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How to Strengthen Donor Engagement: 4 Techniques

Effective donor engagement begins by understanding the motivations behind giving. To find the best strategies for your donor base, it’s essential to transition individuals from merely browsing your website to becoming loyal donors.

In today’s hyper-connected world, donor engagement means leveraging the vast amount of donor data available. Although every organization’s donor relationship varies, this comprehensive information can guide interactions and enhance engagement strategies.

However, it’s essential to acknowledge a stark reality: many nonprofits haven’t maximized their use of data, especially regarding donor engagement. These organizations, through no fault of their own, often lag behind for-profit businesses in digital innovation due to financial constraints, high operational costs, and challenges in retaining talent. The overwhelming and sometimes disorganized data in their donor databases can be daunting, especially for those not well-versed in data analysis.

Infographic explaining how only 40% of nonprofit professionals use data to make decisions which can lead to ineffective donor engagement strategies

However, there is a silver lining: The recent rise in technological innovation offers nonprofits a chance to bridge the data optimization gap. Advanced donor management systems, like Virtuous, empower nonprofits with detailed but user-friendly insights into donor behavior. By leveraging these tools, many successful nonprofits are learning how to retain donors effectively.

How Connectivity Inspires Brand Loyalty

We are living in a world where people are seeking deeper connections with the brands and organizations they interact with. The question then is, how can we develop donor engagement strategies that create those deeper connections?

In a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, Nicolaj Siggelkow and Christian Terwiesch term this new reality the “age of continuous connection.” The authors believe that this new reality brings new opportunities for brands to engage their customers personally, anticipate their needs and wants, and deliver delightful experiences.

They frame the opportunities into four connected strategy buckets:

  1. Respond-to-desire: Respond to customer needs and deliver on expectations efficiently and seamlessly.
  2. Curated offering: Present recommendations to a customer that are informed by their previous actions.
  3. Coach behavior: Deliver timely nudges that encourage the 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 have been using these connected strategies to create best-in-class consumer experiences for years. Since your donors are accustomed to such personalized experiences—whether it’s reordering groceries on Instacart or hailing a ride with a single tap on Uber—nonprofits can adopt these behavior-driven tactics. By doing so, they can foster deeper connections with loyal donors and boost donor retention rate.

It’s important to highlight that many major donors likely already receive such tailored interactions. While catering to major donors is crucial, it’s essential to understand that all donors deserve this level of personalization.

Let’s explore further.

Behavior-Based Donor Engagement Strategies and Examples

It’s important to point out that the following strategies mimic Siggelkow and Terwiesch’s connected strategies, but we’ve changed them to make them more useful to the nonprofit sector.

1. Applying the UPS Process to Your Donor Engagement Strategies

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 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?

Applications

Once you know the touch points you’re looking for, it’s easier to see how quickly you can start using the UPS strategy as a part of your donor engagement strategies. Here are a few examples:

  1. Engage new contacts: When someone signs up for your email 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 fundraising goals to reach and ways to track the progress of your programs.
  3. Earn Commitment: Often, loyal donors will ask for ways to support your nonprofit beyond financial giving. Don’t waste this huge 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 through donor outreach efforts, like an email or handwritten note. Then, after analyzing their information in your donor management system, reach out to them to suggest a list of recommendations you know they’ll enjoy. Include non-financial options such as attending a fundraising event and bringing guests, volunteering, participating in peer-to-peer fundraising, etc. 

Acknowledging a donor’s action quickly is the standard, especially for major donors. 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.

“The more you know about your supporters, the better. Finding out who is volunteering and how they are interacting with your organization in other ways can help you direct and target your communications with them, “ Caitlyn Barker, Community Engagement Coordinator at Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association explains. “This creates more opportunities to connect with your supporters throughout the year and to grow relationships and engagement.”

2. Applying the Netflix Process to Your Donor Engagement Strategies

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 to 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 key element for your donor engagement strategies: 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?

Applications

Depending on your nonprofit, here are some ways you could apply what Netflix does to your donor engagement strategies:

  • 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 giving additional donations a no-brainer and keep your organization top of mind.
  • Intelligent campaigns: After you review your donors’ giving history and actions, design a fundraising campaign that reaches out to current donors who have not given in six to nine 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 these projects relate to their interests, and what is new or exciting about them.
  • Data-driven re-engagement: Use website tracking to initiate a campaign specifically for donors who 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.

In your donor management system, also known as your nonprofit CRM, you can customize the dashboard to highlight key engagement metrics. For example, nonprofits are using Virtuous to understand what touchpoints donors are interacting with, what their giving history looks like, and whether they’re taking their activism beyond giving by attending a donor appreciation event, taking advantage of volunteer opportunities, or creating a peer-to-peer campaign. This enables the nonprofit to understand what campaigns will convert more prospective donors and have the capacity to grow their giving through personalized efforts.

Ellen Markowitz, Director of Development and Operations at Jewish Social Service Agency, explains how Virtuous’ responsive fundraising software has empowered their team to take a more data-driven approach and work collaboratively across the organization, “Seeing just contact information upfront and being able to see a donor’s giving history easily is built specifically for fundraisers… Now we can do more welcome series for specific donor groups. It’s enabled us to work more closely with our fundraising, development, and marketing teams—something we weren’t able to do previously.”

3. Applying the Amazon Process to Your Donor Engagement Strategies

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.

Made to Flourish is a prime example of how you can suggest actions for potential donors to take based on what others have done in the past. “I’ve used Virtuous to lead people through a welcome series, or even just a ‘start here’ form on our website, making sure they are getting into our system the right way,” Rebekah Jones, Development Director at Made to Flourish shares. “With Virtuous, I can make sure we have a touch point with new people right after they want to join or they want information.”

There are infinite ways that your team can improve your donor engagement strategies by using data to personalize the giving experience. Create a donor journey for your different donor segments that model what your ideal donor engagement plan looks like. Craft fundraising strategies to deepen supporters’ relationships with your nonprofit.

Remember, it shouldn’t always be about transactional asks but other micro opportunities that deepen connections, build community, and earn 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?

Applications

Some easy examples of donor engagement strategies that are guiding your individual donors include:

  • Milestone achievements: Celebrating milestones is something we do often in donor journeys. The same can be done through automated engagement campaigns. When someone hits $1K in lifetime giving, you can celebrate the moment and coach them on what they should do next. Encourage them to share their “why,” attend an event, schedule a call with the team, or 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 loyal donors can further get involved with your organization during each season. Additionally, current events and trends can help drive guide-based campaigns, as you reference an outside event and provide responses they can take through your nonprofit. Be responsive and deepen your donor relationships. 
  • Contextual generosity requests: When you send personalized 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.

4. Applying the Quip Process to Your Donor Engagement Strategies

Subscription models, like Quip, are growing in popularity. The main driver for consumers is an automatic, reliable value that doesn’t require any extra effort and is a relatively low barrier to entry. For consumer brands, it’s a reliable way to increase 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 the nonprofit sector because that second donation is such a difficult task. While getting the first “yes” from a first-time donor might be more difficult, using the subscription strategy will guarantee commitment from any new donors. Ask yourself: Are there any areas in our donor engagement plan where we can encourage those who have only given once or lapsed to become recurring supporters?

Applications

The subscription-based model lets your donors take a larger role within your organization while simultaneously boosting your retention rate. However, it doesn’t have to be a part of your donor engagement strategies that is too overwhelming. You can start with a few fundamental pieces like:

  • Recurring giving program: If you don’t have a recurring giving program, it’s time to start. Not offering recurring giving can do more harm than good because you’re missing out on a sustainable fundraising opportunity! Remember, don’t overcomplicate it. Write a few lines about your recurring program in a donor outreach email and how much more impact someone could make by donating monthly. If you want to kick it up a notch, create a landing page just for your recurring giving program. Need some inspiration? Check out this robust landing page about monthly giving from Arizona’s Children Association. It motivates someone to sign up to give monthly by highlighting how someone can “become an everyday hero.”
  • Monthly donate option: Let’s do a quick review of your online donation form. Does it allow first-time donors to upgrade their donation amount from one-time to monthly on the same form, or is your monthly giving form hidden somewhere else in your navigation? Don’t make monthly giving a separate donation process! If you include both options on the same form, there’s a higher chance you’ll convert a one-time donor to someone who is a long-term supporter of your cause.
  • Self-serve plan management: One of the best parts of online subscriptions is the ability to have full control over your plan. When someone signs up to become a recurring donor, are they able to manage their account online, or do they have to call and talk to a real person to make any kind of change—like changing their payment option or updating their giving frequency? If it’s the latter, consider offering a self-serve management option for recurring plans. It’ll make monthly donors’ lives easier, and they’ll appreciate the thoughtfulness that they don’t have to take a chunk of time away from their day to endure such a manual process.

Behavioral Engagement Trends to Lift Donor Retention

With a wealth of data at your fingertips, it’s now easier than ever to understand donor interests and intentions. By harnessing this information, nonprofits can craft donor engagement strategies and journeys that not only engage and delight but also boost donor retention and activation.

Furthermore, by tracking how donors are engaging with your organization, you can enhance your donor stewardship efforts. Based on their content preferences, guide them towards the next steps. Conversely, if a donor isn’t engaging with your content and hasn’t contributed recently, consider experimenting with new communication methods or campaigns to reignite their giving spirit. Whatever donor engagement or stewardship strategies you adopt, ensure you have the right tools in place for smooth implementation and efficient tracking.

In the realm of nonprofit work, every interaction matters. The commitment you show towards understanding and catering to your donors’ preferences lays the foundation for a long-lasting relationship. Remember, it’s not just about the donation; it’s about creating a community where donors feel valued and part of a bigger purpose. Stay dedicated, embrace change, and continually innovate in your approaches. The future of your organization, bolstered by strong donor relations, looks bright. Let’s forge ahead together!

What you should do now

Below are three ways we can help you begin your journey to building more personalized fundraising with responsive technology.

See the Virtuous platform in action.  Schedule a call with our team for personalized answers and expert advice on transforming your nonprofit with donor management software.

Download our free Responsive Maturity Model and learn the 5 steps to more personalized donor experiences.

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