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How to use nonprofit email marketing to improve donor retention

Nonprofit Email Marketing

Things don’t look good.

According to recent data, nonprofits are not successful at retaining donors.

Donor retention rates have stagnated at 46% for the last two years.

That means only 46% of donors are giving to the same organization two years in a row.

We put a lot of effort into finding new donors. We seem to have a knack for convincing new prospects to make their first donation.

But keeping them engaged?

Building a relationship with them?

Turning them into life-long raving fans and supporters of our work?

Here, we seem to struggle.

Why is that? And what can we do about it?

Below I want to discuss why donor retention is so critical for nonprofits and I want to provide some concrete ideas on how you can use your email marketing to turn one-time donors into lifelong supporters.

The impact of a strong donor retention program

There are two main reasons why you should focus your efforts on developing a strong donor retention program.

First, it is much cheaper to obtain a second donation from someone who has already donated than it is to try to convince a new prospect to make their first donation.

This means that even if the first time donor and the new prospect donate the same amount to your organization, the return on investment is higher for the retained donor’s donation.

In short, you spend less to get more.

Not only does your income increase, but your expenses drop.

In the nonprofit world where demands for services are high while resources are extremely limited any chance you get to earn more for less requires action.

The second reason you need a strong donor retention program is that having one in place means you can better plan for the future.

The surest way to build sustainable funding for your nonprofit is by cultivating donors to become raving fans of your organization who want to give their support year after year after year.

The more retained donors you have every year the larger your donor base becomes. This growth is more sustainable and will allow you to expand operations and improve the quality and reach of your work.

It’s abundantly clear. A strong donor retention program is a basic requirement for a financially healthy nonprofit organization.

Let’s take a look at how your email marketing can help…

The starting point for your donor retention based email marketing

The first question you should always ask when turning to email marketing to help with donor retention is:

“What do our first-time donors want?”

The answer to this question will lay the foundation for your email messaging.

One of the most often discussed needs of the donor is to feel appreciation for their gift.

This provides a good starting point for your email marketing donor retention program.

But many nonprofits already try to show their appreciation by sending thank you notes.

And there is plenty of evidence that this makes a significant difference in retention and future gift amounts.

Yet these thank you notes alone are not getting the job done.



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The long road of appreciation

Most donors don’t actually demand appreciation. Most will say they don’t expect special recognition at all.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make it a priority.

Why? Because we want them to want to continue their relationship with us.

Even though they may not demand it, when you show them sincere appreciation it makes them feel special. It makes them feel important.

And they are important.

Regardless of the size of their donation, they made an effort to support our cause. Our goal now should be to turn them into lifelong supporters.

This starts with appreciation.

The first step to making them feel appreciated is to say ‘thank you.’

But that’s all it is, the first step.

Appreciation is not a one-and-done thing. Appreciation must be a continuous process. It should be ongoing.

There must be a shift in how you communicate with them. There is, after all, a shift in the relationship.

They have gone from potential prospect to donor. This is a big deal. And if we don’t appreciate it, then we won’t keep them as donors.

So how can you continuously show them this appreciation?

Continuous appreciation in nonprofit email marketing

The first thing you should do is segment them as soon as they make their first donation.

Immediately separate them from the rest of your prospect list and create a series of email messages that are sent only to first-time donors.

Improve donor retention with nonprofit email marketing

Let them know they are on a special list.

Let them know that being on this list gives them access to exclusive content shared only with first-time donors.

Being on this exclusive list is a way to make them feel appreciated. You are acknowledging that their relationship with you has changed and that it is important.

They are no longer receiving emails meant for the masses. They’re receiving emails because of their status as first-time donor to your organization.

This may seem small and trivial, but it’s actually a big deal.

It makes your first-time donors feel special because they are on an exclusive list receiving exclusive content.

It also creates a path for you to continuously show them appreciation and to continuously reach out to people who have made only one donation.

Now you can develop a series of emails sent out over time with exclusive content that is designed to move them from first-time donor to repeat donor.

The ‘big gesture’

Here are some ideas of the content I would provide to first-time donors on your segmented email list.

Start with ‘thank you.’

The first automated message sent to your first-time donor should be a ‘big gesture’ thank you note.

What do I mean by ‘big gesture?’ There is plenty of room for your own creativity here, but it should be more than just the typed words, ‘thank you.’

In addition to the typed words, ‘thank you,’ you can use pictures of your beneficiaries or your team. Or you can send them videos or free downloads all as a way to make a big gesture that shows genuine appreciation.

And keep in mind it should be something your donor actually wants.

Do not look at this from your perspective. Put yourself in their shoes and ask what they would perceive as a big gesture from your organization.

Think about your context. Who would your donor want to hear from the most? Who would they want to see? Whose appearance would make them feel important and appreciated?

Exclusive content

Use this segmented email list to create a series of exclusive content that you send only to first-time donors.

Again, there is plenty of room for your own creativity here, but the idea is that now that they’ve made their first donation, you want to give them an inside look at things.

Take them behind the scenes of your organization. Give them more personal introductions of your team. Introduce them to a few of your beneficiaries with powerful stories.

Giving them access to information they didn’t have before will continue to make them feel important and they will also develop a better understanding of how much you appreciate them.

Make sure you are explicit about why they are getting access to this material. Remind them that you only send this information to your community of donors.

Continuously remind them they are special and that you are treating them differently because of the significance of their relationship with your nonprofit.

Then, when they make their second donation, segment them again. Start them on a new list that gives them exclusive content meant only for repeat donors.

Once you shower them with appreciation and show them that you treat donors differently, they will want to keep making donations.

Especially if you continue to show them the impact of their donations on your beneficiaries.

Automate the system

Sound overwhelming

It’s not.

This can all be automated.

That means you only have to write your email messages once, then you can load them into your autoresponder software and let your email marketing software do all the work.

You only have to create this system once, then set it on auto-pilot and watch your donor retention rates increase.

If you’re not sure how to automate all of this check out my ENGAGE: nonprofit email marketing program.

This is the most comprehensive nonprofit email marketing training program available.

Keep doing good work,
Jeremy Signature



2 comments… add one
  • Alicea

    Hi Jeremy,
    Thanks for your insightful post! What would you suggest if your donor population prefers not to receive email and for the most part, won’t provide their email address?

  • Hi Alicea,
    Great question! Your donor retention strategy should also plan for donors that do not give an email address. Will they give you their mailing address? Their phone number? You can still say thank you and make ‘big gestures’ with other means of communication.

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