Ways development professionals can make the most of social media as a cultivation tool for mid-level donors.

Written by Rachel Santos and Anna Lipscomb

Like middle children, mid-level donors are prone to being overlooked. Not as intuitive as entry-level givers—nor as exciting as a six-figure major gift prospect—middle donors are stuck in a chasm between two distinct fundraising cultures.

Serving them will take intentionality. But we would argue that the investment is worth it. Your mid-level donors are your future. Take care of them and they’ll be your future major donor or lead campaign gift.

One of the most powerful tools to cultivate and build relationships with your mid-level donors is social media. This guide will show you how—and why it’s worth your time—to develop a social media strategy aimed at retaining, cultivating, and stewarding your middle donors.

Digression: What’s love donor retention got do to with it?

The number of households who donate to charity today is the lowest it’s been in two decades. While charitable donations in the United States have increased year over year to an all-time high of $471.44 billion, the share of American households who give has fallen significantly from a high of 68 percent in 2002 to less than 50 percent of households today (Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, 2021a; 2021b). This “donors down, dollars up” phenomenon means that donations are coming from a much smaller pool.

“If you can increase mid-level donor retention, you will be able to increase organizational revenue dramatically.”

Many factors—declining levels of trust, demographic changes, and socioeconomic pressures on families—contribute to this phenomenon (Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, 2021a). The consequence? Nonprofits are chasing fewer and fewer donors. This makes donor retention, particularly the retention of mid-level donors, who have already demonstrated affinity and capacity, a critical focus for fundraisers in 2022 and beyond.

To any seasoned fundraiser, the attention on donor retention shouldn’t come as a surprise (we’ve talked about it here, here, and here). One of the best strategies for increasing net fundraising gains is to reduce donor losses. In other words, spend more time keeping your friends than trying to find new ones. Our challenge as an industry is to address embarrassingly low donor retention rates—last year’s overall donor retention rate was only 43.6 percent (Fundraising Effectiveness Project, 2021).

Why is focusing on mid-level giving and retention so important?

Let’s cut to the chase: mid-level givers, even though they generally comprise a small percent of a donor base, can represent as much as 50 percent of annual revenue (Spitler, 2021). If you can increase mid-level donor retention, you will be able to increase organizational revenue dramatically.

If you steward mid-level donors well, they’re more likely to become major givers or make a planned gift. Mid-level giving programs are best seen in the context of a long-term strategy, rather than a one-time direct mail or digital appeal.

Lumping these donors in with a mass donor recognition system is not serving them well. But how do you cultivate mid-level donors when in-person meetings with them, while desirable, are likely not feasible?

Most nonprofits engage with their mid-level donors through a combination of specialized direct mail programs and personal solicitation. We recommend that you take your mid-level program to the next level by engaging with your mid-level donors online. Enter, stage right: social media as the ideal prospect management and cultivation tool for mid-level donors.

Everybody wants to feel heard.

While nonprofit organizations have invested heavily in social media platforms in recent years, they still see social media as a tool for broadcasting announcements and raising awareness rather than a way to deepen their connections with constituents (Dunham + Company, 2018).

To be effective, however, social media platforms should be for more than just information. Instead, because social media is the penultimate two-way channel for conversation, it should be a crucial part of a mid-level fundraising strategy for a modern nonprofit.

“The real danger of not embracing social media is missing out on the opportunity to transform existing donors into major donors with little to no cost.” 

Fundraisers are always looking for an inside edge to connect with their prospects. At the same time, there’s a constant struggle for up-to-date information about our donors. Social media assists with capturing both. In an age where donors increasingly want a more intimate giving experience, gift officers can use social media to meet that demand.

Recognizing social media’s potential, how do you make the most of these new opportunities for building relationships and boosting loyalty to your organization? It starts with a clear strategy. Below are some tips to craft an effective strategy that creates meaningful connections with all donors, especially the mid-level donors that have been historically overlooked.

Treat your donors as investors.

The key to using social media as a fundraising tool is to think of your organization as a publicly-traded company and your donors as stockholders. Like any good corporate strategist, your goal is to turn your donors into long-term investors.

Social media is the perfect tool to keep your donors invested and interested. Think of your social media channels as the shareholder report and the information as the dividends. Investors (your donors) want to see the results of their donations and feel appreciated! You can do this by letting them know their donations are contributing to an important cause and then letting them see the results!  The ROI for your donors is the “feel-good factor” – donors want to feel that they are making a difference.

Not only do donors want to feel that they are making a difference, but they also want to have their opinions heard. Allow your social media channels to be your shareholder meeting and report to allow for two-way communication between your organization and your donors. Connecting with your donors through social media is a crucial step to inspiring long-term interest and investment.

Don’t spread yourself too thin.

The solution sounds easy, but your strategy will require focus. The typical development office is already stretched thin on resources; there is no reason to join a platform that will not serve your organization well! Melissa Nelson, of Nelson Strategic, a marketing consultancy specializing in the nonprofit sector advises:

Dunham + Company, 2018

“Nonprofit organizations should know which platforms their audiences are on and not be all things to all platforms. Social media is a commitment. I always recommend not to start a new social media channel unless you are committed to a strategy with consistent, creative, and informative content. Do what is most effective and focus on doing that well.”

Time to be purposeful.

Social media is a proven, quick, and easy way to get information out to your donors, but it’s still important to be purposeful with content. Fostering relationships with mid-level donors will require extra attention and a two-way channel for conversation. Invite them to join in through social media.

One study found that the formula for optimized social media content is 50 percent inspirational, 10 percent conversational, 10 percent celebrational, 20 percent informational, and 10 percent connection (Dunham + Company, 2018). Using this content strategy will form a real connection with donors that can turn into real dollars from donors.

Share your success! A tree falls in the forest… 

You are already relaying information to donors in different channels. Take the time to add the information to social media. Share your success by letting donors—not just your top-level donors—see the impact of their investment in you.

“Social media tools provide powerful opportunities to develop a relationship that’s more personal and meaningful for mid-level donors.”

For example, if your organization breaks ground on an exciting new building, but no one shares the news, how can anyone be encouraged to support the project? Use social media to share pictures and information about the progress. Invite them to join exclusive virtual hard hat tours or host an insiders’ roundtable discussion about the project. This will create the buy-in and long-term investment you are looking for from your donors.

The “share” button – let your donors do some bragging! 

Looking at your donors as investors, what is their ROI? Aside from tangible proof about the impact you’re making, the “feel-good factor” drives giving. By focusing on an inspirational social media strategy and sharing information through your various social media channels, you are allowing donors to share what they are passionate about and how proud they are of you as an organization. 

Social media as a tool for relationship management is a fairly new concept, and one that many nonprofits are not embracing. Nelson states, “If your organization is not posting consistently with a solid content strategy, other nonprofits are. They are creating connections that will show first in a potential donor’s feed. The real danger of not embracing social media is missing out on the opportunity to transform existing donors into major donors with little to no cost.”

Steward Your Organization’s Future.

Mid-level donors are the foundation of your annual giving program and the pipeline for your major and planned giving portfolios. Social media tools provide powerful opportunities to develop a relationship that’s more personal and meaningful for mid-level donors, going beyond the direct-marketing approach they are likely stuck in.

Going above and beyond to engage your mid-level supporters communicates that you value their engagement in your organization. These engagement efforts will go a long way to build better, long-term connections.

With the right tools and strategies, and an organization-wide, donor-centric philosophy, you can use social media as an avenue to develop a more complete understanding of your donors, which will drive long-term donor retention and increased engagement. Loyal and passionate, mid-level donors deserve intentional communication and attention and can be great champions for your organization for years to come.


About the Authors

Rachel Santos is Marketing and Sales Coordinator for the Winkler Group, a national capital campaign and strategic planning firm headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina. Rachel connects nonprofit partners with resources they can use to impact their communities—providing industry insights, research, and strategy so that they can expand their reach in carrying out their missions and making a difference.

Anna Lipscomb, Winkler Group Marketing Events Coordinator and co-author of "How to Use Social Media as a Cultivation Tool for Mid-Level Donors."

Anna Lipscomb is Marketing Events Coordinator for the Winkler Group, a national capital campaign and strategic planning firm headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina.  A graduate of Clemson University, Anna is passionate about community development, sustainability, and the arts. 


References

Dunham + Company. (2018). Nonprofits & social media: a missed connection. https://www.dunhamandcompany.com/fundraising-research/socialmedia/.

Fundraising Effectiveness Project. (2021, March). Quarterly fundraising report: year-to-date nonprofit sector trends 01/01/2020-12/31/2020. AFP Foundation for Philanthropy.
https://afpglobal.org/fepreports.

Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. (2021a, July). The giving environment: understanding pre-pandemic trends in charitable giving.
https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/1805/26290/giving-environment210727.pdf.

Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. (2021b, June 15). Giving USA 2021: the annual report on philanthropy for the year 2020. Giving USA Foundation.
https://store.givingusa.org/products/2021-annual-report.

Spitler, D. (2021, March 23). 5 ways to recognize your nonprofit’s mid-level donors. NonProfit PRO. https://www.nonprofitpro.com/article/5-ways-to-recognize-your-nonprofits-mid-level-donors/.

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