How long would you stay friends with someone who only talked to you when they needed $20? No chatting. No meeting up for coffee. No asking how you are. Just asking for $20 a few times a year.
Nonprofits, we’re that friend all the time.
It doesn’t take much for donors to start feeling less like heroes and more like ATMs. Donors who feel engaged and appreciated tend to stick around more than donors who don’t feel that way. A few small stewardship actions can move you past a transactional relationship with your donors to a personal one.
1. Thank Them
It’s basic good manners to thank someone for their gift before you ask for another one. Thank you letters for a donation are non-negotiable. Your standard letter should be sent out promptly, probably have your tax ID number and logo on it somewhere, and ideally not sound like it was written by a robot. Segment your donors to avoid asking someone who’s already given and hasn’t been thanked.
These letters are mandatory, but since they’re expected, you do lose some of that personal touch. Luckily, we can always stand to thank donors again. Very few people get mad about being too appreciated. An out-of-the-blue “extra” donor thank you note or call will stand out.
2. Update Them
Donors give you money to help you do something, so let them know that you’re doing it. Show donors what their money is accomplishing. It keeps them engaged with your organization, and makes them feel good.
Send an email or a couple photos with a note in the mail. Give them a call with the latest news. They gave because they cared about your organization—they’ll probably be interested to hear how things are going.
The impact of a gift lasts much longer than the typical thank you cycle. A donation someone made in the spring to send a child to camp continues to matter in the summer when the kid actually goes. It matters afterward when the kid has good camp memories and new friends. Update your donor on their gift for as long as it matters.
3. Invite Them
Deepen your relationship by inviting your donors to participate in a new way. Give them a tour of your work site or a look behind-the-scenes. Ask if they’d like to join you for a volunteer opportunity, or come to a special event.
You can combine invitations with impact updates for a powerful experience. Offer to show them the school playground they helped to build or go on a delivery run with the food pantry they helped stock. Did they buy books for the library? Invite them to be a special guest at story time.
Special events that aren’t strictly fundraisers can be a nice invitation, too. Is there a post-show discussion at your theatre? An author talk at the library? A reveal of the architect’s plan for your new hospital? Ask your donors to come.
You never know what seeing the impact of a donation, or spending more time with an organization will do. It’s the kind of thing that turns donors into board members, volunteers, fundraisers, and advocates. And even if a donor doesn’t want to hang out with you, most people are pleased to be invited.
4. Ask Them
This is about asking, but not for money. Your donors offer a lot more than their dollars. Your donors have feedback, ideas, expertise, and opinions. You’ll go a long way in showing you value them as people, rather than money trees if you ask them for something other than a donation from time to time.
There’s an old fundraising adage that goes, “Ask for money, get advice. Ask for advice, get money.” This is not a guarantee, but there’s probably some truth there. People feel invested when they have a hand in determining how something goes, and a financial investment sometimes follows.
It would be worth consulting donors anyway, even if asking didn’t encourage them to give. You won’t be able to use every idea a donor presents, but you may also be surprised what someone with a different perspective may come up with.
If you don’t need any advice right now, you can still check in with donors. Ask them what they thought of your last newsletter. Ask them if it’s easy for them to get to your building. Ask what their favorite concert of the last symphony season was, or what made them give in the first place, or what kind of event they’d be most likely to come to. Then listen.
Engagement = Loyalty
Engaging with your donors before you ask for another gift keeps your connection strong without risking giving fatigue or donor frustration. It helps build trust and loyalty over time, which are both key factors in donor retention and lifetime donor value. It’s also a human-centered and nice thing to do.
And it definitely stops you from being that friend.