Skip to main content

How to Manage and Improve Donor Relationships

Author: Tatiana Morand
July 14, 2020
🕑 8 min read

You thought you were doing everything right in your donor relationships.

Saying thank you.

Keeping the lines of communication open.

Being clear about where their gift was going.

But now you’re worried your donor isn’t coming back for a second gift.

What went wrong?

From cancelled revenue-generating events to carefully orchestrated donor strategies that are now mere kindling for the Great Dumpster Fire of 2020, many nonprofits are grappling with uncertainties of epic proportions.

But there’s one good piece of news: most donors have indicated that they’ll continue to support their favorite charitable causes during the pandemic.

In fact, philanthropists have been giving faster and with fewer restrictions than ever before.

Think that means you’re in the clear?

Think again.

Now isn’t the time to get lazy about maintaining strong donor relationships, even with everything else you’ve got on your plate.

In fact, we’d argue that there’s never been a better time to think of improving your donors relations.

This is a simple shift in perspective that will make all the difference for your fundraising success.

Donor Relationships and Marriage: Pretty Much the Same Thing

Don’t believe us?

Think about it: donor relationships and marriage both require strong communication skills, hard work and a whole lotta love.

Yet donors aren’t feeling the love nearly as much as they should be: donor retention rates are even worse off than today’s divorce rates, with 55% of donors choosing not to give again compared to 39% of all marriages ending in divorce.

So, how can you start treating your donors like you want to grow old together?

Read on to learn about the four stages of a donor relationship, take our quiz to find out how well you’re doing when it comes to finding marital bliss with your donors, and get our top tips for maintaining strong donor marriages.

Click through to claim your 60-day trial of WildApricot to create effective QR codes that will speed up event check-in.

The Four Stages of a Donor Relationship

Still not convinced donor relationships have much in common with the starry-eyed path to marriage? See how you feel after learning about the four key stages of a donor relationship.

Stage 1: Swipe Right

You’re scrolling through your prospect pipeline or engaging with potential new donors online, looking for your perfect match.

Which one of these philanthropists will see the real you? Which one will respond to your initial outreach, perhaps even with enthusiasm? Will they be captivated by your mission, or will they take a quick look at your logo and move on?

Finally, it happens. That carefully worded email you had sent off to your top prospect, your hands clammy with nerves, has done the trick. They’ve responded — with enthusiasm!

They want to know more.

You’ve both swiped right.

Stage 2: Impress Them on the First Date

You’ve exchanged emails and maybe even spoke on the phone. Now it’s time for the real test: the first date.

The two of you arrange an in-person meeting (or, let’s face it, a Zoom meeting). You obsess over your hair and outfit. You run through a list of conversation topics and even prepare some background materials (alright, maybe you wouldn’t bring a binder of mission moments on a real first date, but you catch our drift).

The meeting goes well. Like, super well. You get them; they get you. You share a passion for making a difference. You both believe wholeheartedly in your cause.

You both want to keep getting to know one another.

There’s a spark. There’s a spark!

Stage 3: Make it Official

You’ve met up a few times and you’re really enjoying getting to know each other. You’ve been building trust with your prospect and they’ve even had a chance to meet some of your program staff.

You’ve laid the groundwork for the next step in your relationship. Now, heart pounding, all you have to do is ask the big question – will your prospect consider making a donation?

For a split second, you worry that you’ve got it all wrong. What if they’re not really interested in supporting your organization? What if they’ve just been enjoying getting to know you but can’t actually see a future together?

Your fears are quickly put to rest when your prospect happily agrees to invest in your cause.

You’ve done it – you’ve made it official! And that brings us to…

Stage 4: Tie the Knot

You and your new donor have been enjoying a wonderful relationship. You’ve shown mutual interest in one another, you’ve told them how much their gift means to your organization and you’ve even shared the impact of their donation in a stewardship report. (Can we make relationship stewardship reports a thing? Anyone?)

Now it’s time to take your commitment a step further – a big step further. We’re talking a whole walk down the aisle toward donor marriage bliss.

You start by asking them for a bigger commitment (whether or not you get down on one knee is up to you) and they say yes! They make the donation and maybe even tell a few of their friends to get on board. You can count on them to attend your events and advocate for your cause in the community.

Congratulations – you’re married! To your donor. May it be a long and happy union.

But every marriage takes work, attention, communication and compromise to stay healthy. So, now you need to ask yourself: how healthy is your donor marriage?

Take our quiz to find out!

Quiz: How Healthy is Your Donor Marriage?

You’ve exchanged vows, moved in together and… oh, wait. Let’s try that again.

You’ve established a strong, committed relationship with your donor. They’re in it with you for the long haul, fully invested in your mission. That’s great! But how are you going to make sure your donor marriage stays strong and healthy once the honeymoon phase is over?

Here are a few questions you should be asking yourself as you look ahead to a beautiful future with your donor.

1. Are you keeping the lines of communication open?

You may be sending your donors emails or newsletters, but are you providing channels for them to respond? Always include ways for them to get in touch with you and your organization so they feel welcome to reach out.

And make sure your organization’s social media handles are included in all of your communication materials so your donors can stay in the know.

Take a look at this example from a recent email from Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which incorporates the organization’s social media handles on the top right — visible as soon as the reader opens the email.


However you choose to share contact information or social media handles, make sure the details are easy to locate and highly visible.

2.Are you listening?

Are you really paying attention to what your donors are telling you? Listen for any concerns they might have about how their gift is being put to work or for hints about new areas of your mission that may be of interest to them.

3. Are you demonstrating your affection?

You’ve heard it before – you need to use emotion to really connect with your donors. You can show them how much they mean to you by creating touchpoints outside of their formal stewardship cycle (a quick email updating them on the program they support, for example, or a phone call to say thanks for a recent online gift). Sharing impactful stories or poignant videos is also a great way to help them feel connected to your cause.

If you’re looking for new donor stewardship ideas, check out this article from The Storytelling Nonprofit. Vanessa Chase Lockshin shares simple but effective tips like writing handwritten thank-you notes or sending a quick email to say happy birthday.

4.Are you complimenting your partner?

We all love to receive sincere compliments, so tell your donor how great they are. Finding regular ways to say thanks and express how grateful you are for their generosity and support is critical to helping them feel like a valued member of your community.

5. Are you setting aside time to discuss things that are important?

Are you sharing enough information with donors? Is there a project update, a new study or other important issues that your organization could be sharing and discussing with donors?

Keeping donors in the loop about what’s going on at your organization – particularly when it comes to the specific areas they’re supporting – sends the message that you consider them to be part of your team and you’re committed to being transparent about what’s going on.

The Women’s College Hospital Foundation’s recent donor newsletter does a great job at doing this by sharing a variety of examples of their current programs, as well as concrete ways these programs can help their community.


6. Are you getting together, going on dates?

Gotta keep that spark alive!

Are you inviting donors to special events or open houses to show them first-hand how their support is making a difference? Remember that not every invitation should be another request for support – just show the love. And don’t forget the chocolate and flowers.

Tips for Maintaining a Strong Donor Marriage

You’ve learned about the four stages of a donor relationship and you’ve taken our quiz to find out if you’re truly committed to marital bliss. But where do you go from here?

Read on for our top tips for building and maintaining a strong donor marriage – a union that will bring you both many years of fulfillment, impact and long walks on the… oh. Scratch that last part.

  • Don’t take your partner for granted. Don’t ignore your donor once they’ve made a yearly contribution, but on the other hand, don’t turn them off with countless email reminders and requests. Develop a stewardship strategy that’s appropriate for their level of giving and communication preferences.
  • Express and show your love and commitment. Offer heartfelt, personal thank you calls, letters or emails on a regular basis. Everyone wants to feel special, right?
  • Keep your relationship exciting. Make sure you share progress with your donors and demonstrate the impact they’ve helped to achieve with meaningful videos, newsletters, email updates and event invitations.
  • Tell your partner how you’re feeling. As noted above, emotion is powerful, so be sure your communications stir your donor’s emotions. Wherever possible, feature the stories of real service users, patients or recipients of donor support in your communications to deepen their connection to your mission.
  • Be authentic. Donors can smell inauthentic gratitude a mile away. Build trust by creating a culture of gratitude at your organization – an environment in which staff and program leaders truly understand and value the critical role of donors and make every effort to express their genuine thanks.
  • Be honest. Don’t be afraid to let your donors know when things aren’t going exactly to plan. COVID-19, anyone? Being open and transparent about how progress is tracking against your goals when it comes to program delivery or the launch of that new initiative will let your donors know you’re both on this journey together. Through thick and thin.
  • Remember it takes two, but it can begin with you. One partner in this relationship has to take the lead, so sweep your donor off his or her feet by putting into action everything you’ve learned today about building a healthy donor marriage!

Maintaining a strong donor relationship is much like trying to keep the love alive for a happy marriage – neither partner should take each other for granted. And it takes commitment, a lot of work and open, honest communication.

Now get out there and make sparks fly!

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!