8 Donor Retention Tips from Steven Shattuck

Donor Acquisition and Retention

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When Steven Shattuck presented The Importance of Retaining First-Time Donors (and How to Do It!), he broke down exactly why inspiring a donor to make a second gift is so important. He backed up that point with tons of great data, then shared specific strategies you can use to retain donors after their first gift. If you’re looking to build a great donor retention process for your organization, I highly recommend you watch the whole presentation! But, if you’re looking for a quick recap, take a gander at these top tips.

1. The most important gift isn’t the first one—it’s the second

You work really hard to acquire new donors, so seeing a brand-new donor in your database can be a thrill. But you know what you should really get excited about? Donors that make a second gift.

Here’s why. Donor retention rates for one-time donors are low. Really low. If you’re like the average nonprofit, you’ll lose 8 of 10 first-time donors. That means that all the time, effort, and resources you put into acquiring those donors resulted in just one gift.

But, if a donor makes a second gift, their retention rate goes all the way up to 61%. What an improvement! If they end up making a recurring gift, retention goes all the way up to 90%. That means all the work you put into acquiring those donors makes a bigger and bigger impact.

2. “You can’t report successes enough.”

Q: How do you inspire people to make that second gift?
A: You tell them a story about how their gift made a real-world impact

First-time donors give because they have a goal: they want to support a mission they’re passionate about. If you want them to give again, you need to show them that they accomplished that goal. That’s why it’s so important to report success stories to your donors.

If you have a donor who gave you $30 because they want to help animals in need, you need to show them that they actually helped animals in need. So, after they give, share a story about an animal who received medical care. Or send them a video about a family who adopted a dog from your shelter. Or let them know how many animals were fed because of their gift.

You really can’t overdo this! Reporting a donor’s impact once is good. Doing it two or three times is even better. The more you can show your donors that they’re really making a difference by supporting your organization, the easier it will be to ask them to give again.

3. Donors like knowing what to expect

Want your donors to open your impact updates? Let them know you’re going to send them an impact update. Do you want to be sure they’ll open your email newsletter next week? Tell them it’s coming. Even better, give them some hints about what’s in there!

The reasoning here is simple: donors like knowing what to expect. Have you ever opened a piece of mail with some trepidation because you’re not sure what it is? Have you gotten excited because you just received a letter you’ve been expecting? Which experience is more enjoyable? That’s why it’s a great idea to let donors know what you’ll be sending and why you’re sending it!

4. Think of your first-time gifts as birthday presents from strangers

What would you do if someone you’d never met gave you a birthday present? You’d thank them, of course, but what else would you do? Well, you’d probably start out by asking them how they heard it was your birthday. You might ask them what specifically made them want to give you a present.

Do the same for your donors! Someone giving you a first-time gift is like them randomly giving you a birthday present. Thank them! Then ask them to share a little more about how they learned about you and what inspired them to give. That’ll help you get a feel for what’s inspiring your donors, what channels they’re using to learn about you, and what is (and isn’t!) working. It’ll also make donors feel like their opinions and experiences matter, which is an important part of building a relationship with them.

5. Pick up the phone

Emails are nice. Know what’s better? Phone calls.

One of the best ways to inspire people to give a second gift (often a gift that’s bigger than their first one!) is making a personal phone call to first-time donors. In your call, don’t ask donors for an additional gift—just thank them for their donation and tell them a little about what it will achieve. The idea here is to make donors feel recognized and special by personally reaching out to them.

If the thought of calling all of your first-time donors is a little intimidating, try bringing in some help. Ask your board members to help. Calls don’t have to be long or specific—just ask board members to thank donors and ask what inspired their gift. No asking, no information-gathering, no agenda… just simple calls. And don’t worry if nobody answers! Leaving a voicemail is just as effective.

That said….

6. Don’t call if someone doesn’t give you their phone number

We recommend not requiring a phone number to donate. It’s usually not necessary to process a gift, and limiting required fields on your donation form increases the likelihood that a donor will complete their donation. Instead, make the field an optional one!

If someone gives you their phone number even though it’s not required, consider that an invitation to give them a quick call. But, if they don’t give it to you, don’t try to look it up. Calling someone when they never gave you their contact information can come off as overbearing (at best) or creepy (at worst). In those instances, stick with sending them a personalized email or a handwritten note.

7. Don’t judge people by their gift amount

First-time donors almost never give at capacity. Would you write a $1,000 check to a nonprofit you’d never heard of before? Probably not. Would you drop a $20 donation to an unfamiliar organization with a story that caught your eye? Sure!

Think about your own major donors. What was their history with your organization before they made their first big gift? They probably made several smaller gifts while they built a relationship with your organization, then decided to make a larger gift later on.

That’s why focusing on retaining your first-time donors—all your first-time donors, not just the ones that make large gifts—is important. You never know if that $30 donor could be your next major gift supporter.

8. After you’ve stewarded your first-time donors, ask again early

When someone makes their first gift to your organization, their goal is to make a difference in the world. During the stewardship process, you focus on thanking them and showing them how they met that goal! You’ll also work on building a relationship with your donors through phone calls and updates. After a few weeks, it’s time to ask them to give again.

The best time to ask donors for a second gift is when they’re still actively interacting with your organization. Different people recommend different periods of time between the first gift and the ask for a second one, but Steven suggests making a second ask within 90 days of the first donation. That means you’ve got three months to thank new donors, show them their impact, connect them to your mission, and prep them for another ask. It’s an ambitious timeline, but it’s an effective one!


If you’re like most nonprofits, you’ll see an influx of first-time donors during the last few months of the year. Celebrate those acquisitions! But, after your celebration, start working toward a second gift. You worked really hard to inspire and attract those new supporters. But your hard work will pay off even better if you can inspire them to give again. These 8 tips (and all the other awesome strategies in Steven’s webinar) will help get you there!

Check out the full recording of the webinar in our Resource Center!

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