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Donor Engagement - Best Practices for Keeping Donors Engaged

The bucket is leaking.

And the dream of a seemingly infinite pool of new donors is just that – a dream.

For nonprofit professionals, donor retention is probably one of the most difficult tasks at hand. 

And donor retention pivots on donor engagement.

The good news is that every nonprofit organization has within its power the ability to hold on to donors and move them to higher levels of commitment and loyalty.

But this is not always easy.

This is why we assembled a list of insights and best practices you can use to engage your donors and keep them involved with your mission:

  1. Start by shifting your mindset
  2. Personalize until you can’t personalize anymore
  3. Say thank you, and say it a lot
  4. Make social media your friend
  5. Host interactive events
  6. Give them ways to get involved
  7. Make it easy for donors to give
  8. Leverage data to further engage your donors
  9. Don’t forget about the email
  10. Create a branded donor program
  11. Engage frequently

What is Donor Engagement?

Donor engagement has become quite a buzzword, but it seems like the term is actually a placeholder for something that many of us can’t quite define.

Let’s consider two definitions for the word engage:

  • to hold the attention of
  • to induce to participate

Essentially, donor engagement is about “inducing” donors to participate in the work that we do in an authentic way.

Engaged donors stay in touch with your organization, leading not just to a financial contribution, but raised awareness as they spread the word about your mission amongst family and friends.

Why is Donor Engagement Important?

Today, because of the increasingly leaky bucket of diminishing donor retention, the cost of replacing lost donors with new donors has grown so great that it is no longer affordable for many nonprofits.

This means that securing donations from returning donors is less expensive than soliciting donations from first-time donors.

Essentially…

Donor retention is the new donor acquisition.

Committed and loyal donors are the engines driving virtually all nonprofits. Good engagement and retention rates are also indicators of a healthy nonprofit. 

Donors are likely to give again and give more if they feel acknowledged and if they believe an organization is well-run, effective, and, most importantly, that their gift makes a difference.

How to Measure Donor Engagement?

Measuring donor engagement doesn’t have to be complicated. First, determine and then stay aware of donor engagement KPIs and signals. This will allow you to adjust your course and take appropriate action.

Some examples of donor engagement KPIs and signals:

  • Email open rates
  • Recency/pattern/length of giving
  • Social media followers on your organization’s accounts
  • Social media engagement on your organization’s accounts
  • Number of emails sent vs donations received
  • Recent upgrade or downgrade
  • Lapsed
  • Events attended
  • Hours volunteered
  • Responds to a survey
  • Website visits
  • Opens/clicks/unsubscribes emails

Strategies for Donor Engagement - Best Practices for Keeping Donors Engaged

1. Start by shifting your mindset

It may seem obvious, but to engage donors you must first want to sincerely have involved donors. Instead of looking at donor engagement as just another thing to do or as yet another way to raise more funds, look at it as a way to partner with your donors to make a bigger impact.

You need to want to have a genuine two-way relationship with your donors. And then it just happens so that donors who are more involved become more personally invested in the success of the organization and more likely to give more money.

Make a conscious decision to mobilize your donors around your mission – not only through fundraising but also through other actions that involve the donor.

Move away from the culture of immediate payoffs and instant gratification that we have all become accustomed to. When we hear about the $220 million raised via the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS, we all suddenly want to jump on the ‘challenge’ bandwagon and solve all of our fundraising problems.

The truth, however, is that sustainable fundraising is a process of nurturing and cultivation. Committed and loyal donors are made, not born.

2. Personalize until you can’t personalize anymore


Source: Abila Donor Engagement Study

In an ideal world, you’d be in a close, personal relationship with every single one of your donors and supporters. As that’s virtually impossible for most nonprofit organizations, the next best thing you can do is personalize your outreach.

To do that, as much as possible, every aspect of your audience and your interactions with them should be tracked and measured. Track how new donors come to give to your nonprofit, as well as the channels through which your existing ones keep in touch.

Break down your audience into demographics or segments – this information will help you better understand your donors’ preferences. Then, tailor your communications to each segment. For example, choose the channels they prefer, whether that’s email, social media, or even direct mail.

Take the time to understand your audience’s motivations. For example, maybe your donors are motivated by the community. In that case, give your donors lots of ways to share their donations and involvement with their friends, through social media or in person.

Pro tip: Understanding generational difference (see the image by Abila below) still plays a key role in donor engagement. For example, older donors tend to give more money. And, they also tend to support more organizations. Different generations also have different motivations for giving, give to different types of organizations, and have different communication preferences.

Source: Abila Donor Engagement Study

3. Say thank you, and say it a lot

Saying thank you is fundamental. And there are plenty of ways to say “thank you”!

You can phone your donors to express gratitude, send a handwritten note or a thoughtful email or video. A simple “thank you” goes a long way and is essential for building loyalty and trust.

Donors want to know that their gifts are received and acknowledged. Be authentic when saying thank you, and don’t make another ask when doing so. If you’re working with a limited budget –  don’t get stuck with the idea that your “thank you” has to be a professionally produced video. Filming in your office on your phone is great too if that’s how you can genuinely and authentically thank your donors at that moment.

Stewarding donors in this way will eventually lead to a more comfortable ‘ask’ in the future. But first, it’s important to let the donor know that their gift is appreciated by your organization. The better the donor feels about making a gift and the more they see the impact of their donation, the higher the chance of further engagement. Donors who are solely targeted for financial requests and who feel like they are seen only for their wallets tend to disengage rather quickly.

Pro tip: When saying “thank you”, focus on sharing donor impact. Donors want to know their gifts are put to good use.

Extra pro tip: Some fundraising experts recommend a minimum of 12 “touches” with donors per year. Touches can be simple calls, letters, hand-written notes, or gifts – sometimes simply saying “Hey, just wanted you to know that we’re thinking about you,” “Happy birthday,” or “Happy Valentine’s”.

4. Make social media your friend

If your nonprofit organization isn’t already active on social media, now is the perfect time to start. Social media provides an easy way to stay engaged with existing and prospective donors.

Posting on the different social media platforms is a free and easy way to keep your mission in front of your donors’ minds.

Furthermore, using paid promotions can allow you to reach the newsfeeds of target audiences or demographics that might not otherwise have seen your content.

Here are a few ways to engage donors on social media:

Use multimedia tools to create refreshing content

Take time to create diverse content to tell your stories. In other words, move beyond text to communicate your impact. This gives you the opportunity to reach a wider audience while keeping your existing donors engaged. For example, make a short video with captions, try live video or use tools like Canva or Piktochart to break down statistics and convey possibilities of reach and impact.

Take a collaborative approach to social media

Ask your supporters to share their stories directly. Their updates, letters, photos, and videos will say a lot more about you than a donor appreciation post you write yourself (although those are important too).

Be social

Social media is social. Don’t just blast updates at people. Users expect organizations to be more “social” than that. Set up time on your calendar to check your organization’s social media profiles and respond to comments. Furthermore, the best way to increase the percentage of fans who see your update is to get people to interact with your post. The more interactions an update gets, the more likely the platform will recognize the update as engaging and push it into more people’s newsfeeds.

5. Host interactive events

Interacting with donors face-to-face is one of the surefire ways to boost donor engagement. 

Host an in-person event that will allow your supporters to come together, enjoy, and support your nonprofit -- all at the same time.

However, since we’re facing a worldwide pandemic, chances are you’ve had to reimagine your event strategy for the year.

But, even with in-person events canceled or restricted, you can use technology to run your event. Virtual events also make it very easy to receive online donations, and it’s simple to gather relevant data to analyze their performance.

While fundraising events (virtual or not) can be highly effective, to boost donor engagement -- instead of a fundraiser, consider putting together a donor appreciation event.

Meeting your donors and not asking for more money is a great way to convey your gratitude and engage your donors.

For example, you might invite your donors to tour your offices, go on a hike with you, join a quiz, or a yoga session. Whatever makes sense for your audience and your brand!

Here’s what motivates donors to attend events:

Source: Abila Donor Engagement Study

6. Give them ways to get involved

Invite donors to engage with your organization in ways that don’t always include a monetary gift.

It might seem too self-evident, but if you want your donors to be engaged, you need to provide them with opportunities to do that.

For example, you might create a group or a chat on social media where supporters can talk, receive news from your nonprofit, and ask questions. Maybe you even want to host volunteer or supporter events or meetups.

Ask your donors for their guidance and opinions. Donor engagement hinges on the act of truly listening to your donors. Ask your donors what they think about your programs. If you’re struggling with a program or can’t reach a specific group of beneficiaries, ask for their opinions and advice. Send out surveys, organize informal focus groups, and new donor “onboarding” sessions.

If you’re using social media like Facebook or Youtube, asking donors to like and share your posts helps a lot in promoting your cause.

Maybe you can even start up a donor advisory board of supporters willing to answer a few questions each month or put together a donor listening team that you can ask for help and feedback.

7. Make it easy for donors to give

The generosity of your donors is what keeps your doors open. To ensure that each donation has the greatest possible impact, seek to make the donation process as seamless as possible. This will magnify the impact of donors’ gifts with minimal effort on your part.

To make the donation process as easy as possible for your donors:

  • Invest in a robust and effective online fundraising software that will allow you to set up donation pages on your website, receive and process donations online, automate donation receipts, and capture vital donor information.
  • Ensure donors can give in multiple ways.
  • Ensure your donation forms are well-designed, and it’s easy for donors to give in just a few steps.
  • Make sure any and all "Donate" buttons on your website are visible and work seamlessly.
  • Provide a matching gift integration so that donors can search for matching gift programs.
  • Process gifts quickly. When you receive a gift, immediately confirm that the donation has been received.


Pro tip: Optimize your website to provide maximum value to donors. Well-designed sites that offer organized information, clear navigation, and mobile-responsive layouts are the most useful and appreciated. Also create a blog on which you share updates, thought pieces, and relevant posts with your community.

8. Leverage data to further engage your donors

Collecting and analyzing donor data is a must for any modern nonprofit.

When you have relevant data (and enough of it), it becomes simple to go through donor information and then use that information to increase engagement among your donors.

Here’s how you can use donor data to engage your supporters: 

  • Invest in a good customer relationship manager (CRM) tech. A sturdy CRM solution can gather and track all of your donor data so you can focus more on engaging your supporters. Salesforce is the world’s #1 CRM, it’s highly customizable and it’s free for up to 10 subscriptions for eligible nonprofits. If you’re future-proofing and taking into account the long-term growth of your organization, Salesforce NPSP would likely be your CRM of choice. GiveForms integration to Salesforce is free. There are no monthly, installation, or additional user fees.
  • Personalize your outreach. Personalize your approach to each donor segment. Create donor segments based on gift amounts, gifts frequency, events attended, hours volunteered, and more. When donors receive personalized communication, they feel more valued and appreciated.
  • Automate your donor outreach. Use a marketing solution to automate some of your donor outreach. This, together with your CRM, will ensure you make the most of your donor communications.

With the right data, you should have an at-a-glance view of an individual constituent’s engagement level (these levels could be, for example, measured in “cold,” “warm,” “hot,” and “on fire”).

If you are having issues with data, you might want to take a step back and take a breather. Look at your current data strategy. Is information difficult to find? Are you missing some information? Is there a system in place to easily collect and organize information? Are you personalizing your communications with your donors? How much time do you spend collecting and analyzing data? Do you think it works?

9. Don’t forget about the email

Engaging donors on social media is important, but email still reigns when it comes to donor engagement.

On social media, anyone can follow you -- even if they don’t know much about your work and aren’t very passionate about your cause. With email, however, someone’s actively made a choice to receive your content. This usually means they’re more interested in the work that you do, so they are also more likely to support it.

Sending an e-newsletter helps drive traffic to your website, brings in potential donors, keeps your supporters engaged with your mission, and also updates supporters on what’s happening with your organization.

However, move away from one-size-fits-all newsletters. Lose the generic, jargon-filled newsletter. Instead, focus on creating short, personalized, e-newsletters that add value, center on the donor, and highlight stories of impact.

Pro tip: Always offer options to change preferences or unsubscribe.

According to Donor Loyalty Study | A Deep Dive into Donor Behaviors and Attitudes by Abila, here’s the type of content donors like seeing:

Source: Abila Donor Engagement Study

10. Create a branded donor program

Every organization has its loyal donors, its champions. These donors are usually long-standing, keen supporters of your cause that have cared for you through annual and planned gifts, major gifts, have raised funds on your behalf, and more.

While it’s important to take care of all donors, regardless of the size or frequency of their gifts, your most loyal supporters deserve a bit of extra care.

Name and brand the membership program for your top supporters, and build in plenty of engagement opportunities.

For example:

  • Send a newsletter exclusive to your members
  • Host member-only events
  • Give special tickets to your events
  • Provide networking opportunities
  • Send branded gifts

11. Engage frequently

… but not too frequently!

Finding this balance between too much and too little communication with donors can be frustrating and difficult.

For example, for the most part, donors like communication from the organizations they support on a monthly or quarterly basis (52 percent), although Millennials are more comfortable with (and more accustomed to) more frequent communication.

Source: Abila Donor Engagement Study

Make your messaging human-centered

Compelling storytelling is key to getting new donors to engage with your work. Tell real stories of impact. Stories provide donors with a powerful emotional and social incentive to give.

Strike the right balance between emotions and facts

That is, make sure your donors are reminded of the human and the emotional but don't go overboard with emotion. In addition to that, provide context, data, and actionable information when possible.

Now What?

Leverage donor data and stay connected with your donors. Show gratitude, invite them to engage in other ways than donating, show them why they matter, and get to know them on a more personal level. 

Engage with your donors authentically and honestly. No random tote bags or fake fundraising deadlines. Take the time to deeply understand why the donor supports you and deliver on their expectations. Ask and listen to their feedback and input.

Start seeing a donation as a part of a relationship, not a one-off business transaction. This way you begin to deepen relationships with people that support what you do, rather than just treating them as nameless public or ‘donors’.

GiveForms lets you create a seamless donation experience for your donors, starting off this relationship on the right foot. Use GiveForms to embed a donation form on your website, allowing visitors to donate using a credit card, PayPal, Google Pay, or bank transfers. With a focus on intuitive, human-centered design, our goal is to help you increase your online donations. Create an account for free today!

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