Seven Practical Tips for Boosting Donor Retention

By Jessica Browning, MBA, Winkler Group Principal and EVP

Over time, the impact of this statistic is devastating. Consider a nonprofit with 1,000 donors. Even if the organization beats the national average and maintains a 50% retention rate, its donor base would fall to 500 in year two. After five years, the organization would have only 62 donors left. 

Key Practices for Long-Term Support

While we constantly need to be looking at ways to expand our donor base, the study notes one of the best strategies for increasing net fundraising gains is to reduce donor losses.

In other words, it is more efficient to work at keeping your friends than trying to find new ones.

Pictured are three statistics from the Fundraising Effectiveness Projects "Quarterly Fundraising Report: Year-to-Date Nonprofit Sector Trends Q4 2022." From left to right: New Donor Retention Rate is down 16.9% YOY, Repeat Donor Retention Rate is down 5.2% YOY, and recapture rate is down 15.2% YOY.

While that sounds easy in theory, what does it look like in practice? Here are some practical tips we have found work best for building relationships and keeping your friends:

One. Don’t start any communication with “Dear Friend/Donor/Supporter.” Your CRM, or even a simple spreadsheet, will allow you to personalize the greeting in a mail merge with the click of a button.

Two. Allow your donors to choose how often and by what method you communicate with them. This prevents them from feeling deluged by requests from you across multiple media channels.

Three. Pick up the phone to thank donors. One study showed that donors who were called by a board member to thank them within 24 hours of receipt gave 39% more than donors who weren’t called. After 14 months, donors who had been called were giving 42% more than those who weren’t (Burk, 2003).

Four. Can’t call? Make sure your donors are sent a personalized thank you letter within 48 hours. Remember tip #1!

Five. Let donors know how their gift made a difference. Make sure your communications are specific and meaningful – “your gift allowed us to buy 50 books for the library” rather than “your support helps us to serve the community.”

Six. Invite donors into your organization – host personal tours, lectures, socials, and volunteer orientations just for donors. Create opportunities for them to interact with your key leadership on a one-to-one basis.

Seven. Solicit candid feedback from your donors. So few organizations take the time to initiate such dialogue; as a result, you will stand out from the crowd. Give donors the opportunity to tell you how well you are carrying out your mission, communicating, and stewarding them. Find out why they have chosen to support you and what is important to their decision to continue that support. Then, listen to what they have said.

Yes, these steps take time and organizational commitment, but this investment is often a better use of resources than always chasing new donors. As your interactions with donors become more individualized, they will feel increasingly engaged and appreciated. In the near future when they face a decision to stay or go, they are more likely to stay with you—their friend.

Now is also the time to focus on the tried-and-true fundamentals of fundraising—building relationships, treating your donors as investors, being transparent, and sharing meaningful impacts.  Give your donors an opportunity to be part of your future.

About the Author

Jessica Browning, Winkler Group Principal and Executive Vice President, has helped lead nonprofit organizations for more than 25 years. An award-winning case statement writer, Jessica is a specialist in donor communications and a former member of the Giving USA Editorial Review Board. Jessica received a B.A. from Duke University as well as an M.A. and M.B.A. from the College of William & Mary. Connect with Jessica on LinkedIn.


Burk, P. (2003). Donor centered fund-raising. Cygnus Applied Research.

Fundraising Effectiveness Project. (2023, April). Quarterly Fundraising Report: Year-to-date nonprofit sector trends Q4 2022 (Jan 1, 2022 – Dec 31, 2022). AFP Foundation for Philanthropy.

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