4 Behavior-Based Engagement Strategies You Can Use To Improve Donor Retention

The way you and I connect with each other is different now. Technology and trends constantly evolve the way we relate to each other and the context of each of our interactions. Essentially, innovation created infinite ways to engage with people around the world. 

If the relationship between two people is different, then it’s safe to say the relationships between people and the organizations they support is a new category entirely. Most notably, the hyper-connectivity we all feel plus the changes in behavior tracking offer unprecedented data that organizations and nonprofits can access and act on. 

However, the truth is: most organizations don’t. It’s overwhelming to wade through all that data to find the practical ways to optimize the way your nonprofit connects to its donors. 

Our New Reality

In their recent HBR article, Nicolaj Siggelkow and Christian Terwiesch term this new reality the “age of continuous connection.” They believe that this new reality brings new opportunities for brands to know their customers personally, anticipate needs and wants and deliver delightful experiences. 

They frame the opportunities into 4 “connected strategy” buckets:

  1. Respond-to-Desire: Respond to customer needs and deliver on expectations in an efficient and seamless way. 
  2. Curated Offering: Present recommendations to a customer that are informed by their previous actions.
  3. Coach Behavior: Deliver timely nudges that encourage next steps for a customer based on prior behavior and what you know to be the ideal customer journey. 
  4. Automatic Execution: Act on behalf of the customer in a way that continues their engagement and adds value. 

Brands all around us are using these connected strategies to create better customer experiences. Can the same approach be used to help nonprofits grow engagement? 

I think so. I believe these behavior-based engagements could help us build more personal relationships with our donors, which will help deepen engagement and improve retention. Let’s dive in.

Behavior-Based Engagement Strategies and Examples

First, it’s important to say that the following strategies mimic Nicolaj and Christian’s “connected strategies”, but I’ve changed them to make them useful for nonprofits.

1. The UPS Engagement Strategy

The relationship between UPS and its customers is straightforward. The sender expects that their package will be delivered on time. The recipient expects that their package will arrive undamaged. That’s all that UPS really needs to do. Meet expectations and, most importantly, limit surprises. Presumably, if they maintained their current operation, they’d always be an industry leader. 

Instead, they continue to elevate the experience for everyone. Tracking, email updates, text notifications and delivery photos all build trust with their customers. Similarly, nonprofits need a plan to constantly search for ways to improve their donors’ experience — whether they ask for it or not. How do you make that a priority? Ask yourself this key question: How should we deliver on the donor expectations based on their actions? 


Once you know the touchpoints you’re looking for, it’s easier to see how quickly you can start using the UPS strategy. Here are a few examples I thought of:

  1. Engage New Contacts: When someone signs up for your newsletter, don’t simply add their name to a list with every other subscriber.  They aren’t committed yet. They need more from you. Set expectations by delivering a personal email with information from previous newsletters. Showcase the variety of content they should expect. Most importantly, give them something to look forward to. 
  2. Improve Giving: Giving is personal. It deserves a personal response. Sending a note of gratitude is the expectation, but you can elevate their experience by including information about the way their generosity impacts your cause. Give them goals to reach and ways to track the progress of your programs. 
  3. Earn Commitment: Often, donors will ask for ways to support your nonprofit beyond financial giving. Don’t waste this opportunity by sending them to a landing page they could have found on their own. Tell them how thankful and excited you are about their interest. Then, take a moment to think about what they would enjoy most. Try to find something that fits perfectly with what you know about them. Reach out to them with a personalized list of recommendations you know they’ll enjoy.

Acknowledging a donor’s action quickly is the standard. But you should always push your nonprofit to go further. Close the loop and offer an elevated experience based on what you know about each donor.

2. The Netflix Strategy

Netflix is famous for its sophisticated recommendations. Every time you open Netflix, you see a list of new releases you’ll probably love. You also see a list of all your old favorites. They sift through thousands of hours of content find not only what you love, but also what you don’t know you love, yet. 

The key for Netflix is to constantly update. Every time you stream a new show, they learn something about you. They know your habits, the number of episodes you’re likely to watch in one sitting, how often you’re willing to try a new show and when you just want to be comforted by your go-to shows.  

Netflix doesn’t care what you watch. They have one goal in mind as they update their algorithm: to keep you streaming Netflix. The same philosophy should be used at your nonprofit. All your marketing and fundraising efforts need to boil down to one thing: keep your donors involved. Don’t reinvent the wheel every time you send an email. Simply deliver the content you know they’ll love. Leverage context and donor behavior to inform the best engagement opportunities. Ask yourself: Based on what we know about the donor’s actions, what opportunities make the most sense to suggest to them now? 


Depending on your nonprofit, here are some ways you could apply the Netflix Strategy:

  • Recommended Offers: Knowing what a donor has supported in the past, you can curate a list of recommended projects they could commit to as their second act of generosity. Help make each act of generosity a no-brainer. Don’t give them a reason to turn off Netflix. 
  • Intelligent Campaigns: After you review your donors’ giving history and actions, design a campaign that reaches out to donors who’ve not given in 6-9 months. Remind them what they’ve supported in the past and suggest similar projects they could get involved in now. Explain the details, explain how they’re similar to their interests and what is new or exciting about them. 
  • Data-Driven Reengagement: Use website tracking to initiate a campaign specifically for a selection of donors that visit your website but don’t engage. Perhaps you can create a series of recommended opportunities and actions they can take to draw them back to your organization.

3. The Amazon Strategy

The master of hyper-connectivity is arguably Amazon. They take a highly personal, proactive approach to anticipating what you might need based on what you did in the past. For example, if you recently purchased newborn diapers, they assume you’re going to need everything else that a baby might need. For the next couple of years, they have a variety of items to show you. Clothes, toys and accessories will all show up at the exact right time in your Amazon recommended section.

Your nonprofit can do something similar. In your database, you have years of historical data from all types of donors. There are trends and behaviors you can predict based on what others have done in the past. Create a donor journey for your different donor segments that model what ideal engagement looks like. Craft strategies to help coach supporters to deepen their relationship with your nonprofit. This isn’t just about transactional asks, but other micro-yes’s that deepen connections, builds community, and earns trust. Try asking your team: Based on what we know about the donor, how can we guide them to engage in actions that deepen their engagement? 


Some easy examples of guiding your donors include:

  • Celebrate Milestones: Celebrating milestones is something we do often in our personal relationships. The same can be done through automated engagement campaigns. When someone hits $1k in lifetime giving, you can celebrate the moment plus coach them on what they should do now. Encourage them to share their “why”, attend an event, schedule a call with the team, tap their passion for a testimony video.
  • Responsive Campaigns: Life is designed in seasons, as are current events and trends.  Use your donor journey model to send seasonal recommendations on how donors can get involved further with your organization during each season. Additionally, current events and trends can help drive guide-based campaigns, as you reference an outside event and then provide responses they can take through your nonprofit.
  • Contextual Generosity Requests: When you send communications that invite someone to be part of something, it’s helpful to make contextualized asks that align with them as individuals. This signals to them that you get them, have them in mind, and are responding accordingly with the right ask. 

The Quip Strategy

Subscription models, like Quip, are growing in popularity. The main driver for consumers is automatic, reliable value that doesn’t require any extra effort and is a relatively low barrier to entry. For organizations, it’s reliable revenue and customer loyalty based on maintaining value and delighting customers with exceptional experiences. It turns a single yes into a long-term commitment to something bigger. 

This is particularly interesting for nonprofits because that second donation is such a difficult task. While getting the first yes might be more difficult, using the subscription strategy will guarantee commitment from any new donors. Ask yourself: Where are their opportunities where we can offer to act on our donor’s behalf and can offer donors to engage with that gives us an opportunity to execute automatically on their behalf?


You’ll find new answers all time, but you can start with:

  • Ongoing Generosity: Though a more significant commitment, recurring giving opportunities and programs allow you to reduce engagement into smaller units for your supporters, while also strengthening connection, which results in higher retention and support of future opportunities. 
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