Building Donor Loyalty For Life

It’s less expensive for you to keep existing donors than acquire new ones.


After all, your existing donors already know who you are and you’ve already spent the time and energy necessary to build up enough trust to get them to contribute. You’d be crazy to let them go easily.

Yet, despite these facts, donor attrition remains high at most nonprofits. By some estimates, nonprofits lose around one third of their current donors each year.  And for many organizations the annual loss of first time donors spikes all the way up to 75%. [1]

And this brings us to the topic at hand, building donor loyalty. Having a real plan for building donor loyalty is the antidote to losing those hard-won donors. As you develop a plan, your goal should be to turn every new donor into a life long supporter.

Now how exactly do you do that? Well, there’s not one easy way, but let’s start with a story.

A Story on How to Build a Lifelong Donor

Interestingly enough, our story about building life-long donors begins in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

With waters filling the streets of coastal New York and New Jersey, Team Rubicon—a group of military veterans working in disaster relief—deployed to the area to help those affected.

As the super-storm battered the beleaguered tri-state area, veterans from Team Rubicon rushed into flooded streets to save the lives of trapped residents (and even some pets too). In the days following the initial storm surge, more Team Rubicon volunteers would respond to the call to action, assisting in all manners of disaster relief– from debris removal, to checking on and assisting isolated residents.

And this is all really great stuff, but it has nothing to do with building donor loyalty. Which brings us to the second part of our story, which was unfolding simultaneously some 3000 miles away out in Los Angeles…

Adam had made donation to a friend’s fundraising page earlier that day. Like many people not in the storm’s direct path, he’d been moved by the images of destruction on TV. A friend happened to setup a page to support Team Rubicon, Adam happened to see a request for support in his Facebook Feed, and he decided to give $25 to the cause. No big deal he thought.

And then Adam’s phone rang.

He looked at the number and didn’t recognize it, but he took the call.


“Hi, is this Adam?”

“Yeah, who’s this?”

“It’s Matt from Team Rubicon, I just wanted to call you to thank you for your donation…”

Adam was taken aback by the call. He’d given twenty-five dollars. He was expecting an auto-email (maybe), not a personal phone call. But there he was, on the phone with Matt from Team Rubicon.

Matt would go on to tell Adam how he was just sitting down to eat with his team. That it was their first meal following a nonstop response to Sandy—and that it was Adam’s donation that was paying for it. Matt told Adam how grateful he was to have Adam’s support and that he wanted Adam to know how his contribution was helping.

The tone of Matt’s voice rang with such sincerity and emotion that Adam was almost moved to tears by the end of the call.

That story- that personal connection- that is how a one-time twenty-five dollar donor gets turned into a life-long supporter.

Key Takeaways for Building Donor Loyalty


Personal touches matter so much in donor retention. And it’s incredibly important that those touches transmit authenticity and a heart-felt sense of appreciation. These are the ingredients that give donors a “wow” experience that will keep them from forgetting you. Creating these moments is part of your job, it’s what it takes to really build fierce donor loyalty.

To be sure, it’s not always going to be feasible to have a “Matt” calling from the field to thank every donor. Much depends upon the size of your organization and the extent of your grassroots support, but regardless of the particulars, the heart of this story is true for all organizations. Real donor retention requires serious thought about how you can show donors your sincere appreciation.

When you’re working in the field at the leading edge of program implementation, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of your donors. When you’re working in a large organization with broad support, you can take these people for granted. It’s sort of natural that we fall into our routines. There’s only so much time in a 24-hour day and our focus gets narrowed accordingly.

Take Adam and Matt’s story as an invitation to step back. How can your organization get better at creating wow moments?

If you can figure that question out, you’ll have unlocked the real key to building donor loyalty for life.

But don’t take our word for it, take it from Adam (and some other TR donors):

“A simple $25 dollars that wont matter come my next pay check, led to a phone call that I will not forget for a lifetime. I had not expected nor sought a response for my simple and small donation to Team Rubicon, but the gritty, honest call I received from a TR volunteer was truly inspiring. Matt left me with a lasting notion that he called me because he wanted to, not because he had to. Pictures and stories moved me to make a small donation, but Matt’s heart-felt message reinforced how much every little bit counts. TR has found a life-long supporter in me.”

-Adam C.

An Effective Communication Strategy is Key to Fundraising Success

build your communications strategy field guide for nonprofits

[1] 2012 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report, by the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Image Credit: (in order) Team Rubicon, tanenhaus

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