Retaining First-Time Donors: A Guide for Nonprofits

As we move into 2023, your nonprofit may be looking back on the fundraising successes and challenges of the past year. One important metric to review at this time is your first-time or new donor retention rate. You can calculate your nonprofit’s donor retention by dividing the number of returning donors this year by the total number of donors from last year. 

While the full data picture for 2022 isn’t available yet, data from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project shows falling new donor retention rates for the first half of the year. 

To ensure your organization doesn’t follow this trend, your new donor retention strategy should be an ongoing process tailored to your unique needs and audience. We’ve compiled these five tips for boosting your nonprofit’s first-time donor retention rate: 

  1. Add a personal touch to your thank you messages.
  2. Connect donations to impact.
  3. Invite donors to engage in multiple ways.
  4. Ask for feedback.
  5. Invest in donor management tools

These tips should work for all donors, whether they gave using your online donation page, via the mail, or at an event. But keep in mind that you’ll need to create a specific donor stewardship plan for building relationships with new major donors. Because major donors’ contributions are much larger than your average gift, you’ll want to ensure that all messages to these donors are personalized and that you’re communicating and meeting with them regularly.

With that in mind, let’s get started. 

1. Add a personal touch to your thank you messages.

Your donor stewardship process should start with sending a thank you message after new donors give for the first time. Your appreciation message is the first step in building long-lasting donor relationships. 

To ensure your gratitude notes stand out, tailor your message to each donor with the following elements: 

  • Personalized content. Pull information from your donor management system to populate your donor thank you letters with each donor’s name and unique donation amount. Instead of writing “Dear donor, thank you for your recent gift,” you can send a more personalized message like “Dear Sofia, thank you for your gift of $58 to our Save the Bees campaign on December 5, 2022, which helped us repair three beehives.” 
  • Phone calls. Calling donors to say thank you can be an unexpected but appreciated gesture. Phone calls can positively impact your retention rate, too. According to data collected by Bloomerang, calling donors within the first 90 days after their gift boosted retention from 33% to 41%. When donors received two calls within 90 days, retention jumped to 58%. 
  • Handwritten notes. Make your thank you notes even more personal by writing them by hand. Donors will be touched that you took the time to write out your gratitude with pen and paper.  Your thank you notes do not need to be long.  You may want to consider printing thank you postcards with your organization’s logo and get volunteers or board members to write simple notes of appreciation to your donors. 

Send these personalized thank you messages as soon as possible after donors give. This shows donors that you recognize and appreciate their support and ensures that you don’t forget to thank anyone. 

2. Connect donations to impact.

New donors will be more likely to give again when they see that your organization puts their gifts to good use. 

Use the following platforms to show donors how you’re using their donations to advance your mission:

  • Website. Use your website homepage to highlight your current projects, programs, and upcoming events. You can also use infographics to show donors how you use your funding. For example, the Doctors Without Borders website breaks down how the organization uses donations in the website footer. This shows supporters that most gifts go directly toward essential programs and services. 

Image alt text: This screenshot shows how the Doctors Without Borders website presents a breakdown of the organization’s funding and how it uses donations. 

  • Email newsletter. Include engaging content in your email newsletters such as interviews with volunteers or beneficiaries or photos from recent events. You should also include progress updates on your projects or links to blog posts that explore recent accomplishments. 
  • Social media posts. Similarly, keep your social media pages updated with posts about your projects, programs, and volunteer opportunities. Share links to blog posts or reports that highlight your organization’s progress. 

Make your content accessible and engaging by using concise and clear language, strong color contrast, and alternative text for visuals. This way, any donor who is curious about your funding strategy can easily learn about how your organization uses donors’ gifts. 

3. Invite donors to engage in multiple ways.

Show new donors that your nonprofit offers more than just giving opportunities. Allow donors to connect with initiatives that appeal to their interests and provide them with an additional outlet to show their support. 

Help new donors connect with opportunities such as: 

  • Engaging with your organization on social media and email
  • Attending events, like donor appreciation or holiday events
  • Participating in peer-to-peer campaigns
  • Participating in volunteer opportunities

According to Kwala’s donor communications guide, “The more you talk to your donors, the better they will get to know you and vice versa.” When you increase the number of interactions you have with donors and invest in building relationships, you can encourage donors to stay engaged in your mission. 

4. Ask for feedback.

Your donor relationships should be a two-way street. Donors should feel comfortable engaging with your nonprofit and offering their input on your strategies and campaigns.

Give donors the chance to make their voices heard by gathering their feedback using a survey. Ask questions like: 

  • How convenient was the donation process?
  • Do you have suggestions for making the giving process more convenient?
  • What types of events are you interested in attending?
  • What is your preferred communication method? 
  • How likely are you to give to our organization again? 
  • Which programs are of interest to you? 

After gathering responses, send a recap email to donors addressing their feedback and outlining your plan for incorporating their input. 

5. Invest in donor management tools

As mentioned above, your donor management system is an invaluable tool for creating personalized donor outreach. 

Investing in robust donor management software will improve your donor stewardship efforts by allowing you to: 

  • Track donor interactions. Your software will let you track all donor interactions, including events they’ve attended, emails they’ve opened, and staff members they’ve spoken to. This helps you understand donors’ interests, communication preferences, and past conversations they’ve had with your team members. You can use this information to further personalize your donor messages. 
  • Automatically personalize your thank you messages. Automation tools allow you to avoid manually personalizing each donor thank you letter or email. Instead, you can add donors’ names and gift information automatically to each gratitude message. 
  • Identify the right time and amount to ask for another gift. Your donor management software will automatically track your donor communications, allowing you to choose the right time to ask for another donation. Plus, you can use your software to view donors’ previous gift amounts and request a similar-sized or slightly larger donation. 

If you’re looking for a new donor management system, search for a platform that offers this information in a clear dashboard complete with donor profiles. This setup allows you to see who your most engaged donors are and which new donors are ready for a follow-up donation request. 

Improving new donor retention is a cost-effective strategy for your nonprofit, as it takes a lot of time and resources to acquire new donors. When you can retain the donors you already have using the strategies in this guide, you can build up existing relationships rather than relying on one-time donations.