9 Ways to Build Strong Donor Relationships

Relationships are everything for a nonprofit. They're how you build strong community connections, get funding from foundations, and – most importantly – grow your number of repeat donors. But if focusing on relationship-building has your head spinning, you're not alone! Read on to learn nine ways to build stronger, long-lasting donor relationships. It's easier than you think!

7 minutes read
9 Ways to Build Strong Donor Relationships

Did you know that recurring donors give 42% more per year on average than one-time donors?

These sustaining donors are crucial to helping fundraisers scramble less. But most fundraisers aren’t sure how to get more of these sustaining donors. 

The answer is simple: build strong donor relationships. But how does one do that? If you’re not sure, read on to learn the stages of a donor relationship as well as nine ways to build up your donor relationships for more giving

What is Donor Relationship Management?

All relationships need maintenance, but donor relations require a special focus for organizations to see a return. This means that a donor relationship isn’t a one-off activity, but rather a long-term commitment to regular touch points and engagement. 

Donor relationship management refers to tracking donor outreach, preferences, gifts, and more to build a steady relationship that both donors and nonprofits can count on. Often, this practice depends on powerful donor management tools. Donorbox’s donor management features allow you to store your donor information including name, employer, contact info, and any special notes so you don’t forget anything. Plus, track donor communication – incoming and outgoing – so you never reach out too much. Get reminded of unique donor moments like the anniversary of their first gift so your targeted outreach can make even more of a difference. 

Watch this short video to learn more about Donorbox’s donor management tools! 

Stages of the Donor Relationship

Each organization can take steps to build and strengthen its donor relationships, but there are some key stages to keep in mind. As time goes on and these relationships develop, donors will have different expectations and needs. 

1. Introduction

In every relationship, there is an introduction. For nonprofits, that introduction can happen at an event, through a board member, through a volunteer or donor, at an open house, or even online. Introductions are important because you only have one chance to make a good first impression.

Unfortunately, many nonprofits do waste these opportunities because they see events, mail, and online communication as ways to raise money instead of as a chance to build new relationships. While raising money is essential, an introduction event or communication piece should quickly show people the problem and how your organization is fixing it.

Ensure that every event and communication piece sent out includes your mission – you never know when you might meet a potential long-term donor! 

2. Trust

Now that you have introduced yourself, it is essential to show that you can be trusted. Donors interested in your mission will come back and want more information. That does not mean they want to know everything about your history.

Take this stage to show how your organization makes a difference in people’s lives and how their gift can help make an impact. Share stories from your organization’s beneficiaries through newsletters and social media posts. Offer facility tours and other ways for donors to view your organization in action.

Another way to build trust is by being transparent. Communication is key during this stage, and this communication cannot be one-way. It is crucial to reach out to donors and ask them for their feedback and suggestions. Answer any questions they may have about what you do and why.

3. Decision

If you have introduced yourself, answered questions, and kept communication open and honest with potential donors, the next step will be much easier. With donors, that means asking if they would be willing to give.

You can ask for donations through letters, emails, and in person. Decide the best way to make the ask by evaluating the state of your relationship with this particular donor. 

4. Commitment

After donors give their first gift, your job as a fundraiser is not done. This is the stage where you can make or break a donor relationship. Best practices say gifts should be acknowledged within 48 hours.

Your acknowledgment should be personal and give specifics on how their gift is being used. Acknowledgments should let donors know that you cannot make a difference without their help.

Thank-you messages are crucial during this stage! They help you keep the momentum this relationship has established. 

5. Nurturing

Nurturing – otherwise known as stewardship – is the final stage of building and strengthening donor relationships. Continue to focus on two-way communication. Send personal acknowledgments for all gifts quickly and ensure donors know they continue to make a difference.

Do not ignore donors when they are not giving. Send them updates on programs and projects, including sharing your annual report. Connect with them and ask them how they want to be contacted. Send out surveys to ask for questions and suggestions.

For a more in-depth look at the steps required to cultivate donors, check out this article

Why Donor Relations Are So Important

When asking for large gifts from major donors, most fundraisers have done their research and made an effort to build a relationship before asking for a gift. The idea of building a relationship when asking for large amounts is obvious, but few nonprofits think of it when asking for donations from all donors.

Building relationships should be done with each donor, just on a different level. Whether you are asking someone for thousands of dollars, an event ticket purchase, or to buy a product, the ask is easier if you know and understand your donor.

Donor relations are important because you never know how each donor will give and how their gifts will develop. A donor who gives $100 a year could end up leaving a significant amount to the organization in their will. A volunteer could introduce the organization to several large donors and sponsorship opportunities. Organizations that do not work to strengthen donor relationships will never benefit from these gifts.

Acknowledging gifts, preparing reports, and recognizing donors are essential steps to building donor relationships. Through these actions, and by creating a culture of donor appreciation and relationship building in your nonprofit, your organization will watch gifts grow.

9 Ways to Build Strong Donor Relationships

1. Prospect donors

Prospecting donors is the first step in donor cultivation. When searching for major donors, organizations use many tools to find them. Online tools like DonorSearch help nonprofits find donors with the financial ability to become major donors. Other options include using board members and donors to introduce your organization to potential donors who have the capacity to give more. 

Once you have developed your list of potential donors, it is time for the introduction stage. Remember, it is essential to make a strong first impression. Keep it simple. Explain the problem and how your organization is solving it.

2. Segment donors

Segmentation is the key to personalized communication – and personalized communication is the key to building better donor relationships. Separating your donors into different lists by factors such as gift amount, location, age, and more helps you target your communication and avoid overwhelming any one group with outreach that isn’t suitable for them. 

Donorbox donor management makes it easy to sort your donor data with a variety of filters. You can also use Donorbox’s reporting templates to pull more detailed data. 

Screenshot showing the filters you can apply to your donor data through Donorbox's donor management tools.

3. Set a cadence for communication

After segmenting your donors, your nonprofit should determine goals for donor communication before sending out communication pieces. What is your goal for each communication piece? How often should you send it out? How do donors want to hear about your organization?

When sending out communication pieces, remember to keep it simple and target donors with communication that speaks to their desires and segmentation. Donorbox’s Moments feature allows you to create automatic notifications for each donor to make this process easier. 

Pro tip: Not every communication should include an ask. Sometimes, you’ll want to just share some exciting news. Content marketing is a good practice for some nonprofits, too. This type of entertainment or education-based outreach can help you build stronger relationships with your donors. 

4. Encourage face-to-face interactions

Nonprofits have come to rely on mail and online communication tools. Many nonprofits only interact with their donors during annual events. This lack of face-to-face contact makes for very shallow relationships.

When planning your communication with donors, personal and face-to-face activities should be based on donor segmentation. Nonprofits are burdened with lower budgets and limited staff. Meeting each donor face-to-face is not possible.

What organizations can do is decide how each donor can receive personalized communication from the nonprofit. Organizations should always take the time to meet with major donors and those who have the potential to become major donors. Meet with these individuals to discuss the programs that may interest them and find ways they would like to help. Just be sure to follow up with a thank-you note

Group of donors meeting nonprofit staff.

Mid-level and smaller donors can be contacted by phone or through personalized letters. This is a great way to get your board involved in donor relationships. Ask your board members to take part in making calls to donors after they give. Let them learn more about the donors and share their personal stories to provide interest.

Pro tip: Host a donor appreciation event for a chance to meet more of your donors in person. Learn more in this blog! 

5. Show donor impact

Another way to send out personalized communication is by sharing stories from individuals impacted by your donors’ gifts. Donors love to hear how their donations have affected real people on the ground. Creating an impact report is a great way to demonstrate this. 

Donors will give more to nonprofits where their gifts are making a difference. Sending donors acknowledgments, newsletters, emails, and online communication from the organization’s beneficiaries give donors a sense of community and pride in what they have done.

6. Thank donors

It may seem obvious, but a crucial step in building strong donor relationships is showing gratitude. Get creative! Host a thank-a-thon, send thank-you videos, and make those personal connections that will lead to more donations in the future. 

A donor wall, whether online or in person, is another great way to showcase and thank your donors. 

Don’t skip this step! Gratitude helps donors understand how their donation matters – which is one of the main reasons people donate

7. Survey donors

When was the last time you had a successful relationship that was entirely one-sided? Probably never. The same is true for donor relationships! You can’t always be the one talking – sometimes you need to listen. 

Surveying donors is a great opportunity to build stronger relationships while getting useful feedback to make your organization’s outreach even better. 

8. Act on donor feedback

When donors do respond to your surveys, be sure to act on that feedback. If there are good ideas from donors or volunteers, put them into action and give credit where credit is due. Donors love to know they are being listened to.

This will help you build better relationships with any new donors, too! 

9. Monitor donor retention rates

Finally, as more donations come flowing in, your nonprofit needs to keep track of donor retention rates. Donors that continue to give are a great success. It means your organization is communicating successfully! 

We have a donor retention calculator that makes it easy to calculate your retention rate. 

Measuring donor retention will give you a better idea of what is working. Measure your event attendance, volunteer retention, email click-through rates, and website visits in addition to donor gifts. All of this data will paint a fuller picture of your 

Focus on Donors over Donations

Stop spending so much time chasing new one-time donors and redirect some of your energy into building solid donor relationships. These strong relationships will bring more value to your organization over time, both in terms of more donations and in other useful areas like feedback and advocacy. 

Donorbox’s donor management tools help you with every step of your donor relationship. From the first donation, rest assured that your donors receive a tax-compliant receipt that you can customize with a thank-you message. Then you can track interactions with your donors, from thank-you notes to newsletters and inbound communication. Get reminders of the best times to reach out with unique Moments. And sort your donor data for more targeted outreach so you can craft the perfect communication strategy. 

For more ways to strengthen donor relations, visit the Nonprofit Blog. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive a monthly collection of blog content delivered to your inbox. 

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Kristine Ensor is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience working with local and international nonprofits. As a nonprofit professional she has specialized in fundraising, marketing, event planning, volunteer management, and board development.

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