3 Donor Acquisition Tactics to Try Today


Acquiring and retaining donors is the lifeblood of any nonprofit organization. Accomplishing important charitable work requires predictable, sustainable revenue from a faithful group of supporters. For the past 8 years, I’ve spent most of my time writing and thinking specifically about donor retention. Though donor acquisition is important, I believe that the biggest problem in fundraising is how we cultivate long-term relationships with donors in a way that increases retention. It’s far cheaper to keep a donor that you already have than to acquire a new one!

That said, you’re never going to retain all of your donors – and so every nonprofit needs an efficient acquisition strategy to sustain and grow giving over time. With that in mind, I’ve laid out three of my favorite donor acquisition tactics that have consistently delivered results. 

Responsive Donor Acquisition Tactics to Test

Donor acquisition is always messy and there’s never a magic bullet. Great fundraisers are always testing new ideas. They create a hypothesis, run a test, give the test enough time to succeed or fail, measure results, and then pivot!

Your mission (if you choose to accept it) is to test these three ideas against your current acquisition strategy. Measure response rate, average gift, and second gift conversion. Keep what works – and throw out what doesn’t.

Let’s jump in…

1. Send acquisition mail to 6-year+ lapsed donors

Most donors don’t actually think of themselves as “lapsed”. Even if they gave to your organization 10 years ago they often still have a strong affinity for your cause and see themselves as a supporter.

For your next direct mail acquisition campaign, pull a list of all of your donors who:

  • Have lapsed for six or more years, and
  • Whose first gift was $50 or more

    Send them your typical acquisition mailer but, if possible, modify the copy on the letter or envelope to indicate that you are grateful for their past support. In some tests, we’ve seen the response rate in this lapsed donor group deliver significantly higher response rates than typical rented lists.

    I know that many of the sophisticated fundraisers reading this post will already be employing this tactic. I also know that the value of this tactic decreases over time after you’ve mailed lapsed donors a couple of times. That said, even for seasoned fundraisers, it could be beneficial to circle back to this test annually as more donors become deeply lapsed.

2. Use a web-based lead magnet followed by a nurture series

As my friends at NextAfter like to say, your prospects aren’t falling down a “donor funnel”, they are climbing up a mountain. As a fundraiser, gravity isn’t on your side! There are plenty of reasons NOT to give that stand in the way of donor acquisition. Rather than leading with a gift ask, it’s often helpful to pursue smaller, micro “yeses” that drive your potential donors further up the mountain toward a first gift.

One great way to get the first “yes” is by delivering value to your donor with a digital asset (ebook, exclusive course, etc). The trick is to find an asset that truly delivers value. I’ve seen many organizations lead with an ebook download call to action that sounds something like “Download this PDF to see why our organization is awesome”. This type of value proposition isn’t terribly compelling for a potential donor who is just getting familiar with your cause. Instead, focus on content or courses that fulfill a felt need for your donor. Give them value by helping them learn about your cause area or drive conversations.

Once you’ve established the right digital asset, then add a compelling call to action and form to your website in order to gate the content. Focus on getting the bare minimum information on the form in exchange for the content download (name, email). After the asset is downloaded, use a 7-10 part automated email series to convert your new prospect into a donor. Rather than starting with a heavy-handed gift ask in your emails, continue to provide educational content and then tie each gift ask to specific projects or needs related to the asset.

3. Use specific, personal “forward to a friend” campaigns for mid-level donors

There’s a popular saying in the Relief and Development nonprofit sector that donors won’t give to save a million children… but they will give to save one. Donors want to have a very specific tangible impact – and they want to be personally tied to individual stories.

One of the most powerful appeals that I received this year was an email from a friend and tech leader in our space. The nonprofit that he was involved with sent him an email about a woman who had lost everything and was trying to get back on her feet by paying for her own education. The ask to my friend from the nonprofit was “Do you know anyone in your circle who might be willing to pitch in for this woman’s education? She needs $5000 by the end of the month.” Because my friend was a champion for this cause, he was compelled to forward the email to me and several others.

Though I was not familiar with this organization, I ended up giving. My gift was based on 1) my relationship with the person who forwarded the email and 2) the personal and urgent story of the woman in need. This type of hyper-personal and peer-based communication has the potential to cut through most barriers to giving and create the pressure needed to drive action.

As a side note, for smaller donors, traditional peer-to-peer fundraising (jog-a-thons, etc) can be more effective at scale. The example that I described is slightly less scalable, but it can be massively effective in building a mid-level donor program.

Try Something New

Hopefully, these tactics are helpful in getting your creative juices flowing. New donor acquisition can feel daunting – but if you are willing to test new ideas and commit to enduring over time I’m confident that you’ll see success. 

If you try these ideas and learn something new please let us know. Also, I love hearing about new fundraising ideas. Feel free to reach out if you find a new tactic that’s working for your organization.

Subscription philanthropy: avoid these mistakes

Subscription philanthropy: avoid these mistakes

You may not have heard the phrase “subscription philanthropy” before, but I guarantee you are aware of the subscription economy. Understanding the subscription economy and translating that to your fundraising…
Donor Retention: The Ultimate Guide for Nonprofits

Donor Retention: The Ultimate Guide for Nonprofits

Unlock higher donor retention rates with Responsive Fundraising. Learn how the right tools can deepen relationships and maximize your nonprofit's impact.

Grow generosity with Virtuous.

Virtuous is the responsive fundraising software platform proven to help nonprofit organizations increase generosity by serving all donors personally, no matter their gift size.

“Virtuous truly understands nonprofits and the importance of our mission. And their open access to data and built-in custom reports gave us access to the data we need.”
Todd Shinabarger​
Chief Information Officer