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Donor Participation Project

Start Planning Your Nonprofit’s Next Fiscal Year: A Step-by-Step Guide

The end of the fiscal year is approaching—are you ready to plan the next one? Having an effective planning process will lead to more successful fundraising campaigns and donor engagement. Follow these steps to start planning your nonprofit’s next fiscal year:

Gather your team.

Pull in stakeholders from key areas like fundraising, engagement, and stewardship. Their input is crucial, and including them builds trust in the process.

Start with a blank slate.

Leave behind last year’s calendar and any preconceptions. Look at your communications and campaigns with fresh eyes.

Brainstorm your must-haves, ongoing communications, and engagement opportunities.

Must-haves are non-negotiables like year-end appeals. Ongoing communications happen on a donor schedule like gift anniversaries. Engagement includes events, surveys, and emails. Map these on a shared calendar.

Get feedback.

Share your draft calendar with volunteers and donors. Make sure not to accuse other donors who brought campaigns of not liking their ideas, but thankfully allow other to share companies different ideas. Incorporate their input.

Present to leadership for approval.

Answer any questions. Document “the rules of engagement” for planning that are agreed upon. Now you’re ready to develop specific campaigns with the campaign owners owning decisions about the process.

Now you will need to flesh out the outline of campaigns with project briefs which are documents that guide decisions. Write down any new campaigns to gaining ideas for the next year. Solutions of air table planning templates to successfully manage your workload.

With an organized planning process, fundraising campaigns and strategy comes naturally because of the previous planning and participation in approval. Given the rough other years of COVID-19, a smooth planning process is more important than ever. Following these steps will set you up for success and create opportunities for participation the next year. The key is to engage, collaborate, and get the appropriate approvals which leads to a solid plan and community understanding.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project

The Decline in Donor Participation: What Nonprofits Can Do

Nonprofit organizations have seen a worrying drop in donor participation over the last few decades. According to Lewis Diaz, executive director of annual giving at Milenberg College, the number of households donating to charities has declined in tandem with falling volunteer rates and trust in nonprofits.

However, some nonprofits have managed to buck this trend by making donor growth a strategic priority. Diaz’s research found that the nonprofits most successful at increasing donor participation share some key attributes.

First, they act as “community incubators” by constantly creating new opportunities for donor engagement. Rather than relying on a few longstanding programs, they experiment with different events, fundraising campaigns, and outreach for specific donor groups. This high-volume, multi-pronged approach helps expand their base of supporters.

Second, they leverage the power of recurring gifts through monthly or multi-year donation programs. Monthly giving, in particular, has extremely high retention rates of over 90% and should be a primary fundraising channel rather than an add-on.

Third, they focus on cultivating “deep community engagement” by developing participatory, purposeful, recurring events that identify and develop new leaders. For example, engaging donors through interactive virtual or gaming events can be an innovative way to build community.

Finally, nonprofit leaders emphasize that donor participation growth must be an organization-wide priority, not just an annual giving objective. Boards, presidents, and teams across the nonprofit must be aligned and invested in engaging and retaining donors for the long run.

The takeaway for nonprofit fundraisers is that declining participation can be countered with ambition, innovation, and a commitment to community-building. Creating a personalized, interactive, and mission-driven experience for donors can transform them into life-long advocates and champions of your cause. Overall, nonprofit organizations must make the cultivation of loyal donors an utmost priority to ensure sustainable success.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project

Engaging Diverse Donors: Lessons from the Field

Engaging donors of diverse backgrounds is crucial for nonprofits to achieve their missions. However, many organizations struggle in this area, as evidenced by low participation rates of minority donors. In a recent podcast, experienced fundraisers shared their insights on how to improve.

The first step is collecting accurate data on your donor base.

Many nonprofits lack information on donors’ racial and ethnic identities, making it difficult to determine participation rates or set engagement goals. While collecting this data will take time, get started now. Look for gaps in your information and strategize ways to obtain these details respectfully.

Don’t wait for perfect data to act.

Review your portfolio and single out donors of color to focus on connecting with them. Reach out for virtual or in-person meetings and have genuine conversations to learn their priorities and passions. Be prepared for discussions around lack of belonging or institutional inequities—listen and be willing to take action. Follow up and show your appreciation for their time, and work to build lasting relationships.

Educate leadership on why engaging minority donors is important for your organization.

Help them understand that broadening the donor base will increase funds to fulfill your mission. Provide examples of peer organizations that have been successful in this area. Address concerns about “singling out” groups by focusing on the benefits to your whole community.

Highlight the impact of donors’ gifts on students or others from underrepresented groups.

For example, show how scholarships for minority students lead to improved outcomes. Recognize diverse donors’ achievements in your communications to make them feel valued and foster a sense of belonging.

Review your outreach and marketing materials to ensure people of color are represented respectfully and frequently. Hold events and advisory boards geared at engaging diverse audiences, but also integrate representation and inclusion into all of your activities. By dedicating time and resources to this goal, you can make progress in diversifying your donor base and gaining their long-term support. With understanding, sincerity and follow-through, nonprofits can achieve meaningful and lasting relationships with donors from all backgrounds.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project

Monthly Donors are Special: Create a Tailored Communication Plan

Monthly sustainers are the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations. These committed donors provide predictable revenue streams that fund programs and services. Because monthly donors make such an impact, they deserve a specialized communication plan to convey their importance and encourage their loyalty.

First, welcome new monthly donors with a tailored onboarding series. Send a personal thank you email and letter, and make a thank you phone call. Share the specific impact of their monthly gift and how it will be used. This makes them feel appreciated and reinforces why they chose to become a sustainer.

Survey your current monthly donors to better understand their needs and interests. Learn how you can improve their experience and more deeply engage them. Look for opportunities in the survey results to strengthen your relationship.

Develop a quarterly schedule to connect with sustainers through emails, direct mail, and phone calls. Exclude them from general appeals, and instead focus communications on educating them about organizational impact and the importance of their ongoing support. Ask open-ended questions to spark conversation and identify ways to enhance their membership.

Promote an “insider’s experience” for monthly donors to increase their loyalty and lifetime value. For example, invite them to special virtual or in-person events to cultivate personal connections. Share behind-the-scenes updates or offer monthly giving perks like member discounts or free resources. Make them feel like vital partners in your mission.

Upgrading sustainers is an easy way to raise additional revenue from your most committed supporters. Send tailored appeals with simple options for increasing their gift, such as $5 or $10 more per month. Make it effortless by including a reply device with their updated payment information already populated. Keep asks infrequent and within an affordable range based on their current gift.

Monthly donors deserve specialized treatment. By creating a tailored communication plan that focuses on education, engagement, loyalty, upgrades and stewardship, you will build long-term relationships, maximize the lifetime value of sustainers, and gain increased support for the programs and services on which you rely. With the right nurturing, monthly donors can become your most loyal and generous benefactors.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project

A Focus on Engagement and Retention: How William & Mary Reached 40% Alumni Participation

When William & Mary embarked on their first-ever billion-dollar campaign, they set an ambitious goal of 40% alumni participation—one of the highest rates among private institutions. According to Vice President for University Advancement Matthew Lambert, “this was an audacious goal for us to reach forward.”

To achieve this “stretch” target, William & Mary developed an integrated strategy focused on strengthening engagement, boosting participation, and ultimately raising more money. As Associate Vice President for Development Dan Fresza said, “ alumni, parents and friends… behave differently, but there are commonalities.” One common thread is that highly engaged donors are more likely to give year after year.

William & Mary started by growing their volunteer network, recruiting 800 alumni to engage their classmates through calls and messages about giving. They created “One Tribe, One Day,” a 24-hour fundraising campaign that brought in 2,000 donors in its first year. And they built a robust recurring giving program, increasing sustainers by 70% during the campaign.

A key to their success was a focus on retention over acquisition.

Analyzing five years of donor data, they found 50% of alumni had given at least once. “Nearly half of our donors year over year were not renewing,” Fresza said. To change this, they improved retention rates by 73% through strategies like student philanthropy and giving societies recognizing loyal donors.

Most importantly, success required leadership buy-in.

“Leadership is crucially important,” said Lambert. “It’s hard to do this if you don’t have a committed board, president, and executive team.” With the support of top leadership, William & Mary was able to dramatically expand their advancement efforts and foster an institutional culture of philanthropy.

By making alumni engagement and participation a priority across the university—not just in advancement—William & Mary transformed their donor base and more than doubled their alumni giving rate. Following their lead, any institution can build a sustainable culture of philanthropy by focusing on participation over the long run. Retaining loyal supporters must be an institution-wide goal to achieve fundraising success.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project

The Decline in Donor Trust: What Fundraisers Can Do

Donor trust in nonprofit institutions has declined significantly over the past 30-40 years. According to fundraising expert Jim Henry, this erosion of trust is damaging donor participation and relationships. However, fundraisers can take action to start rebuilding trust.

First, fundraisers need to build genuine relationships with donors based on shared interests and values. This means moving beyond a “donor-centric” approach and finding “portals of purpose”—areas of common ground where fundraisers and donors can work together as partners. Fundraisers should engage donors in real conversations to discover these shared purposes, rather than delivering “the pitch.”

Second, fundraisers must make a shift from seeing donors simply as “targets” to extract resources from. Instead, donors should be treated as equal partners in achieving the organization’s mission. This means embracing a philosophy of “getting together” rather than just “getting” from donors. Fundraising success should be measured not by dollars raised but by donor satisfaction and engagement.

Third, frontline fundraisers should provide “field intelligence” to leadership about donors’ priorities and concerns. By conducting donor interviews and surveys, fundraisers can gain insights into how to strengthen connections and then communicate these insights up the chain of command. This helps leadership make better strategic decisions and ensures the organization is adapting to donors’ changing needs.

Finally, fundraisers should pay close attention to long-time donors and milestone anniversaries of giving. Loyal donors giving over many years are ideal candidates for planned gifts and deeper partnerships. Recognizing and stewarding these donors helps build trust that their partnership is genuinely valued.

By following these principles, fundraisers can work to reverse the broader decline in donor trust. Building authentic relationships, finding shared purpose, providing useful insights, and valuing loyalty are timeless practices that nonprofit institutions must embrace to achieve sustainable success. With trust, participation will follow.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project

Fundraising Advice: Focus on Personal Connections

For nonprofit fundraisers, building genuine relationships with donors is the key to success, according to James Barnard, Associate Vice President of Development at the University of Cincinnati Foundation.

“People give to people. This is something that a friend told me when I was interviewing for my first professional fundraising job and I’ve never forgotten it,” Barnard said. “I really see how true this is every single day.”

While marketing campaigns and branding have their place, donors are motivated by personal connections, not flashy designs. Fundraisers need to show how gifts impact real people.

“We have to make these personal connections and build value driven relationships,” Barnard explained. “We really have to show how philanthropy impacts real people.”

At the University of Cincinnati Foundation, Barnard’s team uses an engagement platform called VanillaSoft to facilitate personalized outreach at scale. The software provides tools for creating donor journeys, generating new leads, and prioritizing key relationships.

“If personalized hour, just scale is something that you’re trying to do, then you really need a tool like this in your technology,” Barnard said.

For Barnard, working in advancement is about facilitating public investment in higher education and helping students achieve their dreams.

“Students are the next leaders, the innovators, the change agents, the teachers, doctors, nurses, scientists, the people who are really gonna make our world a better place,” Barnard said. “And what if the answers to some of these problems lie in a student who never gets the opportunity to go to college?”

Barnard’s key advice for fundraisers is to focus on crafting a compelling narrative for donors. “We have to keep working on our message, make sure that it’s relevant, and show that our donuts understand what we stand for and they see the value of investing in our mission,” he said. By building personal connections and sharing stories of impact, fundraisers can inspire more giving.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project

Fighting Senior Poverty: How AARP Foundation Supports Vulnerable Americans

The AARP Foundation works tirelessly to improve the lives of seniors living in poverty across the U.S. Through income assistance programs, benefit access initiatives, and efforts to reduce costs of living, the nonprofit helps vulnerable older Americans achieve stability and dignity.

Franklin Guerrero, Vice President of Major Gifts, explains that “we are there for them. We are here to fight and defend the rights of all older adults in the United States to help them live more meaningful lives and to work toward the end or eradication of senior poverty.” By providing practical support and advocating for policy changes, the organization aims to “rejuvenate the entire American economy” and enable seniors to age with prosperity and purpose.

For fundraisers seeking to drive change, Guerrero reveals several keys to success.

First, he emphasizes that “fundraising development philanthropy is a numbers game.” Building a robust pipeline of donors and consistently engaging them through one-on-one outreach is essential. Secondly, the most effective fundraisers act as “a bridge between what the donor wants to do in the world with their philanthropy and the message and mission of your organization.” Finding this intersection and helping donors direct their gifts to meaningful impact attracts lasting partnerships.

Guerrero credits a mentor for this valuable advice to see fundraising as both “a numbers game” and an “opportunity to work with philanthropists on what they want to do in the world.” For AARP Foundation, building personal relationships with donors who care deeply about empowering seniors has enabled the nonprofit to thrive. Their persistence and commitment to aligning donor desires with organizational goals has transformed lives.

Every contribution to AARP Foundation goes toward creating a future of possibility for vulnerable older Americans. By supporting their efforts to combat senior poverty, donors can help uplift and rejuvenate lives at a time when people need it most. Through partnerships built on trust and a shared vision of prosperity, transformative change is possible.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project

Local Nonprofit Serves Peoria’s Most Vulnerable for Nearly a Century

The Southside Mission has been serving the poor and vulnerable in Peoria, Illinois for 96 years. Rich Drager, the nonprofit’s development manager, says the mission has been “homegrown” in Peoria since 1925.

Drager says the mission is “in a season of change,” exploring new opportunities to reach and serve their neighborhood.

Recently, they have focused on diversity, including people of diverse backgrounds on their staff, board, and among those they serve.

The mission serves one of the poorest ZIP codes in the nation. Drager says people should support the mission “merely because they want to.” Donations allow the mission to connect donors to the inspiring stories of people they serve. Support comes as financial gifts but also through volunteering and prayer. Volunteers serve as mentors, and local teens are hired for summer programs.

Fundraisers like Drager see opportunities in challenges.

Drager’s favorite quote is from Winston Churchill: “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Despite the challenges of their work, the mission seeks innovative ways to help.

Drager has advice for fellow fundraisers: listen more than you speak.

“Be a great listener and observer, especially when you’re working with donors,” he says. “Hear what is on their hearts, what their passion is. Then work as a connector…to connect them to your mission.”

For nearly 100 years, the Southside Mission has worked to uplift their community’s most vulnerable with compassion and opportunity. By listening to donors and embracing diversity, this “homegrown” nonprofit continues finding new ways to spread optimism and transform lives. Their story is an inspiring example of nonprofit impact and longevity. Overall, their development manager has wisdom all nonprofit fundraisers can appreciate.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

Donor Participation Project

Helping People in Need: An Inside Look at Norwescap

Norwescap is a New Jersey nonprofit that has been serving low-income families for over 56 years. According to Heather Thompson, chief development officer, Norwescap provides “a wide array of services that help people with their immediate needs like food and housing security, and sets them up for future success through education, employment, financial empowerment, and better health.”

Last year alone, Norwescap reached over 30,000 people through programs like their food bank, which provided over 2.1 million meals. While some of their work is supported by government funding, private donations allow Norwescap to help even more people in need and pilot new supportive programs. For example, private funding enabled Norwescap to launch an initiative last year to connect participants across multiple programs to better support them.

As Thompson explained, “regardless of what program brought someone to us, we can get them connected to every one of our programs that might benefit them.”

Donations also allow Norwescap to provide assistance for those struggling but ineligible for government aid. As Thompson noted, “There are so many people who are not technically living below the poverty line, but they are living paycheck to paycheck. And all it takes is one unpaid sick leave to send that person spiraling into crisis. Private dollars allow us to serve those people and those families.”

For nonprofit fundraising professionals, Norwescap provides an inspiring example of how private donations can enable an organization to transform how they serve communities. By providing flexible funding, donors empowered Norwescap to adopt a holistic, participant-centered approach and reach more people, even those ineligible for other aid programs. With a goal of helping people become self-sufficient, Norwescap shows how nonprofits can use philanthropic support to create sustainable solutions for long-term impact. Overall, Norwescap highlights why giving to nonprofits like them matters—because together, they are creating opportunity and lasting change.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.