Successful Fundraising Strategies that Retain Donors

Learn how sharing impact and gratitude can raise more money

Raising more money for your school or sports team can be a daunting task. Year after year, it can feel like your fundraising efforts have you tapping the same well, and you might be worried you’ll exhaust your supporters.

People will be solicited for donations countless times over the course of a year. The best fundraisers and development experts know that despite this statistic, you can still have a highly successful fundraiser if you commit to combating exhaustion with inspiration. Expert fundraisers Sarah Clifton, Deborah Kaplan Polivy and Jeffrey David Stauch all discuss the model of the “gift cycle,” a fundraising concept that translates well into any setting that is looking to generate gifts on a periodic or annual basis.

The gift cycle or “donor lifecycle” essentially describes the relationship between fundraiser and donor or customer, and refers to the process of informing donors about your mission; making “the ask”; communicating results; expressing gratitude; and then returning later for renewed commitment.

For schools, sports teams and other community organizations trying to raise money, this annual ask may very well be a door-to-door conversation with your friends and neighbors, which makes donor stewardship an important component of any sized fundraising campaign.

Depending on the scale of your fundraising, the “gift cycle” may not be as protracted, and the time for cultivation can be limited. However, that doesn’t mean you should skip any of these steps because your elementary school fundraiser isn’t as large as your local United Way campaign. Treat fundraisers for community groups like nonprofits treat their corporate fundraisers, and you’ll be far more likely to raise a lot of money and keep your community engaged in your cause for more than one season.

The key is cultivating relationships with those who support your community organization by closing the gap between buying a fundraising product and the impact that these contributions will make.

Consider that a student will likely be a member of a sports team or school for three to five years, if not longer. We know that teachers are spending more than ever on critical instructional supplies, and that most community organizations will face annual fundraising needs to help supplement the cost of materials, equipment or other programs. Over a student’s tenure in one of these groups, fundraising may be an integral component to their participation. Perhaps these fundraisers will even offer students skill building opportunities and rewards.

To help maximize the impact of your fundraiser and raise big money, consider cultivating donors by defining your fundraising mission; communicating the impact a successful fundraiser will make; and expressing gratitude to donors for helping you or your school, church or other organization raise money. Building trust, rapport and investment with your community will improve the likelihood that people will become champions of your organization, and be willing to support your fundraising goals year after year.

Here’s what your fundraising strategy should include to master the gift cycle.

Successful Fundraising Strategies Are Mission-Driven

Jason Saul, CEO of Mission Measurement and author of “The End of Fundraising: Sell Your Impact,” describes succinctly the transformation that has led to a revolution in the way all fundraisers must approach their donors.

“The exacerbation of social and environmental conditions has bolstered interest in the social capital market. Today social change is no longer exogenous to our economy,” writes Saul. “[That] means that the “product” that nonprofits manufacture—social impact—now has mainstream economic currency.

This is especially true for brochure fundraisers and other turnkey development solutions. When your fundraising strategy has a product at the core of its operation, you must connect this product to the good work being done as a result of its sales if you want to retain donors annually and fight the attrition present in exhausting and inefficient fundraising programs.

There’s no doubt they’ll love the pretzels, cookies and flowers you’re selling them; but what they really need to love to feel good about their purchase is the difference it’s making. You can accomplish this by framing your fundraiser with a strong mission.

In the nonprofit world, charity: water is a young organization. Nevertheless, they’ve quickly risen to popularity because of innovative marketing and a clear, compelling mission: “Our mission is to bring clean and safe drinking water to every person in the world.”

Charity: water achieves their goal by installing wells in developing countries, transforming the environment and health of the communities. It takes all of 30 seconds to describe what this global nonprofit does with their fundraising dollars.

Local community fundraisers can still have a compelling mission behind them. Whether you’re selling a tangible good to raise money or going for a pure ask, you can help others understand why your group is fundraising by articulating a mission that is based in a broader context.

Is your elementary school raising funds to purchase much needed school supplies? Look downstream and share what this will do to make an impact that is sustainable. Filling the funding gap for supplies isn’t just about having pencils and crayons. Consider framing it as “Meeting the needs of all students and teachers, so that our community has the tools for academic success.”

Or, perhaps your sports team is looking for a fundraising idea that works, so that the team can afford to get to state championships. When sharing about the fundraising products you’re selling, let people know that they can help youth continue developing character, physical health and leadership skills in a safe environment.

Mission statements that address “systemic change” are powerful, and help people see the difference their purchase can make. The FrameWorks Institute uses the metaphor of a wide-angle camera lens to help describe how telling stories that look at systems instead of individuals can amplify change and produce positive results. It’s the first step in engaging your community in long-term fundraising support, because it’s helping them see their purchase of flowers, discounts cards and chocolates as a means of improving their community in a way that benefits everyone.

 Even the best fundraising ideas should be supplemented with a strategy that cultivates donors or customers over the long-term

Successful Fundraising Strategies Communicate Impact

A mission-driven fundraiser will naturally create the opportunity to share about progress towards fulfilling this mission, and doing so is a valuable way to turn a one-time donor into a long-time supporter.

It’s no secret that people are more willing to give if they know where their money is going. Information accessibility has made fundraising transparency at any level all the more critical. From the fundraiser’s point of view, grassroots community fundraisers sometimes seem too small to warrant this kind of approach. From the donor or customer’s point of view, however, communicating how their dollars are spent brings their purchase or contribution full circle.

Nonprofits and community organizations have often mastered “the ask”, but have forgotten to continue their donor stewardship by closing the loop and sharing their success. This approach is inherently fundraiser-centric, neglecting the relationship fostered between a community and the causes it supports. Instead, keep your fundraising ideas and strategies donor-centric, focused on expressing gratitude, appreciation and impact.

School fundraisers and major resource development teams alike should consider communications part and parcel to raising big money. The most successful fundraising communications will implement storytelling.

“Storytelling” has been a buzzword in the new media age, and it’s permeating every industry—especially those that rely on emotional connections for success. Whether you’re purchasing a consumer good or choosing a bank, it’s the element of transformation in quality of life that people connect with.

Stauch sums up the critical purpose of storytelling in his book “Effective Frontline Fundraising,” noting that how you tell your story matters: “The more details you include in your story, the more likely you’ll connect to a donor…[It] should be crafted in such a way that it answers the essential question on a donor’s mind: why should I support your organization[?]”

How many pairs of scissors did you buy, how much money did that save teachers, and what lesson plans were created because a donor purchased some flowers and candy? These kinds of connections are how storytelling works as a powerful tool that makes donors feel engaged with your cause. Did your campaign lead to a classroom experience that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible? Share this in a letter to donors with pictures of the project, and provide student testimonials.

And, remember that mission? Make sure your story ends by addressing where you began. If your mission is ongoing, highlight the progress that was made because of their support.

Alyce Lee Stansbury, a professional fundraising consultant lauded by school districts, stresses that “Donors respond to urgent human needs, not organizational needs. Start telling your best story and people will respond.”

Whether you’re conducting a school fundraiser, sports fundraiser or corporate fundraiser, expressing how a donor helped is a key component of ensuring they feel appreciated, and building confidence that their participation made a difference. School fundraising committees, Parent Teacher Associations/Organizations (PTA/PTO), faculty, staff, coaches and group leaders should all be engaged in helping tell your story, so that a successful fundraiser can be translated into real life change.

Successful Fundraising Strategies Express Gratitude

Speaking of appreciation, you’d be hard pressed to find a fundraiser who doesn’t give thanking donors equal weight with asking donors when it comes to running fundraisers that work.

Successful fundraising at all levels is punctuated by expressions of gratitude. One local United Way CEO regularly reminded her staff that donors must be thanked seven times before they feel genuinely appreciated, a rule borrowed from an age-old cross-cultural custom that fundraising consultant Janet Hedrick explores in “Effective Donor Relations.”

Hedrick suggests that a fundraiser should consider thanking a donor multiple times in multiple ways, and while your capacity for continued outreach to donors may be limited by organizational codes, it never hurts to leave an expression of gratitude at their doorstep after the campaign has ended, or upon delivering a purchased product.

When thanking someone who participated in your fundraiser, keep these guides in mind:

  • Use donor-centric language, and remember that “you messages” communicate gratitude better than “we messages.”
  • Begin and end your oral or written communication with a “thank you.”
  • Communicate in a way that is meaningful to your audience. While nearly all audiences will appreciate a handwritten letter or note, consider your capabilities for public recognition, and thank major supporters in a more public way. This adds value to their purchase or contribution.
  • Provide a timely thank you to avoid making donors feel like an afterthought.
  • If your program or mission is on-going, keep donors or customers informed about recent developments. A donor who never grows cold never has to be resold!

Mapping out your donor cultivation strategy, and continuing to engage them in your impact even when you’re not fundraising can lead to increasingly successful campaigns year over year—something particularly important in lower-ask fundraisers and brochure fundraisers where prices are set. In these situations, the volume of donors matters, because it’s less likely that donors will make a higher outright contribution.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals notes that a 2012 survey conducted by the Urban Institute found that the less a charity was raising, the greater the net loss in their fundraising was year over year. This is important information for school and community fundraisers, where the goals tend to be lower to fill gaps in pre-existing funding for basic needs. It underscores the importance of cultivating your supporters to reach higher levels of revenue through bigger purchases each year.

If your stewardship plan is one that mission driven, committed to expressing continued impact, and adequately makes donors feel appreciated, donors will likely come to associate your product or fundraising pitch with a chance to make a tangible difference in the quality of life in their community.

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