for a segmented cultivation approach

One of the main questions we hear from our partners is whether they should consider a customized marketing program for smaller and specific groups of donors. The answer is yes – but make sure you have a deep understanding of your segments before you start.

We recommend beginning with a deep dive into your donor data to understand the distributions of contributions within your donor file (we can help with that!) in order to create segments that truly group similar donors together.

When considering ideas to drive audience engagement, here are three things to keep in mind:

  • How long have they been on your list? A high-value donor who has been giving for 20 years and who already has a deep understanding of your programmatic work could be a good fit for a reduced and customized marketing experience. In contrast, a donor who you brought in from an ad campaign may need more frequent touches and mission-driven content to help understand why they should continue supporting your work in the future and may not be a candidate for a highly reduced email stream.
  • What size gifts are they making and at what frequency? After all, the type of experience and relationship a $25 donor might expect is almost certainly different from what a $10,000 donor or monthly donor might expect – and the cultivation and retention strategies for those segments should be appropriately different.
  • What more can you learn about your donor’s preferences? We’ve helped our partners develop engaging surveys through our proprietary Sign For Good tool that not only helps you learn more about your donors’ preferences, but they also make amazing passive fundraising vehicles that engage and cultivate donors while priming them for your donation ask.

Cultivation can retain – and reactivate – your supporters

For virtually any segment of your file, including high-value donors, engagement messages are one of the best ways to retain and reactivate donors. These stewardship messages can include report-backs, surveys, quizzes, and updates from the field – anything that doesn’t include a hard fundraising ask. We’ve found that engagement emails are not only important reminders of your work and mission to donors but also serve to raise impressive amounts of revenue from passive don’t-feel-like-they’re-an-ask asks.

The right channel for the right audience and stewardship message

Many nonprofits assume that driving retention requires minimizing email volume and solicitations – and this can certainly be the right approach for some donors! However, before you exclude a donor from touchpoints entirely, consider what communication format and frequency would be best for each individual.

Our friends over at Sandy Hook Promise have worked with our team to build a robust SMS program to cultivate donors over a variety of platforms and reach their supporters with immediacy with advocacy and action messaging alongside fundraising asks – and drove higher rates of action donation over text and email. (You can learn how we helped build their SMS program in our recent case study!)

Another great option is to give donors more ability to opt into lower-frequency email streams once they make their first gift to a given campaign. This is a tactic we may be doing anyway, but naming it and providing it as an option allows us to make sure we are still getting that donation from this important segment but also respecting the donor’s wishes to not receive further solicitations once they make that gift.

Dedicated mid-level donor campaigns

Your mid-level donor pipeline is an important part of your donor cultivation plan, and we’ve worked with nonprofit partners to help them build out unique and dedicated message streams to this important audience of donors. At Giving Tuesday 2023, our partners at Save the Children saw their total number of mid-level gifts grow by 20% and their average mid-level gift go up 75% year over year by optimizing their appeals with timely, relevant, and impact-based messaging.

Pure cultivation and stewardship

One of the best ways we’ve found to keep donors around for the long haul has been to craft a robust cultivation and stewardship plan replete with impact reports, notes from senior leadership, webinar invites, and explanatory content about your programs. The important differentiator between these messages and other engagement messages is that there isn’t an ask at all – except, perhaps, to learn more about a topic or register for a webinar. Depending on the size of your audience and their content preferences, this usually turns out to be one big cultivation moment each quarter or month.

Some of our partners’ audiences might prefer very long and technical explanations of programmatic work, while others might prefer highly graphical and designed emails demonstrating impact. It takes a fair amount of testing (and sometimes surveying!) to determine the types and frequency of stewardship messages that will work best to retain your donors – and we’re always happy to help you figure that out. (Learn more about that here!)

Special touches that show you understand

As you think about next steps for your donor cultivation and retention programs, the main takeaway is to understand who your donors are and what relationship they have with your organization. Creating messaging that speaks to this intersection will help you to keep donors giving.

Knowing the yearly bombardment of Mother’s Day emails can be difficult for many, we worked with our partners at Save the Children to add an opt-out option that would allow folks to sidestep Mother’s Day messaging without fulling unsubscribing from the list. Only a very small percentage of openers actually opted out (0.24%) – but this option made a big difference for those who may have been triggered by Mother’s Day messaging and may have otherwise unsubscribed.

We’ve worked with partners of all sizes to cultivate long-term retention of various donor segments, from emergency donors to mid-level donors, with customized fundraising strategies. You can read more ideas and strategies for donor cultivation in our blog, The Art of Retention.

If you’re interested in any of the above approaches or have other questions about how to boost retention rates for your program, feel free to reach out to us at [email protected].

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