The shocking secret ingredient to growing your nonprofit’s individual donor base

July 21, 2014

Why do your donors give?

It’s not because of your awesome mission or the 1,723 kids you served last year. It is, in all simplicity, because of what they are doing through you.

Your donors are changing the world!

But so many nonprofit organizations miss the mark.

Case in point: last year I saw a post on the Humans of New York Facebook Page. HONY photographer Brandon Stanton had photographed a young ex-con who was trying to put his life back together. In the comments, someone referred the fellow to an organization that gets these folks a college education.  I looked up the organization online and impulsively made a $10 contribution. And I made that donation on a recurring basis (not a lot, mind you, but $120 a year).


The only acknowledgement of my donation was an emailed receipt.

WhyI should back up and tell you a bit about what prompted my gift. Years ago I served as a legislative aide for the Chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Corrections. We were involved in some landmark legislation at the time and I had the opportunity to visit a number of Michigan prisons. You could say I have a soft spot for individuals who are trying to put their lives back together following incarceration.

Several months passed. Because I appreciated the nonprofit’s mission enough to make a monthly gift, I sought them out and scheduled a call with their executive director.

Lovely man. Went on and on about their various programs in ways that anyone who didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the corrections system wouldn’t understand. He explained that government support was declining, and they were looking to grow their individual giving. I asked about response to the HONY post. Yes, he replied, they had received a number of donations as a result of the comment on that post, including a new $500 donation.

“Really?” I responded with enthusiasm, “What did you do?”

“Do?” he responded, clearly puzzled.

“Yes, did you phone them? How did you respond to the gift?”

“We sent an email,” he replied, “but never heard back.”

I suggested calling the donor to learn what prompted the gift — and was met with confused silence.

In Keep Your Donors, by Joyaux/Ahern, #18 of the Donor Centric Pledge is: “That asking a donor why she or he gave a first gift to us will likely lead to an amazingly revealing conversation.”

If the executive director of the organization had bothered to ask me, he would have learned exactly what prompted my gift and why I was so passionate about his mission. It’s exciting to think what he might have learned from that $500 donor.

More from the Donor-Centric Pledge:
11. That we’ll have to work harder for the second gift than we did for the first.
12. That a prerequisite for above-average donor retention is a well-planned donor-centric communications program that begins with a welcome.

When you’re making your calls to new donors, if you can, draw them out:

“Hi (donor’s name). I’m _____________ (your name) from ____________ (org). I’m calling today to thank you for your recent donation. It means so much and we wanted to tell you personally how grateful we are.”

Pause for a moment.

“If you have just a few seconds, I’d love to know what prompted your gift?”

The key with donor calls is listening. Thank them again. Keep the conversation short and never intrusive.

Giving is deeply personal.  The more you know about your donors’ motivations, the stronger your donor communications program will be.  Follow up with a warm and personal welcome in the mail.

Postscript to this story: several months later I was hit with credit card fraud and my card was cancelled. So was my donation. And what have I heard from the organization? Crickets.

Additional Resources

Why should you be stewarding low level donors?  Download your copy of the Donor Love Toolkit featuring my exclusive interview with Lisa Sargent

Keep Your Donors: The Guide to Better Communications & Stronger Relationships by Tom Ahern (Author), Simone P. Joyaux (Author)

The Donor Retention Project

Monthly Giving | The Basics & More


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