Digital strategy, Fundraising

Donor Retention: Stewardship & Cultivation

Acquiring new donors is a costly but crucial undertaking for nearly every nonprofit, and that first gift can often be a big investment – one that might even take a while to return. Many of our nonprofit partners approach us to help them with retention in order to return their investments sooner or simply to boost existing returns within their digital marketing programs.

With a strong marketing program, we can be confident that a new donor will pay for themselves several times over in the course of their relationship with a nonprofit. Since keeping donors around for the long haul is a top priority for so many, we’ve put together some strategies that can help your organization keep your donors active for years to come.

A bespoke and right-sized approach
One of the main questions we hear from our partners is whether they should consider a customized marketing program for their mid- and high-level donor groups. The answer is yes – but make sure you have a deep understanding of your segments before you start. After all, the type of experience and relationship a $25 donor might expect is almost certainly different from what a $10,000 donor might expect – and the retention strategies for those segments should be appropriately different.

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.

Next, it’s important to understand how each group responds to your marketing program. For example, 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.

We can help develop surveys that not only help you learn more about your donors’ preferences but are also amazing passive fundraising vehicles.

Engagement moments can retain – and reactivate
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 messages can include report-backs, surveys, quizzes, 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 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 opt a donor out of email entirely, consider what communication format and frequency would be best for each individual.

Our friends over at Save the Children recently launched a texting program for mid-level donors so that they can receive timely, personalized messaging about the program. This is an excellent example of how adding a channel may help retain high-value donors.

Another great option is to give donors more ability to opt in to 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.

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 – save, perhaps, to learn more about a topic or register for a webinar. Depending on the size of your audience and their specific bent for content, 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.

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, Save the Children’s team at Anne Lewis Strategies was on the lookout for tactics that could show donors that we are listening and understand their context.

We worked with Save the Children’s in-house team 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 drive and improve the retention of various donor segments, from emergency donors to mid-level donors, with customized approaches to marketing programs. If you’re interested in any of the above strategies or have other questions about how to boost retention rates for your program, feel free to reach out to us at [email protected].