12 donor engagement strategies for nonprofits to building lasting donor relationships

Feb 28, 2024

It can be difficult to cut through all the noise of today’s digital landscape to make connections that inspire action. How can you build lasting relationships when your outreach competes with hundreds of emails in your donors’ inboxes each day?

At times, it can feel difficult to meaningfully capture donor engagement because such initiatives are so broad and often time-intensive. Don’t let that stop your organization from trying to help donors understand their impact and remember why they care. With proven strategies, nonprofits can cultivate a thriving donor community.

The fundamental value of donor engagement

What is donor engagement?

Donor engagement is the level of active (or inactive) donor involvement with your organization, from their first donation to each interaction and event that follows.

Donor relationships are built on engagement. And, like any relationship, you need to continue working at it to be sure your goals and values remain aligned.

Why does donor engagement matter?

Donor engagement goes hand in hand with donor retention. Once someone has demonstrated support for your mission, retaining their support will be more affordable and sustainable than recruiting new donors.

The donor engagement lifecycle

Think of the donor engagement cycle as a structured opportunity to build lasting relationships with supporters. As the cycle progresses, prioritize strengthening connections so donors are aligned with your long-term vision.

What are the stages of the donor engagement cycle?

  1. Identify
  2. Qualify
  3. Cultivate
  4. Ask
  5. Steward

Each stage of the donor engagement cycle is action-oriented. It starts with getting to know the types of people in your community. With a bit of give and take, your organization can learn what motivates donors, what makes them feel valued, and what changes they want to see.

Once potential donors are well acquainted with your efforts, let them know what you need. Ask for donations, volunteers, and any other support, using donor engagement data to lead outreach. Build on the relationship with gratitude, acknowledgment, and continued engagement as you shift to donor retention. These efforts should lead to increased loyalty and, with any luck, additional generosity.

How do you track donor engagement?

There are several ways to track donor engagement, but the key is to define what success looks like. When you set specific, measurable goals, you can quantify and track progress over time. These are just a few key performance indicators (KPIs) for donor engagement:

  • number of events attended
  • number of hours spent volunteering
  • number of years spent as a donor
  • giving patterns, frequency, and method
  • gift matching eligibility
  • communication preferences and response rate
  • social media interactions

As you understand your donors more, you’ll learn which KPIs are most informative for your organization to track.

What are the benefits of tracking donor engagement?

Tracking donor engagement allows you to cultivate deeper relationships with your donor community. This data empowers you to see how healthy each relationship is, where there are opportunities for growth, and where your organization needs to focus its time and attention. Once you begin to track engagement, you can:

  • segment your communications to deliver more relevant value to each donor
  • identify potential major donors and create tailored stewardship plans
  • identify potential volunteers, influencers, and advocates
  • prevent attrition with awareness of which donors may need re-engagement efforts

The donor engagement cycle is like a series of milestones, and as you track engagement, it builds a clear path forward. By measuring donor engagement trends and insights, your organization can make strategic, data-driven decisions to better utilize limited resources.

Strategies for effective donor engagement

1. Be transparent

Publish regular updates about your latest efforts, how donations are spent, and short- and long-term goals.

Why this works: Every detail you share builds trust with existing and prospective donors and shows that your organization is honoring its commitment. It also offers perspective on what it takes to achieve your mission.

2. Share impact

Tell donors how funds will be put to work and give context by defining the impact of donations.

Why this works: When people can see what success looks like—and what it takes to achieve it—they’re often motivated to donate more. Well-defined pathways to results are a simple, effective way to influence generosity.

3. Get to know your donors

Let donors tell you what matters to them, what motivates them, and—most importantly—why they give. There are plenty of ways to do this with surveys, one-on-one interviews, social media posts, and reviews for your organization.

Why this works: It allows you to frame your messaging with emotional connections. This helps refine your strategic plans to increase donor engagement, grow your community, and so much more.

4. Make it personal

Leave room to personalize outreach, whether it’s handwritten thank-you cards, shout-outs on social media, or thoughtful automation integrated with your emails.

Why this works: It adds a level of detail, professionalism, and relevance that donors will notice. Donor segmentation by factors such as demographics, level of engagement, and amount donated also ensures the right messages go to the right people.

5. Share your success

Regularly update your newsletter and emails with where your organization has made strides in its mission.

Why this works: It keeps your efforts top of mind for donors and invites them to share in your celebration. Renewed awareness and enthusiasm can lead to more contributions.

6. Get the board involved

Encourage the board to take an active role in stewardship to add weight to your donor experience. From writing thank you notes to speaking at local events, there are countless ways to make board members integral to the process.

Why this works: A formal “thank you” can feel transactional, but when a board member personally calls to express gratitude for donations, it helps donors internalize that their contributions are deeply valued.

7. Give credit where it’s due

Feature major donors that go above and beyond in your newsletters and press releases. This not only acknowledges their generosity, but also raises the profile of your efforts.

Why this works: Their willingness to give substantially reinforces the value of your work for the larger community to notice.

8. Be social

You’re building a community with donors and volunteers. Connect on LinkedIn, share updates on Instagram, give shout-outs and thank-yous, and make it feel like a community effort.

Why this works: This provides opportunities for donors to share your message and connect you to their expanded network. It’s also a great way to encourage peer-to-peer fundraising.

9. Play the host

Invite donors to tour your office and attend events so they can see where and how you operate.

Why this works: It puts faces to names. Taking time to reinforce the humanity of your organization and its community of supporters will forge real connections.

10. Encourage giving more than money

If you only contact donors about donations, your relationship will begin to feel transactional. Offer value, insight, and opportunities for donors to deepen their involvement so they see the efforts of your nonprofit firsthand.

Why this works: Their relationship with your mission transforms when they roll up their sleeves and stand shoulder to shoulder volunteering with you. It allows them to take ownership and become an active part of the solution.

11. Refresh your website

It’s where first-time donors will seek information about your nonprofit and its work. Ensure that links and navigation function seamlessly and that webpages are mobile-friendly and load quickly. Consider an F.A.Q. page or prominent search bar to help visitors find the information they need.

Why this works: Not only do you want to make a strong first impression with prospective donors, but your current donors should also have confidence that your organization is operating professionally and transparently.

12. Build a legacy

Create a donor wall or display within your organization’s headquarters that serves as a living record of major supporters.

Why this works: A public record of collective impact galvanizes the shared purpose of your organization and its donors. Everyone wants to leave a legacy.

Building relationships with donors

As you develop a donor engagement plan, implementing the strategies outlined here will ensure you can act on more than assumptions. You’ll be able to reinforce reasons to believe in your organization and drive active participation with a compelling donor experience.

For more perspective on reframing conversations about how nonprofits operate and approach social change, watch UnCharitable.

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