How to Engage With Your Donors: Donor Engagement Cycle

Keeping your donors engaged in your nonprofit's work, mission, and fundraising efforts requires a thorough strategy. This guide will get you started with proven steps and tips. Keep reading!

9 minutes read
How to Engage With Your Donors: Donor Engagement Cycle

Whether you are a newbie in fundraising or a seasoned expert, you probably know that the key to successful fundraising lies in building relationships with donors.

When a donor is engaged with a nonprofit organization, they are much more likely to donate again and again (and give in other ways too).

What is a donor cycle?

A donor cycle is a vital approach to build a close-knit relationship with donors so that they are more likely to donate again. It also helps to strengthen the donor relationship and try to align their values and interests to the nonprofit’s vision and mission.

The end goal of the donor cycle is to build a personal relationship with the donor that will ultimately lead to continued financial support for your nonprofit organization.

donor engagement

What is donor engagement?

Beyond the practices, donor engagement is an ‘organizational mindset’. It’s a philosophy; a way of organizational living; a way in which your fundraising department and your nonprofit organization interact with donors.

It’s about going above and beyond simply securing a contribution/donation—and instead becomes a mindset that permeates and drives every aspect of fundraising.

While there’s no universally accepted donor engagement cycle, most frameworks highlight cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship as important parts of any donor engagement cycle.

Note: These three stages are a rule of thumb. For best results, take the time to develop a customized donor engagement cycle that will reflect the unique circumstances of your fundraising and your nonprofit organization. You might end up with seven stages and none of the ones mentioned – and that’s okay.

Furthermore, in their article, “The Permanent Disruption of Social Media” (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter, 2013), Ms. Dixon and Ms. Keyes provide five characteristics of a successful donor engagement model:

  • Allows for a donor to be engaged at different entry points and to move easily between them during the life cycle of her engagement
  • Has no fixed endpoint for a donor’s engagement
  • Allows for the donor-engagement footprint to expand or contract in ways that are unique to and driven by the individual donor
  • Places the donor’s needs – not the organization’s – at the center of the engagement
  • Accounts for the influence of other people on the strength of the donor-organization relationship.

Here’s a useful webinar on how to attract, engage, and retain more donors through specific CAREpoints. Every relationship depends on certain points of care; then why not that with your donors? Watch this thorough video to understand what it takes to gain and engage donors, and make them stay.

1. Cultivation

You don’t simply ask for $5,000 from a prospect with no prior contact. You have to get to know the donor, and the donor has to get to know you and your nonprofit.

Donor cultivation is all about building or growing a relationship with your donor or prospect. During this stage, you usually get to know your donor (prospect) better and start sharing more about the work your organization does. This is when the prospect potentially hears about your organization for the first time.

Each touchpoint during cultivation represents a foundational building block of your donor engagement cycle, providing a broad base of donor interest, engagement and trust, culminating (ideally) in a donation to your nonprofit organization.

2. Solicitation

Solicitation is at the center of the donor acquisition process. It’s the point at which a prospect becomes a donor. Solicitation can take many shapes and forms.

For example, asking for contribution in person is most commonly used for:

  • Major gift donors
  • Potential planned giving donors
  • Local businesses
  • Larger corporations

Solicitation can also happen on the phone, on social media, via direct mail, and more.

3. Stewardship

Stewardship is the process that occurs once a donor has given to your organization. Specifically, stewardship refers to the relationship-building and communications that take place after a gift has been received.

This stage is as important as the solicitation/asking stage. Donors want to feel appreciated, so it’s essential that you continue the relationship after they make the gift. This can be done by sending a newsletter, making a phone call, or inviting a donor to an event.

Why is the donor engagement cycle important?

According to a 2018 study from The Growth in Giving Initiative, the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, the average growth rate is 3.9 percent. Alternatively, in order to double your giving rate in five years, this number has to reach 14.9 percent. The least expensive solution for your organization is to control the donor to shrink through the development of donor retention plans.

Focusing on the donor engagement cycle also lets everyone— board, staff, volunteers, donors—get engaged and participate in fundraising and nurturing relationships with donors.

If you want to develop a fundraising culture throughout your organization, this is a great way to start.


How Can Nonprofits Successfully Engage Donors?

1. Nurture and Engage Donor Segments

With modern fundraising and e-mail marketing tools, there’s no reason why your nonprofit should be applying a one-size-fits-all approach to your donor engagement strategy, tactics, and activities.

Consistently collect contact information by, for example, inviting people to sign up for the email list on your website or collect registration information at events that you host.

Then, use this information to send relevant, personalized communication to each donor segment. Your acknowledgments and solicitations should speak to people in different ways.

Understanding how each major donor segment wants to engage with your organization will help you build much stronger relationships that you will be able to sustain over time.

2. Engage in Conversations

During all stages of the donor engagement cycle, be sure to engage your prospect or donor in conversations. A general rule of thumb is that you should be speaking 25% to 50% of the time while your donor talks 50% to 75% of the time.

Share information with your donor while simultaneously gathering information about your donor’s interests and motivations. Listening and learning from your donors is a sure way to progress!

If you’re not sure what your donors want and don’t want from you, this is especially important. Include in your donor engagement plan one or two annual surveys asking for donor input on the giving experience and your programs. Survey results provide valuable insight for shaping your cultivation and stewardship activities.

Pro tip: Focus on what the donor has accomplished with their donation. The word “you” should appear at least twice as much as “we.”

3. Hire a Donor Engagement Officer

As you start to create your donor engagement plan, you might realize that you need someone to lead your donor engagement initiatives. That’s where a staff member dedicated to donor engagement might come in handy!

A dedicated donor engagement officer might be able to take your donor engagement strategy to a new level by creating a donor engagement plan, identifying donor segments, nurturing major donors, leading fundraising staff members, and developing a solicitation and stewardship strategy.

You also want to move toward a broader conversation among your whole staff, board, and volunteers. Have quarterly discussions at staff meetings and board retreats to explore the issue of donor engagement. You could also invite a few donors to visit with you during one of those meetings every now and then.

4. Create a Donor Engagement Plan

A donor engagement plan should be guided by your donor segmentation, your mission and vision, and any fundraising campaigns you have planned. You don’t, for instance, want to overlap an ask with another important fundraising campaign scheduled for that time.

Your donor engagement plan can help you create you fewer, targeted communications and engagement opportunities that have an impact.

Include the vision and goals for your donor engagement. Plan outreach or communications (such as holiday cards) you’ll send to donors. You’ll want to inform them about the status of your mission and the impact of their support without asking for donations.

How to Engage With Donors

5. Don’t Only Ask

As pointed out earlier, the donor engagement cycle is all about going beyond the ask/solicitation.

To make sure that happens, consider organizing a non-ask event, an introductory meeting or a tour of your facility/program location. It is a chance for the donor to hear about your mission, your work, and your successes.

Such initiatives also make your donors feel like they’re more than just their wallets and set a foundation for a successful donor engagement cycle.

Invite prospects, who have already gotten to know your nonprofit, to get involved beyond making a donation or instead of making a donation. You could ask them for either their time (as volunteers) or for their advice and ideas.

Most prospects that you call after an introductory meeting or tour will expect you to ask them for money and will be pleasantly surprised to hear you ask for something else.

6. Get Active on Social Media

Social media has rapidly grown from being a millennial pastime to an essential component of any nonprofit’s marketing strategy.

Whichever platform you choose to share content on, it should be relevant to your mission and your audience, and it should add value.

Make attractive, shareable posts for social media. A key part of any successful social media strategy is a mix of engaging posts and conversation starters (instead of a stream of donation appeals). Dedicate a major chunk of your social media strategy to recognizing donors, fundraisers, and volunteers.

Showcase your organization’s work through videos, infographics, impact stories, testimonials, and blog posts. Include a link back to your website.

donor engagement cycle

7. Make the Email and Phone Your Best Friends

Phone calls are as personal as it gets when it comes to donor engagement. If done well, donors will feel valued and respected. Furthermore, with phone solicitation, gifts are often large.

They can help increase your current donor base and increase the average size of your gifts, get lapsed donors back on board, improve retention, convert donors to monthly donors, and more. If you choose to solicit and/or cultivate donors over the phone, ensure your fundraisers are well-prepared, skilled, enthusiastic about your organization, and willing to make the ask.

Study after study puts email marketing as the most effective way for nonprofits to build awareness, acquire leads, raise funds, and retain current donors.

8. Create a System for Recognition

Thanking donors not only encourages the existing donors to keep giving but it shows you care about your supporters.

When it comes to recognizing your donors, a strong system will ensure that no donor goes unappreciated.

For example, you could schedule donor ‘thank you’ phone calls into your team’s calendar every week or organize a thank-a-thon, an office “donor calling” event where you can spend a whole day calling donors to thank them.

You could incorporate major donors’  names into print publications, such as event brochures or your annual report.

Consider writing “thank you” letters by hand if your donor base is small and you need to grow it or go all in and organize a gala evening, or a simple cocktail party, or a wine tasting event. The options are endless!

How to Engage With Donors

9. Make Sure Your Technology is Up To Speed

If you want to keep your donors giving and engaged, you should be on top of everything digital.

According to a survey by Target Analytics, many donors (47%) were turned off by usability problems relating to page and site design, including unintuitive information architecture, cluttered pages, and problems related to payments. Today’s online donors expect smooth, sleek, mobile-optimized, and efficient websites.

Today’s online donors also expect an easy and smooth donation process. This is why choosing a powerful and effective donation software for your nonprofit is essential.

Payment processing is a crucial part of the Donor Journey of an online donor.

A donation software takes care of the entire process for you: the donation form, collecting donor information, processing the donation and making sure it reaches your nonprofit’s bank account.

Donorbox is a powerful donation plugin that is very simple and fast to set up. Its simple and effective checkout is optimized for recurring donations. It only takes a couple of minutes for you to start accepting donation payments. Over 30,000 organizations from 25 countries use Donorbox fundraising software.

Donorbox is free to start with and offers simple and beautiful donation forms that today’s donors appreciate (charging 1.5% as platform fees). It’s also secure – using Stripe’s secure token mechanism.

Donorbox also offers multiple payment gateways, which is essential for the next generation of online donors.

It’s optimized for recurring donations and automated actions.

10. Measure Donor Engagement

It’s vital that you have a donor database that can capture and visualize your donors along with relevant data – allowing your fundraising team to take appropriate action.

Below are some examples of potential donor engagement signals that Bloomerang suggests fundraisers should be on the lookout for:

  • Recency/pattern of giving
  • Years given
  • Cash/check donor
  • ACH/credit card on file
  • Recent upgrade or downgrade
  • Lapsed
  • Events attended
  • Hours volunteered
  • Has soft credits
  • Has stated communication preference
  • Responds to a survey
  • Website visits
  • Subscribes to emails
  • Opens emails
  • Clicks emails
  • Unsubscribe from emails
  • Follows on social media
  • Interacts on social media

Naturally, it’s important to go into measuring donor engagement with a clear goal, knowing exactly what type of engagement you’re looking for. Are you wanting to improve your newsletter open rate or maybe you would like to see more of your followers liking and sharing on social media? Whatever your objectives are, clarity will help you get the results you want.

How to Engage With Donors

Moving Forward

You’re never finished nurturing a donor. As donors become more engaged with your organization, they continue to be upgraded, whether that’s in their giving, involvement, advocacy, fundraising, or volunteering.

Furthermore, while donor engagement most certainly pays off (it’s cheaper to retain a donor than to acquire a new one) – financial gain shouldn’t be the only goal of donor engagement.

If you’re just trying to keep donors from lapsing or trying to get them to give again, you’re potentially missing out on the value and essence of the entire donor engagement cycle.

Don’t forget to share simple but compelling stories with your donors to bring your mission to life

By using these guidelines and tips, you’ll not only better be able to tailor your donor solicitation and engagement to their personal preferences, but you’ll also show them you truly want to build a relationship with them. And people give to people.

Choose Donorbox as your donation system and check out our Nonprofit blog for more nonprofit resources and tips.

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Raviraj heads the sales and marketing team at Donorbox. His growth-hacking abilities have helped Donorbox boost fundraising efforts for thousands of nonprofit organizations.

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