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Donor Participation Project Resources

Personalized Donor Outreach: Using Tech to Build Meaningful Relationships

For nonprofits, building meaningful relationships with donors is key to fundraising success.

However, with small staffs and budgets, scaling personalized outreach can seem daunting.

The good news is, by leveraging marketing automation tools, nonprofits can reach more donors in a personal way without draining resources.

An automation example from

Nick Prenger, CEO of fundraising firm Prenger Solutions Group, shared how his team used Microsoft Power Automate to help a Catholic diocese launch an automated email cultivation program.

Over the course of a year, 15,000 donors received periodic emails directly from the diocese’s development director with updates and stories of impact. Meanwhile, 35,000 donors did not receive the emails.

The results showed the power of this personalized outreach. Those receiving emails were 62% more likely to donate to the annual appeal. They also gave 264% more and had three times the recurring giving rate. Additionally, their participation only declined 6% compared to 20% for non-email recipients, indicating higher retention.

For nonprofits considering a similar program, Prenger recommends starting with a simple “stewardship email” to express thanks, share an impact story or provide a program update.

This low-risk contact can yield big returns while building trust for future appeals.

He also suggests an 8:1 ratio of non-ask touches to appeals to cultivate true relationships.

To implement, Prenger suggests exploring tools like Microsoft Power Automate that integrate with your CRM to automatically trigger personalized emails based on donor actions. For example, send new donor welcome emails or recurring gift renewal invitations when a multi-month pledge is nearing completion. With segments tailored to giving history, you can keep messages highly relevant.

While marketing automation may be new territory, starting small and learning as you go can help overcome legal and technical roadblocks. Focusing on the impact—stronger donor relationships and fundraising results—will make the challenges worthwhile. With the right tools and strategy, every nonprofit can achieve meaningful donor outreach at scale.

Get the full recording for this session in our Resource Library!

Donor Participation Project Resources

The Neuroscience of Fundraising: Images, Empathy and Giving

Fundraising is an emotional process, not just a logical one.

Donors give because they feel something.

Neuroimaging research shows that donating activates the social emotional parts of the brain, the areas involved in empathy, social bonding, and reward.

Effective fundraising storytelling taps into these social emotions. Stories need visual details and compelling characters to evoke emotion. Vague or complicated stories fail to create mental images, so donors feel nothing.

Simplicity is key.

While the issues nonprofits address can be complex, fundraising stories must be simple. Focus on one character or group to identify with, not many. Adding too many names, details and subplots muddies the story and alienates donors.

Emotion-evoking stories also need empathy.

Details only help if donors care about the character.

For example, in studies people donated more to help one sick child named “Chase” versus five children without names.

But empathy depends on the character. Details increased donations for a needy gifted child but not when the child wasn’t in need.

Nonprofits often focus on statistics but numbers alone don’t motivate giving. Stories do.

That said, visual images do matter—events in nice settings encourage bigger gifts than frugal ones.

Surveys and conversations can also elicit donor stories and connections to your mission. Major donors gave after including charities in estate plans, likely because this “donating wealth” mindset stuck. Ask how donors first got involved or what they’d change if money were no object. Their answers reveal values and victories to build stories around. In the end, people give to people and nonprofits they identify with.

Stories that evoke mental images and emotion create this identification.

While there’s an art to storytelling, understanding its neuroscience and social impact can guide more effective, empathetic fundraising stories.

Compelling tales of overcoming challenges and achieving meaningful victories will move donors to act and forge lasting relationships with your cause.

View the complete recording of this Donor Participation Project session with Dr. Russell James in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project Resources

Why “You” Matters More Than “I” in Fundraising Communications

Nonprofit fundraisers spend significant time and resources crafting messaging to appeal to donors and encourage their support. However, the language we use in these communications often focuses too much on “us”—the organization—rather than “you”—the donor.

To truly engage donors and inspire them to give generously, we must adopt an outward focus in our writing.

When writing for donors, avoid starting sentences with “I,” “we,” or “our.”

Instead, address the donor directly using “you.”

For example, rather than saying “We awarded 10 new scholarships this year thanks to your support,” try “You made it possible for 10 deserving students to receive scholarships this year.”

Debbie Meyers

This subtle shift places the donor at the center of the impact and helps them feel personally connected to your mission.

Ask open-ended questions to engage the reader

For example, say “How can we work together to help even more students access higher education?”

However, be sure to provide context for your questions. Donors want to understand the challenges and opportunities, not guess at them. Follow up your questions with compelling stories and data that inspire them to act.

Show how donors are part of the solution, not just funders of your organization. Highlight the change they are making possible in people’s lives.

For example, say “You gave John hope for a brighter future” rather than “Your gift supported our youth programs.”

Capture the human impact and emotions to forge a deeper connection between the donor and your cause.

Conversational, authentic language also helps to focus outward.

Use an active voice, contractions, and vary your sentence structure.

Write the way you would talk to a friend. While a formal tone may seem respectful, it creates distance rather than fostering intimacy with the donor.

An outward focus requires empathy, listening to understand what motivates your donors to give and framing communications around their interests and impact. When donors recognize how they can transform lives through your organization, they will become loyal champions of your mission. So, keep “you” at the heart of your messages—it’s the key to donor participation.

Donor Participation Project Resources

Connecting Through Gaming: How the USO Leverages Video Games to Support Military Members

The USO, a nonprofit that supports active military members and their families, has discovered an innovative way to connect with younger service members: through video games.

Over the last few years, the USO has developed a gaming program that leverages streaming platforms like Twitch to raise funds, build community, and bridge the civilian-military divide.

According to Diego Scharifker, the USO’s gaming partnerships manager, the key to their gaming success has been connecting it directly to their mission.

“Gaming can’t just be a fundraising tool. There has to be a connection to our mission.”.

Diego Scharifker, USO

For the USO, that means using gaming to connect deployed service members with their families and friends back home. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the USO noticed how gaming provided opportunities for people to connect when they couldn’t be together in person. They wanted to provide that same benefit to active military members, who are often separated from loved ones.

The USO’s gaming program includes livestreaming events where military gamers in different locations can compete against each other, as well as building gaming centers at military bases.

They’ve also had success fundraising through popular streaming platform Twitch, raising over $160,000 so far through peer-to-peer campaigns and matching gifts.

According to Scharifker, while the number of followers a streamer has can matter, the most important thing is that the streamer has an authentic connection to the charity’s mission. With the right stewarding, these streamers can become effective fundraisers and ambassadors.

For nonprofits looking to start their own gaming fundraising initiatives, the USO provides a model of how to do it well.

  • Connecting gaming directly to your mission
  • Focusing on relationships over numbers
  • Ensuring gaming is not just a passing fad but an integral part of how you achieve your goals

While getting leadership buy-in may take time, the USO’s example shows that gaming can be a worthwhile investment!

Donor Participation Project Resources

Major Gifts Need Donor Stories: Connecting Personal Narratives to Your Mission

To secure major gifts, nonprofits must understand and connect with donors on a personal level.

According to Dr. Russell James, a leading expert on philanthropic psychology, donors give the largest gifts when organizations effectively elicit their life stories and identify how those narratives link with the organizational mission.

Large donations represent a major life investment for donors, so their giving choices are deeply personal.

Through surveys and in-depth conversations, fundraisers can discover donors’ core values, meaningful relationships, life experiences, and perceptions of significant life victories.

With this understanding, nonprofits can then frame their case for support around the donors’ self-concept and autobiographical memories.

For example, a nonprofit supporting medical research may ask donors about their experiences with illness and healthcare. A university can invite alumni to share memories of their time as students and the lifelong impact of their education. A performing arts organization could survey patrons about the role that arts and culture have played in their lives.

Armed with this insight, the nonprofit can then demonstrate how donations will fuel victories and advance values that resonate with the donor’s sense of identity and purpose.

The stories and settings the nonprofit shares should also reflect the donors’ abundance mindset, as research shows people give more when they feel financially secure.

An opulent donor event, for instance, reinforces that mindset more so than a barebones gathering.

While mass communication campaigns have their place, major gifts fundraising requires highly personalized outreach.

Nonprofits must devote time and resources to understanding donors’ narratives, then strategically connect those stories to the meaning and importance of the work.

The keys are:

  • Listen to learn their story;
  • Frame requests around their values and vision of victory; and
  • Choose language and settings that inspire an abundance perspective.

With the right approach, donor stories can transform into major gifts that change lives through the power of a shared mission.

View the complete recording of this session with Dr. Russell James in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project Resources

The Power of Asking: How Questions Can Lead to Transformational Gifts

Asking the right questions is key to securing major gifts from donors.

According to fundraising experts Dr. Russell James and Jim Langley, questions are more powerful than telling donors about your organization’s needs.

Questions help donors define what they want to accomplish with their giving and find meaning in their philanthropy.

Questions also lead donors to make positive predictions about their future giving behavior, known as the question-behavior effect. For example, asking “Would you consider donating to your alma mater if asked?” increases the likelihood of a donation when asked.

Questions also help donors construct “personally meaningful philanthropic victories” by connecting gifts to what matters most.

How can fundraisers start these important conversations?

  • First, build trust and rapport. Explain why the donor’s input is valuable before asking lots of questions. For example, say you want advice from loyal donors or that the donor’s unique perspective can help shape your work.
  • Frame questions around the donor’s “people, values and history.”
  • Ask open-ended questions like “What would you like to accomplish with your giving?” or “Have you thought about how you’d like your gift used?”
  • Listen for clues to the donor’s motivation and interests. Then, suggest specific ways they can make an impact, ranging from small to transformational gifts.
  • Explain the difference their support can make at each level. This approach expands the donor’s “enjoyment of being philanthropic” and increases their lifetime giving.

While time-intensive, fundraising powered by donor questions and conversations yields the best ROI. Large gifts often have “instructions” on how they’re used, showing donors want to shape impact.

Though technology can enhance outreach, in-depth, interpersonal conversations are most likely to produce transformational gifts.

Overall, an organizational culture built on trust, listening, and meeting donors where they are will lead to the most meaningful partnerships. The power of questions simply can’t be overstated.

This approach may require an investment of resources, but empirical evidence proves that it pays off. The future of fundraising is building profound relationships with donors of capacity and care through the art of asking.

Get the full record of this Donor Participation Project session in our resource library!

Case Study Donor Participation Project Resources

The Data on Engagement and Giving: The “X Factor”

Engaged donors give more. That’s the key insight from new research on the connection between engagement and giving.

According to data from surveys of nearly 10,000 donors performed by Louis Diez and Ron Cohen, those who feel highly engaged with an organization—defined as meeting with people related to and feeling valued by the organization frequently—give at significantly higher levels. In fact, the most engaged donors give at up to 5 times the rate of donors overall.

Call it the “X factor.”

For organizations focused on fundraising, engagement with donors and constituents dramatically multiplies giving over time. Donor engagement is the X factor that significantly boosts giving from key donor groups:

  • Gifts under $1,000: Highly engaged donors gave at 1.2 times the rate of all donors.
  • Gifts $2,500-$9,999: Highly engaged donors gave at 2 times the rate of all donors.
  • Gifts $10,000-$24,999: Highly engaged donors gave at 3 times the rate of all donors.
  • Gifts $25,000-$49,999: Highly engaged donors gave at 4 times the rate of all donors.
  • Gifts $50,000 and up: Highly engaged donors gave at 5 times the rate of all donors.

The more an organization can cultivate engagement, the more it will see giving increase over time, especially among mid-level and major donors.

The key is focusing on the three elements of trust that drive engagement: credibility, reliability, and intimacy.

This means communicating transparently and consistently, following through on promises, and personalizing interactions. Donors who trust an organization, talk about it, and feel valued will become partners in its mission.

For fundraising programs seeking sustainable growth, investment in donor engagement will yield significant dividends.

While tactics like increasing call volumes or events may boost short-term dollars, engagement builds lifetime value and transforms donors into advocates and ambassadors. For long-term funding, engagement is the strategic “X factor” that multiplies giving across the donor pyramid.

Nonprofits that make engagement a priority will thrive. Those that don’t risk being left behind.

Get the full recording for this Donor Participation Project session in our resource library!

Donor Participation Project Resources

From Disposable Income to Donating Wealth: The Importance of Setting

The setting in which a donor considers making a gift has a significant impact on their generosity, according to neuroscientist and fundraising expert Dr. Russell James.

In a Donor Participation Project session, Dr. James explained how nonprofits can use setting to encourage donors to give from their wealth rather than just disposable income. Dr. James said the abundance or scarcity of a donor’s setting influences how much they donate.

An opulent gala or donor reception puts donors in an “abundance mindset” where they feel more inclined to give larger gifts. In contrast, an event highlighting the organization’s frugality or limited resources puts donors in a “scarcity mindset” and makes them less generous.

Orchestrate an abundant atmosphere.

The gift type a nonprofit requests also matters. Asking for and sharing stories of donors giving non-cash assets like stocks or real estate introduces the idea of donating wealth. Once donors consider their wealth as “donation relevant,” Dr. James has found their giving dramatically increases, both immediately and for years to come.

On average, donors who include a charity in their estate plan increase their annual giving by 78% the following year, and giving remains higher for 8 years after that.

While many fundraisers focus on raising cash donations from a donor’s disposable income, the setting of encounters with donors and the types of gifts requested significantly impact the potential lifetime value of supporters.

By sharing stories of donors giving from their wealth and creating an abundant atmosphere at events, nonprofits can elevate donors from considering only disposable income to seeing their wealth as donation relevant.

The result is transformational gifts that fuel greater mission impact.

View the complete recording of this Donor Participation Project session with Dr. Russell James in our Resource Library.

Case Study Donor Participation Project

The Value of Building Trust: How Engagement Leads to Dollars

For nonprofit fundraisers, building trust with donors is essential.

Donor relationships built on trust and engagement lead to more consistent and larger gifts over time.

However, many organizations struggle to make the case for investing in engagement. A recent podcast featuring fundraising experts Louis Diez and Ron Cohen provides data-driven insights on how trust pays off.

Diez and Cohen’s analysis of nearly 10,000 donors from multiple organizations found a clear correlation between donors’ level of engagement and lifetime giving.

Donors who reported interacting with an organization at least five times in the past year and said they felt “always” or “very often” valued gave at higher levels. For example, donors who gave between $2,500 to $10,000 were twice as likely to be highly engaged as the average donor.

Highly engaged donors were five times more likely to have made gifts over $100,000.

Extrapolating from these findings, Cohen estimates that increasing the number of highly engaged donors—even modestly—could result in over $1 million in additional lifetime revenue. Of course, revenue generation is not guaranteed, but focusing on engagement and trust-building strengthens relationships in a way that motivates giving.

How can organizations build trust and increase engagement? Cohen and Diez recommend reporting back to donors on surveys and campaigns to show their impact, acknowledging all gifts sincerely, and inviting more touchpoints that make donors feel valued.

  • For major donors, that may mean in-person meetings.
  • For annual fund donors, sharing stories of how gifts were used can help build emotional connections.

While relationships take work, focusing on engagement and trust pays long-term dividends.

Diez urges organizations not to see engagement as a “wishy-washy feel good thing” but as a strategic imperative.

By valuing and cultivating supportive communities, organizations build goodwill that generates revenue and spreads through advocacy and word-of-mouth.

Though soft on the surface, trust produces hard results.

The data shows engagement matters—and building trust leads to dollars.

Get the full recording for this Donor Participation Project session in our resource library!

Donor Participation Project

Engaging Alumni in Meaningful Ways: A Shift from Rankings and Numbers

For years, higher education advancement offices have been chasing the metric of alumni giving participation to climb rankings and raise their profiles.

However, with the recent US News and World Report decision to drop alumni giving from its rankings calculations, schools now have an opportunity to shift their focus from numbers to meaningful engagement.

According to experts Dr. Shalonda Martin and Perry Radford, this change allows advancement teams to develop strategic, impactful alumni engagement plans beyond a single metric. The key is understanding alumni motivations and how to build lifelong connections.

“Messaging has gone to a really transactional place,” Radford says, “and I think some of it might change…to other effects that maybe have popped up along the way that can replace the participation rate.”

One way to make this shift is reimagining the traditional phone-a-thon. Typically focused on raising dollars for the annual fund, phonathons could expand to cultivate volunteers, event attendees, mentors and more. This helps address the common alumni complaint of “I only hear from you when you want money.” By servicing alumni in meaningful ways, schools build trust and lasting loyalty.

Advancement leaders should also evaluate their data and metrics, focusing on qualitative outcomes like alumni experiences, referrals and advocacy instead of just giving rates.

Digital engagement may provide more holistic insights into how alumni interact and connect. Partnerships across campus can help share data and understand connections between experiences, philanthropy, and school reputation.

The path ahead requires resources and leadership to motivate change. But by broadening the scope of alumni engagement, schools can build a culture of philanthropy that inspires alumni to give, get involved, and spread their support.

The ranking chase is over; now the real work of fostering lifelong alumni relationships begins.

Focusing on engagement over numbers and dollars is the future of connecting with alumni in impactful ways.

View the full recording of this conversation in the Donor Participation Project’s resource library.