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How Leaky is Your Fundraising Bucket?


By Chelsea Alves

Filling Bucket with Water

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Think of your fundraising efforts as a bucket and your donors as water. If your bucket has too many holes in it, your donors will slowly trickle out. Such is the case for many nonprofit organizations who have difficulty managing the different elements of fundraising. They focus more of their time on certain areas of fundraising while neglecting others—leading to a leaky fundraising bucket.

Don’t fret if your bucket has holes, we’re here to help. Here are six tips for how to plug your leaks and focus your efforts in the areas that need it most.

1. Assess Where the Leaks Are

The first step toward plugging your leaks is finding them. Take a look at your overall fundraising strategy and the level of attention that you pay to each individual effort. If you need help determining how your fundraising efforts align, try our fundraising assessment tool. Elements measured in this tool include:

Once you identify the areas that don’t get as much attention as they should, you can start to bring balance back to your bucket. Choose one or two elements that are currently receiving the least amount of attention. Over the next few months, concentrate your efforts on these elements. You won’t become a fundraising expert in each area overnight, but bringing awareness to your weak spots will help to slow the leaks.

2. Do Fewer Things Well

Here’s a new idea for your nonprofit fundraising strategy: do a few things well.
When you take on too much, things inevitably slip through the cracks. Instead of being mediocre at a lot of things, set a goal to be excellent at a few things.

Whether you want to create a stellar donor acquisition program, or focus on an email nurture series that converts, give yourself the room to be successful.

3. Diversify Your Fundraising Portfolio

Nonprofit organizations are not limited to just one or two revenue sources. Diverse fundraising is the key to your nonprofit’s long-term success. With a diverse fundraising portfolio, nonprofit organizations can operate with the security of knowing if one source of revenue is leaking from their bucket, they have other sources that will keep them afloat.

The majority of charitable contributions come from individuals but there are a number of different paths to giving which include:

  • Corporate giving – A local business or a large corporation partners with or sponsors your organization.
  • Bequests or planned giving – Transfers of wealth made through a will.
  • Foundation grants – Local and national foundations give a grant to your nonprofit organization.
  • Regular donations – One-time gifts to your organization.
  • Monthly giving – Recurring monthly gifts from devoted supporters.
  • Peer-to-peer fundraising – Supporters create fundraising pages and ask friends or family to donate.
  • Major gifts – Large donations from individuals.

Diversifying your fundraising is a long-term process that takes thoughtful planning, realistic expectations, and most importantly, patience. Results may not be immediate—individual donor programs can take a couple of years to gain traction before you start seeing a big difference—but it’s a worthwhile investment you can make that will pay off in the long run.

4. Ask Questions

If revenue goes up, we tend to breathe a sigh of relief and move on. If it goes down, we work furiously to get back on track. But how many nonprofit organizations take a look at the movement of donors in and out of giving over time?

It’s inevitable that there is always movement in your donor bucket. New donors come in through acquisition efforts like email marketing, events, or board contacts. Some stay in the bucket and even upgrade their gifts to rise to the top. But all donor bases have attrition. You need to get a closer look at the movement of your donors to determine where your organization might be wasting time or money. The best way to do this is to ask questions.

Some questions that can help you assess where your bucket stands are:

  • How many new donors do you acquire each year?
  • How many donors don’t repeat their gifts over the course of one year?
  • What percentage of your one-time donors turn into repeat donors?

Having a system in place that helps you keep track of how many new donors are acquired each year can help you determine how large your supporter pool is. If you have a big pool of one-time supporters, you should focus your efforts on retention and repeat giving.

5. Keep Existing Donors

While many nonprofits focus heavily on donor acquisition, donor retention is sometimes glanced over. But keeping a donor is much less expensive than getting a new one. This is particularly the case in the context of fundraising, where it typically costs nonprofits 2 to 3 times more to recruit a donor than a donor will give by way of a first donation. Organizations make this investment knowing that if they can keep the donor for the long haul, their return on investment can far outpace the initial cost. If you can keep your donors in the bucket, the cost of fundraising should drop significantly with each subsequent gift.

Every new donor presents your organization with the opportunity to turn them into a monthly donor, a major gift donor, or even a bequest donor, yielding many times more revenue than the amount that was invested to engage them initially.

6. Determine What Your Bucket Looks Like

It is more costly to acquire new donors than to retain existing donors, yet attrition is substantially high, according to Blackbaud. 69 percent of individual donors say none of the nonprofits they support call them without asking for another gift. Sixty-one percent of donors say they’ve received a request for a second gift with their thank you and this has offended 81 percent of those donors. All of these actions can lead to a leaky fundraising bucket.

There are three different types of donor buckets typically seen in nonprofit fundraising operations:

The Classic Leaky Bucket

There are proactive efforts to bring new donors into the organization, but little is done to retain existing donors.


A small animal shelter recruits 700 new donors each year through a combination of fundraising efforts. The organization is investing in each of these donors because the cost of acquiring them through email marketing, direct mail, social media, and online campaigns exceeds their first gift. However, they continue to invest because they know new donors are key to growth.

While some new donors continue to give second and even third gifts, this organization is losing many existing ones every year because they do not have a strong donor retention strategy in place and instead focus most of their efforts on donor acquisition.


This organization should focus on building strong relationships with existing donors before they continue to invest in acquisition. They can do this by creating a system to deepen relationships with their supporters.

Some things this organization can do:

  • Create a donor welcome pack and special new donor thank you.
  • Send a hand-signed thank you promptly while making it as personal as possible.
  • Publish a donor-driven, story-focused newsletter four times yearly.
  • Invite donors to engage with their organization in ways that don’t always involve a monetary gift.

The Second Gift Leak

This organization recruits donors, but those same donors are not making recurring gifts and are immediately leaking out the bottom of the bucket. Instead their donors make a one-time gift and then leave.


A Veteran’s organization recruits 2,000 new donors each year through year-round events, a strong donation page, and peer-to-peer fundraising. These donors make a one-time donation, but the organization never asks for a second gift.


Three out of four new donors leave and never come back according to npEngage, but this organization doesn’t have to follow that trend. This organization needs to look into their donor retention strategy and how they ask for a second gift. When asking for a second gift, they should circle back around and tell donors what impact their charitable gift had. This organization can systemize a process for small and mid-level donors—sending targeted pieces of communication to different donor pools.

The Optimal Bucket

This organization proactively works to bring in new donors but also uses a robust retention strategy to minimize donor attrition.


In one year, an education services organization recruited 1,000 new donors. It also has retained 75 percent of its existing 2,500 donors and has converted 50 percent of its new donors to give a second gift. How did this organization get it right?


This organization has worked hard to create a solid acquisition plan to bring in donors. At the same time, it has also put a strong emphasis on retention and conversion strategies to proactively keep the donors it recruits.

To do this they:

  • Show donors the value of their mission through the impact of their programs;
  • Build relationships with donors and provide an exceptional donor experience;
  • Focus their message and relationship on the donor;
  • Provide a personalized, customized, and individualized experience.


Whether your bucket is classic or optimal, the most important thing is to know what your bucket looks like. Even an organization that has good acquisition and retention strategies in place could be missing opportunities by not understanding their donors. Figure out where your holes are in your bucket to seal them to create the optimal fundraising bucket.

Turn New Donors Into Lifelong Supporters

donor retention handbook

Photo Credit: Dwight Sipler

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