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Effective Donor Retention Strategies

Mar 2023 - READ IN 10 MINUTES

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There are many ways to connect with your constituents that don’t involve asking for a donation.

4 Effective Strategies for Donor Retention

First comes acquisition, then comes retention, right? It may be true chronologically, but consider this: a robust donor retention strategy should actually inform your acquisition initiatives not follow them. 

In a recent keynote address at the annual GiveCampus Partners Conference, CEO and Co-Founder Kestrel Linder made the case that school advancement teams should view each and every fundraising workflow and activity through the lens of retention—from the ways in which you identify and prioritize your constituents to the ways you thank and steward your donors. 

In this post we’ll take a look at some of the underlying causes of donor attrition and highlight four donor retention strategies you can start using now to fundraise with a heightened focus on retention.

Why donor attrition matters

According to research by author and fundraising expert Penelope Burk, 65 percent of first-time donors never make a second gift. Understanding why this happens—why donors stop giving—is vital to both short- and long-term fundraising revenue.

You know how challenging and costly donor acquisition can be. Investing your resources and time on hard-won donors who end up only giving once is not only frustrating, it’s ultimately a drain on future campaigns. It may also mean you have fewer resources to spend on keeping your loyal supporters inspired and engaged. Rethinking the ways in which you identify and prioritize constituent segments can help you find donors more aligned with your mission, who are willing to commit to a shared cause not just today but for years to come.

Getting someone to give is good, forging a lifelong connection is gold 

The longer you retain a donor, the more opportunities you have to engage them on a deeper level and convert them into a lifelong supporter.

Most major gifts and many estate gifts come from donors who have consistently given year after year for many years—usually at least seven. Take billionaire Mike Bloomberg, for example.

Side-by-side images of Michael Bloomberg: (left) from the 1964 edition of the Hullabaloo yearbook produced by Johns Hopkins University and (right) a recent headshot from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Side-by-side images of Michael Bloomberg: (left) from the 1964 edition of the Hullabaloo yearbook produced by Johns Hopkins University and (right) a recent headshot from Bloomberg Philanthropies

Mike Bloomberg wasn’t always a billionaire, but he has been philanthropically inclined for much of his adult life. His first gift to his alma mater was a modest $5. So was his second and third. Then he gave $10, then $25, and then $50. All told, over the course of seven years, this young alum and aspiring entrepreneur donated $125.

Since then however, he’s contributed more than $3 billion to Johns Hopkins University. You read that right, billion. That institution’s advancement team deserves a gold star for retention—made of actual gold (kidding).

Clearly, there’s a small and finite universe of billionaires to go around, but you get the idea. If properly stewarded, today’s $5 donor or campaign volunteer may ultimately be the bearer of a truly transformational gift down the road. But you have to pay attention to retention. 

Four ways to fundraise with a focus on retention

Let’s examine each fundraising workflow or activity to see how you might apply donor retention best practices to improve outcomes.

1. Understand who people are and why they give 

If you want to build sustained philanthropic relationships with alumni, parents, and other constituents, you need to make an effort to understand who they are and what their personal circumstances are like. Find out what makes them tick—and understand what ticks them off. 

Like any other good relationship, the key is to connect on common ground and build from there. This is really about seeing what values you and your constituents share, where your passions align, and how you might be able to work together to make a meaningful—and measurable—difference on the issues that matter most. “Measurable” is important because you’ll need to home in on donor impact as part of your stewardship. More on that later.

For now, think about how you can get to know your constituents a little better. If you want to develop a lasting, trusting relationship with someone, the best first step is almost always to ask them about themselves—and listen carefully to what they have to say. 

The way you approach a young alum who is still paying off student loans is vastly different from the way you reach out to someone who’s celebrating their 30th reunion and eyeing retirement—and you should segment your outreach accordingly.

Social media networks and in-person events are great opportunities for learning more about constituents and understanding if they have an inclination to give. Doing just a little homework here—asking the right questions—can give you a window into their interests, attitudes toward your institution, and preferred communication channels.

Wealth screening tools like GC Wealth can also help you identify and prioritize further engagement with constituents who have already raised their hand but may not be on your radar. GC Wealth enriches your constituent data with information about an individual’s employment, household net worth, philanthropic interests and activities, major life events, and more. It empowers you to tailor your strategy for each individual, and ensures you never miss an opportunity for timely outreach by alerting you whenever they give, register for an event, volunteer, or advocate on behalf of your institution.

2. Engage constituents more meaningfully

Once you identify mission-aligned constituents you need to engage them in a way that engenders the kind of deeper emotional connection that is conducive to a sustained philanthropic relationship. To be clear, engagement is different from solicitation and there are many ways to connect with your constituents that don’t involve asking for a donation.

Want to learn more about them and what they value? Email them a survey, post polls on social media, or invite them to an event. Or, you can ask them to simply visit your giving day page where they can learn more about the community you’re building, see the designations and funds people are supporting, and track friendly competition between classes or athletic programs.

Care to take a deeper dive? Why not sow the seeds of retention by inviting constituents to participate in a focus group, provide career advice to a younger alumna, or spend 30 minutes being interviewed by a student caller? These are all profoundly valuable engagement opportunities that help to forge meaningful relationships with your constituents and the community at large.

Having integrated fundraising technology can help you streamline these engagement opportunities and connect with constituents in the right way at the right time—using texting, video, and email, built-in advocacy tools, and event management software. 

With GiveCampus, you can easily text your constituents with GC Texting, send them personalized videos with GC Video, and tap volunteers to carry out peer-to-peer outreach by email, text, phone, or social media using GC Volunteer Management. And if your outreach includes an invitation to an event, you can facilitate registration and ticketing directly through GC Events and then see which outreach methods are working best.

3. Make giving easy and personal

There are two ways to solicit donors with an eye towards retention:

  • Make it easy and delightful for them to give.
  • Show them that you know them.

We all know that some people abandon the process of making a gift despite having the intention to complete that process. 

One possible underlying cause of the one-and-done donor phenomenon is that some people muscle through a less-than-stellar giving experience, and that experience takes away any willingness they might have to make another gift in the future. They say “I’ll never do that again,” and they mean it.

At GiveCampus, we’ve invested tens of thousands of hours and millions of dollars over the last nine years to make the act of giving as easy and as enjoyable as possible, because we believe this is imperative not only for acquiring donors but also for retaining them. 

With GC Giving Forms, you can provide each prospective donor with a personalized giving experience that reflects their interests and giving history and doesn’t require them to fill in a dozen fields with information you already have. And with GC Social Fundraising you can make giving more fun and inclusive—by making your asks parts of a gamified giving day or crowdfunding campaign. Finally, you can make giving easier and more personal across the board by simply accepting a variety of payment methods, including mobile wallets and crypto. With GiveCampus you can empower your donors to give from any device using their preferred payment method–whether it’s Venmo, PayPal, Apple Pay, GooglePay, or even Bitcoin.

4. Steward donors with gratitude and communicate progress

Donors want to know that they’re making a difference and the best way to do that is to thoughtfully acknowledge their gift in a timely fashion and show them how their generosity has had an impact.

According to more research conducted by Penelope Burke, 90 percent of in-memoriam donors said that a timely thank-you letter was “the single most important and influential communication” they received from nonprofits they support. In-memoriam donors, who generally skew older, aren’t the only constituents who want to be acknowledged.

Younger donors, millennials especially, care deeply about the charities they fund and how their dollars are allocated. According to a recent study by Fidelity Charitable, they view donations as “an investment in a solution to a problem they see.” Some 66 percent said they track results for most or all of the nonprofits they support. 

One of the most effective and meaningful ways to express your gratitude and demonstrate impact is through video. Platforms like GiveCampus make it easy for you to put video stewardship in the hands of students and other beneficiaries of your donors’ generosity. It literally puts a face on your mission and makes the value of an individual’s gift more tangible.

Fundraising technology can help you implement donor retention best practices in other important ways too. For example, have you ever accidentally solicited a donor who already made their gift? Mistakes happen, but asking someone to give after they already have can turn them away for good. 

GiveCampus syncs with Emma and Constant Contact to keep your email marketing lists up to date. When a donor makes a gift through the GiveCampus platform, they are automatically added to your “already-donors” list, so they stop receiving solicitation emails immediately, and start receiving personalized stewardship emails—and that’s essential to donor retention.


Over time, substantive communication like the donor retention strategies outlined above can help create situations where constituents not only make a second gift, they proactively reach out to offer your institution support rather than waiting for you to ask. This is precisely the type of dynamic that most reliably kicks off lifetimes of sustained giving and why you should view everything you do through the lens of retention.

If you’d like to learn more about how GiveCampus can help you streamline all the critical workflows that happen before and after a donor makes a gift, speak to a fundraising expert today.

Watch popular GCPC sessions—like the one that inspired this post—on demand!

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