Build Relationships, Don't Make Transactions


We talk a lot with clients about donor stewardship and building relationships. If you’re going to ask for money, there needs to be a plan for how you’re going to take people on a journey with your organization. Without that, you will struggle to get and keep people on board.

This was reinforced by Tom Ahern at a recent Nonprofit Connect seminar on donor communication. Ahern outlined the process that we see works well for our clients – ask, thank you, reporting/reminders. As he said, “Asking doesn’t operate in isolation. It’s part of a system. The real gold hides inside your thanks and reporting.” 

The Ask
Virtually every nonprofit asks for money in some way, so make the ask well to stand out from everyone else. Don’t be afraid of the ask. Be clear about what you want someone to do. Be specific and don’t overwhelm people with statistics and broad information. Know your audience so you can bring them into the story, get to the emotion and show how they can help solve a particular problem.

The Thank You
When people give, they want to know it was received and their giving mattered. Ahern shared the finding that first-time donors who receive a personal thank you within 48 hours are four times more likely to give again. Keep it quick and personal. Use the donor’s name. Talk about their gift and why it’s valued. If it can be hand-written, do it.

It can be easy to fall into focusing on asks because you’re worried about getting donors and raising money, but as Penelope Burk said in a presentation last year, “the thank you is the ask.” The faster and more effectively you thank someone, the better chance you have of growing the relationship and reaching long-term financial goals.

The Reporting and Reminders
There should be ongoing communication showing a donor how giving to your organization makes a difference. Print or email newsletters, a call just to say thanks, an update and other follow up efforts are crucial. Keep your work in front of them, but do it in a way that’s donor-centric. Use “you” far more than “we” or “our.” Be conversational and don’t use jargon. Make each person feel they belong. If you make people feel good and feel needed, then they’re more likely to stay with you.

Be Willing to Play the Long Game
This three-part system is simple, but you have to take the time to plan and execute it well. It’s time worth investing, though, if you want commitment and stability. There’s no new magic bullet to cure donor churn or fatigue in the short term if you’re only after transactions … but we do have proven techniques for communicating and building meaningful relationships that will raise money over time.

P.S. While Ahern speaks specifically in fundraising terms, the principles apply for membership associations as well. If someone joins or renews, they should hear from you before they get asked for money again. A thank you, a great welcome series via email, a phone call and tailored and targeted messages that focus on them more than the organization will go a long way toward securing member retention rates.

Pitfalls of Email Personalization

Google personalized emails statistics and you’ll get a gazillion studies proving the effectiveness of personalized emails. Yes, yes, yes; personalized, tailored communications outperform generic communications. We can all agree on that.

But personalization (and the data management around it) isn’t magic. And don’t let anyone tell you it is!

Done poorly, personalization has the opposite intended effect. The sender looks like a buffoon who is trying to pull off a charade.

Take a look at this example. The merge of salutation data didn’t work, leaving me to feel like one of many “leads.” Wow. I feel so special.


I wish I could say I’ve never had a personalization error happen in my campaigns, but I can’t. So I’m sharing some tips from our team on how to avoid everything from minor snafus to major debacles.

  1. Look at the raw data — If you’re importing into an email system, you need to look thoroughly at what’s going in. Seriously, look with a fine-toothed comb. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say. You might have a terrible blunder in row 1,256. Catch it now. Also avoid having anything colloquial or informal in your data. “Guy I met at 2019 conference” cannot be in a name field in your spreadsheet, however accurate it is!.

  2. Use an email rendering service such as Email on Acid or Litmus to view your email in a variety of browsers. These services can seem pricey — but worth every single penny. They will save yo ass.

  3. Don’t forget the preheader (also called the second subject line). It can live in your code and only appear front and center when it arrives in the inbox (cue scary music of doom). Find out where it is and make sure it has nothing outdated or embarrassing in it.

  4. Do a live deployment. Most people just use the “test” function when working on emails. You can actually deploy a campaign to five people to double-check that the data is pulling correctly. Better to find out now. Once you’re satisfied, duplicate that email and deploy to the masses without fear.

  5. Assume nothing. Our team works really hard to leave nothing to chance. If you utter the phrase, “Oh I’m sure it will be fine,” that right there is the kiss of death. You’ve sealed your fate! Check it — and check it again.

And if a mistake happens … and it will, just remember it’s a learning moment and something to be added to your ongoing checklist. Email marketing can be a beast. Those of us doing it are with ya.

May the email Gods be ever in your favor.