Donor Engagement Cycle: Inspire. Learn. Engage. Ask. Thank. Show Impact.

Tina Jepson
Tina Jepson

Donor engagement is quite the buzz phrase nowadays among nonprofit fundraising circles, but it is often overlooked. After all, isn’t there enough on a fundraiser’s plate without adding another piece to the puzzle?

The answer is an astounding NO. You absolutely need to be focusing on donor engagement because doing so will make your job a whole lot easier come campaign time. This is because donor engagement has a direct impact on donor retention- something that every nonprofit loves to focus on, but many struggle with.

As we all know, donor retention is a well-studied area of philanthropy. We all want to know exactly who is donating, why they are giving, and how often it happens.

Thanks to the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and the Urban Institute, donor trends are analyzed annually through a very thorough study. With this information, nonprofits can to make changes to fundraising plans based on nationwide donor trends.

From the most recent version of this study we have learned that happy donors are retained donors, but how do we make our donors happy? Is there a way to ensure that they continue to give?

The solution is the donor engagement cycle. Follow the outlined steps over and over again with your donors to keep them actively involved with your organization all year long and you are bound to see an increase in retention rates.

Donor Engagement Lifecycle


The first step is to get your donors excited and inspired to take action. This step can be quick or drawn out depending on the past experiences of your donor and their knowledge of your service area/nonprofit.

Start with providing your donor with a basic education about your mission and the services that you provide. This can be done with an email newsletter, through your website, social media, in-person presentations and even handheld marketing materials like pamphlets.

Don’t just rely on statistics and jargon to get your point across. Instead, use emotional client success stories, impactful pictures and moving videos. Present your information with a sense of urgency, stressing that the work that your nonprofit does is necessary for your community.

For a great example of donor inspiration, head to WorldHelp’s website. The first tab ‘Our Approach’ uses big and bold pictures, a well-made video, a thorough infographic and links to impact stories. All of these details combined give prospective and current donors a great base of information to dive into.

The audience is given the tools to make a decision about involvement with this nonprofit in a clean, organized and straightforward manner.


Next, you need to learn about your donor to find out what makes them tick. Don’t simply collect their contact information and then call it a day. Take it one step further and really get to know why this individual has connected with your nonprofit/cause.

Here are a few things that you should learn about your donor as you begin your relationship:

  • Find out how much they want to engage with your organization and in what capacity (volunteering, donating, etc.)
  • If they ever were involved with another nonprofit organization in the past
  • Other interests (hobbies, philanthropy, etc.)
  • Names of spouses, children and any other noteworthy family members
  • Employment status and employer

Moving forward, this information can help you to choose the right engagement opportunities for this donor.


Once your donor understands your work and decides they want to continue learning and growing with your organization, it is time to take the relationship to the next step– Engagement.

Engaging your donor depends on the work that your nonprofit does, the needs you need to be met, and the donor’s skills. Begin where you met your donor. If they first connected with you online via your website or social media, then start engagement online. Ask them to connect with you on your preferred social media channels or sign up for your email newsletter.

Continue to engage your donors as much as possible. Try the following:

  • Update your social media pages regularly, ending all posts with a call to action that motivates your donors to perform a task. It can be as simple as asking them to ‘Like’ a post, or more involved such as requesting that they share a story or statistic with their networks.
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • Networking opportunities
  • Invite them to an event (fundraising, appreciation, etc.)
  • Consider opening up opportunities to join your Board of Directors to your donors on a case by case basis depending on their skills and desire to engage


Once your donor learns about your organization and becomes engaged in some capacity, it is time to ask them for a donation. Yes, this isn’t the most fun part of the process, but at this point, you’ve already set yourself up for success.

The first ask is sometimes considered the hardest, but it is a good indicator of a commitment to your cause.

Your donor is already armed with knowledge, so express to them how necessary financial contributions are to do the work that needs to be done. Send information about your campaign (or another type of donation request) through multiple avenues at regular intervals, following your fundraising calendar.

Once a donor gives a first-time gift, the key is to retain that donor. Hopefully, the engagement opportunities that you provided during non-campaign times have kept you top-of-mind. When a donor decides to give a second or subsequent gift, then your chances of long-term retention of that donor are very high. In fact, 63% of repeat donors will continue to give.

Therefore, the ultimate goal is to get that second gift and then continue to give your donors reasons to stay involved with your nonprofit.


Yeah! You received your donor’s gift, and whether it’s the first or second or hundredth, you need to stop whatever you are doing and thank that donor.

This can be done in a number of ways. It is best to start this process by sending out an immediate thank you email that acknowledges the gift and expresses gratitude. Then, you may want to send a handwritten and personalized thank you note. Check out this blog post for a detailed list of everything your note should include.

But, you don’t have to limit yourself to this method only.

You can spice it up a bit and send out a video expressing your appreciation for the gift. Or, you can pick up the phone and give your donor a quick call to say “thanks” just as long as they receive an acknowledgment and sincere gesture of gratitude.

Show Impact

You’ve reached the final slice of the donor engagement pie! By now, you’ve really had the chance to get to know your donor and vice versa. They have hopefully learned and worked with you, contributed and were probably flabbergasted at how amazing and personal your thank you was. But, it doesn’t end with this thank you.

Next, you must show your donors how you used their donation to make change happen. You can show the impact of your work in a number of ways.

Some of the more popular methods for communicating this information include:

  • Website content updates
  • Social media posts
  • Calculating and sharing your return on investment (ROI)
  • Presenting your annual report to donors

Your impact reports should include everything a donor may want to know about your work in the community. Share success stories, the number of lives changes, how funds were used, volunteer hours clocked, and any updates within your nonprofit organization.


And there you have it. Once you’ve reported your results it is time to start all over again. There is always room for donors to learn more about your nonprofit and become involved on a deeper level. By moving through this cycle, fundraisers are able to track areas that need improvement and strategies that aren’t quite working.

Remember to ask for feedback along the way. Surveys are a fundraiser’s best friend when it comes to finding out what donors really think about your processes.
By keeping your donor’s engagement a priority, you ensure that you remain their priority as well.

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