Donor Retention

By James A. Donovan • May 1st, 2010

Three Types of Donors Today and Three Ways to Keep Them

In an informal poll of fund raising clients it was not surprising to learn that a major challenge in the current economy is donor retention.  In addition, this is the #1 question we get in emails and telephone calls each week.  Here is what we have learned from donors we have interviewed over the years, and of late, in recent studies about their continued giving.

We have classified the donors as follows:

Activists – these are younger donors, 30-40 years old who spend a lot of time getting their news from the internet and want to do something about the latest crisis somewhere around the world.  They are very emotional about earthquake victims in Haiti or China.  They thrive on the immediacy of sending their support so they click and give.  They love the online eNews updates. Traditional charities do not appeal to them.  “My parents gave to the American Red Cross,” is a typical response.

Loyalists – they are just that, loyal year after year and inclined to keep giving provided there is frequent communication to them from the organization. “We always hear about how our gifts are being used and that is important to us,” is often the way Loyalists describe their reason for being so.  Most loyalists are college and university donors, as it has been drilled into them to “give back.”

Traditionalists – are the opposite of activists, as they are not internet savvy, prefer direct mail requests and support long established American charities and nonprofits like the American Red Cross, Big Brothers & Big Sisters, The Salvation Army, UNICEF or the YMCA.  Many traditionalists served in World War II, experienced the depression, know hard times, lived in the same community for years and don’t believe there is a need for so many new nonprofit groups.  And, they don’t trust online giving.

So, how does one retain these donors?

Let me suggest three ways that cover all three categories and the rationale.

1.  Increase your communication about how the donor’s most recent gift was used, made a difference and how grateful your organization is to them for helping to meet your mission.

Why?  The number one complaint we hear in study interviews is, “I give and never hear anything back, until it’s time for another contribution.”

2.  Ask donors why they give to your organization and what they think.  When is the last time you did a mail and/or online survey?  Surveys are a great engagement tool.  They send a message when you send them out that you want to do a better job and that the input from your donors is a top priority in doing that.

When facilitating a board retreat I often conduct a pre-retreat survey to identify in advance the issues/concerns facing the board.  I get more candid opinions this way than if I did this in an open session.  In addition, it saves time at the retreat and allows me to begin with a discussion of the issues facing the organization as they see them.

Why? Look at the Five Star hotels and how over the years they have perfected this.  As many a hotel executive has told me, “We live and die by those surveys.  Some get fired over them.” Sure many folks do not take the time to complete the survey.  However, you were given the opportunity to chime in or sound off.  And if you are like me, I say to myself, “They can’t fix it if they don’t know about it — complete the survey dummy.”

3.  Tweak your case by emphasizing worthiness rather than the neediness of your organization. In this competitive and tight economy, you have to stay sharp.  Donors can drift away to organizations that appear more appealing or timely in their mission/work.  Are you tying your case to the times?  Does your organization help those most affected by the tough times?  Can you give examples?

Why?  Dozens of new nonprofits are being established every day.  A businessman who watched the evening news had an idea on how to help the poor and created the water brick.  Now he is featured on the national news demonstrating his unique plastic brick that holds water and food and when emptied serves as an actual building block to construct a home.   Check out:  When was the last time you tweaked your case AND got press coverage of it?

Finally a word about mission drift – nothing will hurt your chances of keeping the donors you’ve got more than drifting away from your mission.  Donors know that without their money you have NO mission.  Money follows mission.  Too often nonprofit groups fail to constantly communicate their mission to their constituency and in a concise way.

Regardless of how precise your mission statement, nothing enhances it more than a great theme right after it.  Of course, my all time favorite theme is from my former employer of years ago — The United Negro College Fund – A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.

If you would like us to help you keep the donors you got or engage your board more in fund raising, we would be happy to discuss a seminar with you or click on our publications at our web site.

As always, let us hear from you about this most recent Blog.

All the best for continued $ucce$$.

Jim Donovan, President, Donovan Management, Inc.


I loved the example from United Negro College Fund.
I’m wondering the best way to keep in touch with traditionalists. Any ideas?

By Jim Donovan on May 10th, 2010 at 1:57 pm


The best way is by post card mailings or personalized note cards and telephone. Avoid email and only use it if they suggest it as a way of communicating to them. Let email be “their idea” as most don’t want you contacting them this way.

Another good “touch point” is to send a news clipping you know is of interest to them. Many folks have hobbies or love a particular sport…use such occasions to drop a clipping in the mail with a hand written note, “thought you’d enjoy this”, or even a cartoon.

Also, a good way to start is with a Thank You Day…where you have volunteers call and say thank you for their support, ask if they are getting your newsletters etc. and be clear on the impact of their gift. DO NOT ask/solicit more $$$ over the phone on this call. They love this.

Hope this helps.


This is a great contribution and will definitely give a strong guideline to those who are looking for donors like us.


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