FYI Blog

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

Four Signs a Donor Relationship Wasn’t Made to Last
(And What You Can Do About It)

For all the talk in our industry about donor retention, donor desirability is a rarely discussed topic. But the fact is: Acquiring the right type of donor is as critical to strong retention as any post-acquisition cultivation strategy. Some donors, despite making a first gift, may simply not be good matches.

Here are four signs that you may be spending resources on donors who just aren’t that into you—along with some suggestions for boosting the chances for a mutually beneficial relationship.

Sign No. 1: The Narrow Shared Interest (“You like birds? I like birds! It must be love!”)

One environmental nonprofit had mailed a single-issue acquisition package for several years—we’ll borrow from Dr. Seuss and call it the “Save the Mop-Noodled Finch” campaign. But although thousands of bird lovers alit to make a first gift, they were as flighty as the feathered fowl when it came time to renew.

What happened? Donors were joining based on an issue they felt passionate about. But ultimately they didn’t understand the full scope of the nonprofit’s work and mission. So, when subsequent solicitations turned to other conservation issues, the bird-lovers weren’t buying.

The nonprofit has since broadened the acquisition message to educate potential donors about its larger conservation mission—in addition to talking about the plight of specific species. Donors who respond are still passionate, but they are also more informed and invested in the big picture—and retention has rebounded as a result.

Sign No. 2: The Impulse Marriage (“Since we’re here … let’s get hitched!”)

How many times have you been deeply inspired by a live performance, a museum exhibit, or a historical landmark—so inspired, in fact, that you made a gift on the spot? Now be honest: how committed were you to a long-term relationship with that organization?

“Not very” was the blunt answer one land stewardship organization got from on-site contributors (in not so many words). An analysis of donor retention by source revealed that individuals who made a first gift while visiting one of the nonprofit’s properties were far less likely to renew than donors who joined through direct mail.

We don’t advocate eliminating on-site sales—because every donor touchpoint matters. But the key takeaway here is that direct mail acquisition is still this organization’s best investment, coupled with a proactive cultivation plan for converting on-site contributors into loyal, long-term donors.

Sign No. 3: The Cheap Date (“Just $5? What have I got to lose?!?”)

It’s natural to want to make donors an offer they can’t refuse—like a heavily discounted join offer or a nifty premium. The join rate looks great, but retention rates … well, not so much.

We’ve analyzed retention by giving level for dozens of organizations, and the results are consistent. Super-low-dollar donors renew at a much lower rate than donors who make higher dollar commitments. The ROI just isn’t there under a certain giving level.

Low-dollar donors have their place, but we caution organizations not to cheapen the join price by too much—or you’ll be spending money on donors who don’t return the love. Understanding donor value by giving level helps guide where to invest your energy and resources (i.e., probably not on the $5 donor who liked your mailing labels).

Sign No. 4: The Online-Only Relationship (“It was nice meeting online … now what?”)

Nonprofits have discovered the power of online outreach to recruit new donors. But just like real-life online dating, the strongest relationships eventually have to evolve beyond email to survive.

Consider these facts:

  • Many donors who join online switch to direct mail for subsequent gifts—many in their first renewal year.
  • Donors who give through multiple channels (mail, phone, online) have substantially higher retention rates and lifetime values.
  • For most organizations, direct mail still produces more than 75% of all gifts (compared to just 13% online).


So, the next time your board asks “why don’t we just fundraise online?”—you know what to say. Single-channel fundraising is a dead-end for developing long-term donor relationships.

Now that you know some signs that a new donor may not be “the one,” how do you measure the impact on retention? The simple answer: track and analyze.

At a minimum you should track donor retention on an annual basis, going back at least five years. Then take a deeper data dive to understand the retention micro-climate. For example, how are first-year donors renewing compared to multi-year donors? How does retention break down by giving level? By channel? By acquisition list and package?

Armed with these metrics, you can test and identify the factors that may be influencing donors to renew (or not). And you may just discover that adjusting your donor dating strategy can help you find those special supporters who will, as the song goes, still love you tomorrow.