Nonprofit Spring Cleaning Part One – Tackling Your Donor Data

8016192302_0e9c4b7170_zSpring is finally here, and after the winter we’ve had in Boston, it’s about time.  Spring is a time for new beginnings. It’s a time to clean up, throw stuff out, and make room for improvements.

Many of you may take on spring cleaning projects in your home. Here are a few spring cleaning projects you can do that will benefit your nonprofit organization.

Clean up your mailing lists
Did you have an influx of address changes, returned mail, and bounced emails after you sent your year-end appeal? Now is a good time to clean up and update both your direct mail and email mailing lists.

Update and improve your donor database
Your donor database is an important tool and it needs to be up-to-date and filled with accurate information about your donors.

Your database isn’t just a place to keep addresses and gift amounts.  Use it to its full potential.  Segment your donors, and record any personal information such as conversations you had with a donor and their areas of interest. 6 Quick Tips to Clean Up Your Donor Database and Keep It Humming

Don’t cut corners when it comes to data entry and managing your data. 8 Tips to Strengthen Your Database to Help Build a Strong Donor Base 

Invest in a good database, if you don’t already have one.  Here’s more information to help you find a database that’s right for you. Finding the Right Donor Database for Your Nonprofit 

Get in touch with your lapsed donors

As you go through your database, you may notice some donors who didn’t donate in 2014. Reach out to them.  Maybe they were too busy to donate at the end of the year.

Send these donors a personalized letter or email. Let them know you miss them and want them back.  Go back at least a couple of years, although at some point you may want to purge certain donors from your database. The elusive lapsed donor: devise a plan to get them back

Be ready for your next mailing

Don’t wait until right before your next mailing to clean up your donor data. Even though it’s tedious, have someone who’s familiar with your donors (your development director?) go through your mailing lists and database to see if you need to make any additions, changes, and deletions.

Be meticulous. No donor wants to see her name misspelled, be addressed as Mrs. when she prefers Ms., or receive three mailings because you have duplicate records.

Getting your mailing list and database in order is crucial if you’re planning a spring appeal or event.

Make spring relationship building season

Even if you aren’t planning a spring fundraising drive, this is a good time to continue to build relationships.  Plan to mail a thank you post card or short update.  Mail is generally better than email, because your donors are more likely to see your message, but if your budget doesn’t allow it, send something by email.  Either way you want all your donor info in tip-top shape.

Take advantage of your time between campaigns and tackle your donor data.

Photo by Justin Grimes

Don’t Let Your Fundraising Be One-and-Done


In college basketball, players are allowed to turn pro after playing one season.  This is known as one-and-done.  If you watch the NCAA tournament (aka March Madness), it’s likely that many of the players won’t be around next year.

I’m not a fan of one-and-done.  I think players should stay in college longer. I’m also not a fan of one-and-done in fundraising, but it seems to happen a lot. According to The Fundraising Effectiveness Report, the retention rate for first-time donors was 23% in 2014 Yikes! 2014 Fundraising Effectiveness Project Survey Report 

Here’s how you can avoid having your fundraising go the one-and-done route.

Spend an equal amount of time keeping your donors

Participating in giving days like #GivingTuesday or #GiveLocal15 are okay ONLY if you spend just as much time on keeping these donors as you do getting  them to donate in the first place.

The same problem arises in fundraising campaigns. Organizations spend all this time and energy on getting donors and then stop.

Build relationships

Events can be a great way to build relationships, but few organizations seem to take advantage of this.  I recently attended an event that charged admission, had a silent and live auction, and held a raffle.  But they didn’t give attendees an opportunity to join their mailing list or offer other ways to get involved.

I’ve seen this before. I realize the purpose of an event is to raise money, but it should also be an opportunity to build relationships.  I only hear from some organizations the next time they have an event.

Your event attendees are potential individual donors.  Keep in touch and let them know how their support helps you make a difference.

Show your donors how much you appreciate them

Send welcome packets to new donors, but show the love to your long-time donors, too.  Send them a welcome back letter. I’ve donated to several organizations for a number of years, and it bothers me when they don’t acknowledge that.

Given the lousy retention rates, don’t take it for granted when donors support you for more than one year. Otherwise, you could be looking at two-and-done.

There’s no off-season

Continuing on the sports theme, most athletes train during the off-season and some even play in leagues.  You may be between fundraising campaigns, but that doesn’t mean you should rest easy.

Keep connecting with your donors. This post I wrote a few weeks ago has lots of ideas for ways to stay in touch with your donors throughout the year. I’m sure you can think of more. This is the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

This is also a good time to see how many of your past donors didn’t donate to your year-end campaign. If it was significant, you have some work to do. You may be able to woo back your past donors with personalized letters or phone calls

Here’s how you can figure out your retention rate. How Does your 2014 Donor Retention Stack Up?

One-and-done is not something you want in your fundraising.  Make sure your donors stick with you for a long time.

Photo by SD Dirk

How You Can Break Through the Noise


You have a message you want to send. Easy enough, right?  But today people are barraged with information coming at them from all different directions.

How can you stand out and get your audience’s attention?

What do you want to achieve

A popular discussion on LinkedIn over the last couple of months asked the question “When you write a communication what’s the first thing you consider?”  Some of the responses included outcome, audience, and message.  These are all important, but I think outcome is the first thing to consider.

What do you want to achieve, or what’s your call to action?  Do you want someone to donate, volunteer, attend an event, or are you sharing an update?  Make sure that’s clear and don’t muddle your messages with more than one call to action.

Choose the right audience

You’ll always have more luck with people who know you and are interested in your work.  Past donors will be more likely to respond to your appeal than people on a mailing list you purchased.

You also need to know your audience. Think about what types of messages they’ll respond to.  You may need to write different messages to different groups.

You only have a few seconds

Create a strong email headline or envelope teaser to get your message read in the first place.  You only have a few seconds to get noticed.

Instead of something boring like March 2015 Newsletter, entice your donors with Find out how you helped Jason learn to read.

Create a strong message

Once someone has opened your letter or email, reward them with a good message. Be sure it’s clear, conversational, and well written.

Think carefully about your message.  Be donor/audience centered.  Share success stories and show your donors how they’re helping you make a difference.

Make it easy to read

Make your message easy to read and scan. Don’t squish together a bunch of long paragraphs in 10-point font. Use at least a 12-point font and break up the text with lots of white space. Remember, most people aren’t going to read your message word for word.

Short and visual is the way to go.  Instead of a phonebook annual report, create a two to four page report with photos and infographics instead.

Be mobile friendly, too.

Use the right channels

The best channels to use will be different for each organization. Ask your donors which ones they use the most.  Often it will be more than one.

Don’t give up on direct mail. Your appeal letter or event invitation is more likely to be seen if you mail it.  You can always follow up with email and social media.

Consistency is key

All your messages and materials, both electronic and print, should have a consistent look.  You want your donors to recognize your brand and see you as a reputable source.

Be known but don’t be annoying

Don’t worry about communicating too often.  Most likely you’re not communicating enough.  People are deluged with email and social media and may miss your message the first time you send it.  You often need to send messages such as appeals and event invitations more than once.

If you can create clear, strong messages for the right audience, you should be able to break through the noise.

Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue

Steer Clear of Generic


Generic products can be a great option. When CVS ibuprofen is exactly the same as Advil, why not save some money by going generic?

One area where you don’t want to go generic is in your fundraising and communication.  Yet so many organizations do.  Here are some ways to avoid creating generic communication.

Same old same old

Are you sending all your donors the same appeal letter and thank you letter?   Stop doing that. At the very least, create different letters for new donors and repeat donors.  Acknowledge a donor’s past support or upgrade.  You can also personalize letters to lapsed donors, event attendees, or volunteers. Different Strokes for Different Folks

Most of the thank you letters I received after I did my year-end giving were pretty generic. One stood out.  This organization had an anonymous donor match all new and increased gifts (a great idea by the way).  In their thank you letter to me, they acknowledged my increase and the impact of the match.

You may use the same letter templates year after year. Think about how your donors will respond. With lackluster retention rates, do yourself and your donors a favor by personalizing your letters.

Who are your donors?

Conduct surveys to get to know your donors better. Create personas by either interviewing donors or imagining what they may think based on information you already have. How to Develop Donor Personas for Your Nonprofit

Once you have a donor persona/profile, you can craft messages that will resonate with them.

The more you know about your donors the more successful you’ll be.

Invest in a good database.

A good database will help you collect information about your donors and segment your lists by different groups.

Create a jargon-free zone

Now that you’ve gotten to know your donors, you’ll realize most of them don’t have a medical or social services background. They’re not going to use terms like at-risk populations and underserved communities, and neither should you.

Jargon confuses your donors. Imagine them looking glazed when you write about capacity building and disenfranchised communities. You don’t want them to ask What Does That Mean? Use language they’ll understand.

Tell stories

Stories can help you get beyond that vague, generic language. Most people respond better to a human-interest story than a lot of statistics.

Let’s say your organization wants to provide fresh, affordable produce to certain neighborhoods.  Here you can tell a story like this.

Marta is a single mother of four who doesn’t have a car.  She would love to give her family fresh fruit and vegetables, but the neighborhood grocery store has overpriced, marginal produce and the nearest supermarket is four miles away. 

Now, thanks to donors like you, Marta can pick up a box of fresh produce each week at the community center, which is just two blocks from her home.

Be specific

Time to dust off those templates and make your appeal letters, thank you letters, newsletters, website, annual reports etc. clear, conversational, and specific.

Have someone outside your organization, a friend or family member, look at your messages. Something that’s clear to you may mean nothing to others.

Generic is fine for vitamins, but not for your communication.

Photo by Paul Jerry

This is the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship


Casablanca is one of my favorite movies.  There are so many priceless lines, which I often recite while I’m watching the movie.  One of them is “LouieI think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

When someone donates to your organization, it’s also the beginning of a beautiful friendship or the continuation of one if the person is a repeat donor.

Here’s how you can ensure a beautiful friendship with your donors.

Say thank you

In my last post I wrote about creating a thank you experience for your donors that starts (not ends) after you receive their donations and continues throughout your relationship with them.

Welcome new donors

Send a welcome packet or introductory email to your new donors.

But don’t forget your current donors

I’ve donated to several organizations for a number of years, and it bothers me that they never acknowledge that.  Personalize your thank you notes/letters and thank people for being a longtime donor.

Don’t miss out on opportunities to build relationships

I’m amazed that after I attend an event or give a memorial gift, most organizations don’t to a good job of building a relationship.  I could be a potential longtime donor.

Stay in touch

No one likes a friend who doesn’t stay in touch.  Communicate regularly with donor- centered messages. Mix it up by channels, unless you know your donors spend most of their time on one channel.

Here are some ways to stay in touch with your donors throughout the year.

A newsletter can be a great way to engage, but they’re often boring, too long, and focused on the organization. Be sure to tell stories that show how your donors are helping you make a difference.

Send your donors brief updates via email, social media, or postcard. This is a good way to complement your newsletters or stay in touch if you choose not to do a newsletter.

Conduct short surveys. Ask new donors what drew them to your organization. You can also ask people their opinion on an issue or a question about your communications, such as do they prefer a print or an electronic newsletter.

Send out an advocacy alert on a piece of legislation that affects the people you serve. Then report back on the results. Be sure to thank your donors for getting involved.

Share some engaging photos. Social media is great for sharing photos.

You can also share videos of the people you serve participating in activities or better yet saying Thank You to your donors! Make sure your videos are high quality and keep them short.

Hold an open house at your organization. Offer tours and get to know your donors.

Don’t stop

Create a beautiful friendship with your donors.  Communicate regularly and keep them engaged so they’ll stay with you for a long time.

Photo by Phillippe Put

Create a Thank You Experience for Your Donors


Thanking donors shouldn’t be a process: it should be an experience. An experience that will last as long as someone donates to your organization, which hopefully will be for a long time.

If you treat thanking your donors as a       ho-hum task that you have to do, it will show.

Make a good first impression with your thank you landing page

Thanking your online donors is a three-part experience (not process).  Your landing page is your first chance to say thank you and often it’s no better than an online shopping receipt.

Open with Thank you, Jim! or You’re amazing!  Include an engaging photo and a short, easy to understand description of how the donation will help the people you serve.  Put all the tax deductable information after your message or in the automatically generated thank you email.

If you use a third-party giving site, you might be able to customize the landing page. If not, follow up with a personal thank you email message within 48 hours.

6 Fresh Ideas for Your Nonprofit’s “Thank You” Landing Page

You’re a human, so write like one

Next, set up an automatic email to go out after someone donates online. This will let your donor know that you received her donation and it didn’t get lost in cyberspace.

Just because your thank you email is automatically generated, doesn’t mean it needs to sound like it was written by a robot. Write something warm and personal.

How to Thank a Donor Through Email

Every donor gets thanked by mail or phone

I’m a firm believer that even if someone donates online, he should receive a thank you card, letter, or phone call within 48 hours.  I make most of my donations online, and in 2014 about 1/2 of the organizations didn’t send me a letter, just an automatically generated email.  None of them called or sent a handwritten card.

Make your donor’s day with a handwritten thank you card or phone call.  You don’t have to do this alone.  Recruit board members, other staff, and volunteers to write cards or make phone calls.

If that’s not possible, write an amazing letter and include a personalized handwritten note.  I understand larger organizations may not be able to send all their donors a handwritten card, but they should have the resources to create a decent letter.

Create a memorable thank you

Most thank you letters are pretty mediocre.  Create something that stands outs.  Be personal and conversational without using any vague jargon.  Recognize past gifts or upgrades, and give a specific example of how the donation will make a difference. Something like this.

Dear Susan,

You’re incredible!  Thanks to your generous donation  of $75 , we can provide a family with a week’s worth of groceries. 

Thank you for being a longtime donor!

Here are some more examples.

5 Thank You Letters Donors Will Love

Steal This Thank You Letter! A Sample Donor Thank You Letter for Your Non-Profit

Make new donors feel welcome

Approximately 70% of first-time donors don’t give a second gift. Don’t let that happen.  A week or so after you thank your new donor,send her a welcome package.

Welcome Your New Donors With Open Arms

Keep thanking your donors throughout the year

The thank you card/letter you send after you receive a donation is not the end, it’s the beginning.  Find ways to thank your donors throughout the year. Thank them at least once a month.  A thank you plan can help you with that.

How to Create a Thank You Plan

Create a memorable thank you experience for your donors.

What Makes a Great Donor Newsletter?


Most nonprofit organizations produce a newsletter, and many are one big snoozefest. They’re too long and filled with articles that brag about how wonderful the organization is.

Newsletters can and should be a great way to stay in touch with your donors and keep them updated on how they are helping you make a difference.

I recommend a short e-newsletter once or twice a month and one to four print newsletters a year.  If you’re getting stressed out about coming up with content for your newsletters, then a communications calendar is your new best friend. Stay Connected Throughout the Year by Using a Communications Calendar

It’s possible to create a great donor newsletter. Here’s how.

Give your donors what THEY want

You may opt not to do a print newsletter because it’s too expensive and takes too much time, but you’re making a mistake if many of your donors prefer print.

I think you’ll have more success if you can do both print and electronic newsletters. But ask your donors what they like, and listen to what they say. If a majority of them prefer one over the other, then doing both may not make sense.

You also want to share content that will interest your donors.  In my last post, I wrote about channeling your inner four-year-old and asking why. Why are you including an article about your CEO receiving an award?  Do your donors care about that?  Probably not. They care about how they are helping you make a difference.

Share stories

Each newsletter needs to begin with a compelling story.  Client stories are best, but you could also do profiles of volunteers, board members, and donors.  Focus on what drew them to help you make a difference.

Create a story bank that includes at least three client success stories.

Write to the donors

Write your newsletter in the second person, emphasizing you much more than we.  Be personal and conversational.  Say You helped give the Saunders family a new home or Because of donors like you, we were able to find housing for X number of families.

Don’t use jargon or language your donors won’t understand.  Write as if you’re having a conversation with a friend.

I’m not a fan of the letter from the executive director, because those tend to be organization-centered instead of donor-centered.  

Show gratitude

Never miss an opportunity to thank your donors.  Every one of your newsletters needs to show gratitude and emphasize how much you appreciate your donors.

Make it easy to read (and scan)

Most of your donors aren’t going to read your newsletter word for word, especially your e-newsletter.  Include enticing headlines, at least a 12-point font, and lots of white space so your donors can easily scan your newsletter.

Use the inverted pyramid and put the most important story first, keeping in mind your donors may not get to all the articles.

Also, make sure your donors can read your e-newsletter on a mobile device.

Keep it short

Your print newsletter should be no more than four pages.  Limit your monthly e-newsetter to four articles.  Some organizations send an e-newsletter twice a month.  Those should be even shorter – two or three articles.

You may find you have more success with shorter, more frequent e-mail updates.

Send it to the right audience

Fundraising guru Tom Ahern recommends sending your print newsletter only to donors.  This can help you keep it donor-centered, as well as cut down on mailing costs.

Send e-newsletters ONLY to people who have signed up for it. They may or may not be donors, but an e-newsletter can also be a good cultivation tool.

It’s possible to create a great newsletter, if you put in the time and effort.

Read on for more information about donor newsletters.

The Domain Formula for donor newsletters

Should you include a reply envelope in your fundraising newsletter?

10 Surprisingly Easy and Startlingly Effective Ways to Improve Your Nonprofit E-Newsletter

Photo by Sarah Reid