By Abby Jarvis, writer, marketer, and speaker at Neon One – software built for small and midsize nonprofits to help them manage fundraising, communications, events, volunteers, and more.

Donor retention is important. If you’ve been in the nonprofit space for more than a week or two, you’ve probably read all about it—how retaining donors is more cost-effective than acquiring new ones, how it’s an important part of building a sustainable fundraising program, and how focusing on retaining your donors should be one of your top priorities.

All that is true, but the fact remains that donor retention is a struggle. Retaining your donors requires building relationships with them, and those relationships will rely heavily on effective communication.

But how can a single fundraiser communicate effectively with an entire donor base? And how can they use those communications to retain their supporters?

Can Tech Tools Solve Donor Retention?

The short answer is “no.” The longer answer is “No, but they can certainly help!”

Donor retention is, at its heart, about building relationships. Tech tools won’t take the place of a human-centric strategy for building relationships between donors, nonprofits, and the communities they serve. But they can make it easier to build them.

You’ll probably never find a software or platform that will do the work of building donor relationships (and, if you do, please share that with everyone immediately!). But you can use technology to do three critical things.

First, you can use it to better understand your donors—to get a feel for who they are and why they give. Next, you can use technology to put that information into action by crafting donor communications that make them feel like an important part of your community. Then, you can use them to automate messages you know you’ll have to send repeatedly.

Use Nonprofit Tech Tools to Understand Your Donors

There’s a lot of talk out there about how to know your donors. But what does that mean?

Here’s what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean you have to individually know each and every person in your donor database—that isn’t practical.

Knowing your donors means understanding three basic things: what inspires them, why they support your work, and how they want to interact with you.

You can use technology to gain those insights. With the right tools, you can learn:

  • What interests them
  • Which programs and initiatives inspire them
  • How they prefer to communicate
  • How (and when) they like to donate
  • The different ways they’ll engage with you

Think about it this way: The relationship between your organization and your donors is like a friendship: Friendships are easier to maintain when you know what your friends enjoy, what motivates them, and what makes them tick.

Your donor database is full of information about the people who support you. Use that data to paint a picture of the different groups of people who are passionate about your cause.

How to Get Started

Okay, tech tools can give you insight into who your donors are and how you can retain them. But how?

Here are some ideas!

  • Launch a donor survey and ask donors to share their experiences, communication preferences, motivations for giving, and connections to your mission.
  • Run some reports on some of your most recent appeals. Which performed best? What common elements or talking points do they share? How can you include those same elements in your next appeal?
  • Update your donation form and include the opportunity for a donor to leave a note about their gift. Periodically review those notes. What do you notice? Can you spot any common themes that can tell you more about what motivates your donors to give?
This is a screenshot of a nonprofit donation form where people can give to support students who want to go to summer camp. On the left-hand side of the form is an impact statement about how donors’ generosity will provide scholarships to students who want to go to camp. The right side of the form includes a display of suggested donation amounts with descriptions that help donors understand how their gifts will be used.

Take a look at this donation form. What could you tell about a donor who made a gift here? You’d get the idea that they’re interested in nature education and in supporting students, at least—what other details could you glean from their donation?

Once you have a feel for who your donors are, you can use that information to drive donor retention by writing more effective appeals, impact updates, and other communications that will keep them engaged.

Tech can help there, too!

Use Nonprofit Tech Tools to Send Inspiring Communications

When you receive a message from a friend, what signals make you feel like they care about you?

They probably use your first name—they might even use a nickname! They probably don’t speak very formally. Their tone is probably more relaxed in a message to you than it would be in, say, their employer or even a relative. They probably reference past experiences you’ve had together, or they’ll talk to you as though they had a history with you.

Now, your donor communications won’t be exactly like the messages you get from your friends. But they can feel similar!

When a donor gives to your nonprofit, it’s more than a simple transaction. They give because your mission is important to them—it lines up with their values, it speaks to their identity, and it elicits powerful emotions and the urge to get involved. When you communicate with your donors in a transactional way, what you have to say won’t stick with them.

Technology can’t have those conversations for you. But it can help you communicate with people instead of simply communicating at them. That friendly, personal communication will go a long way toward keeping your donors engaged and supporting your retention strategy.

How to Get Started

That all sounds nice, but what specific steps can you take to use technology to make your messages feel more personal?

Here are some things you can try:

  • Identify different groups of donors and create segmented email lists based on their shared characteristics, like what campaign they supported or the different ways they support your work. Then, use those lists to send emails that are very relevant to each list. Create slightly different appeals for each of your donor segments. Use what you’ve learned about your donors to make your ask as compelling as possible.
  • Use personalization tokens in your messages. Use a donor’s preferred name or title, thank them for their specific gifts, and reference their history with your organization.
  • Experiment with using generative AI (like ChatGPT) to create rough drafts of receipts, thank-you letters, updates, and other communications, then rewriting that content with your own tone, voice, and details.

As you plan communications that will keep donors engaged and inspire them to give again in the future, you may be able to use automation to make those communications even more manageable.

This is a screenshot of a thank-you letter that uses personalization tokens to insert the donor’s first name in the salutation. The body of the letter thanks the donor for making a gift on GivingTuesday and invites them to watch a thank-you video.

The right tech tools can turn something as simple as a donation thank-you letter into a memorable experience your donors will remember long after they made their gift.

Use Nonprofit Tech Tools to Automate Your Communications

Have you ever had a pen pal? Or written thank-you notes for gifts?

When did you write those messages? You probably answered your pen-pal’s letter shortly after you received it. Thank-you letters usually go out a week or so (or longer—we’re not here to judge) after your party or event. Things like letter responses and thank-you notes should be timely.

The same is true of nonprofit communications. When your great-aunt Dottie sends you a birthday gift, you don’t want to send a thank-you card eight months later.

Similarly, you don’t want to send a thank-you letter weeks or months after someone donates. Welcoming a new donor should happen shortly after their first gift, not days later.

When you reach a fundraising milestone, you want to send an update to your donors as soon as you can.

But how on earth can you send timely communications when you’ve got a to-do list the length of your arm?

Technology can help!

Based on the tools you have available, you may be able to automate some of your important donor communications, including things like:

There are so many possibilities! You won’t be able to automate everything, but you can probably use technology to automatically send emails (and even schedule tasks for staff to connect with your supporters) ahead of time.

Read: The Do’s and Don’ts of Donation Receipts (Plus Templates!)

How to Get Started

Now, remember, your goal won’t be to automate every single communication you send to your supporters. Your goal is to automate the repetitive tasks that eat up your time and keep you from having the kind of real-life interactions that will make it easier for you to retain your donors.

With that in mind, you can:

  • Write a great donation receipt that celebrates your donor’s generosity and shares a little about how their gift will make a difference. Then, use the settings in your online donation platform to automatically send that receipt when they give. You get bonus points if you create unique receipts for different donation forms or campaigns.
  • Create a welcome email (or a series of welcome emails) for new donors that shares a little about your organization, your work, and how your community of supporters makes your work possible. Then, use automation tools in your CRM, donor database, or email marketing platform to automatically send those messages to your new donors.
  • Build a handful of emails reminding people about your upcoming event. Write a message or two encouraging them to register or buy tickets, and create a message containing important information attendees will need to know. Then, use your email tool to schedule those messages ahead of time so you can focus on making sure the event goes off without a hitch.

Depending on the tools you use to manage your donor relationships, you may be able to automatically schedule other types of tasks, too, like adding donor follow-up calls to your calendar. Take a look at what your tools can do, then get creative!

Nonprofit Tech Tools Won’t Solve Donor Retention, but They Can Help

Retaining donors is hard. Keeping donors year after year requires building relationships between them and your organization, and that means you’ll need to prioritize regular communication. You’ll be most successful when that communication feels personal, friendly, timely, and relevant.

But being a fundraiser is a busy job! Sending each and every individual donor communications written specifically for them isn’t realistic.

That’s where technology comes in. You can use it to understand your donors, what they love, and what inspires them. Then, you can use that information to create thank-you letters, updates, and future appeals that make an impression on them and inspire them to continue their support.

Get creative with your tech tools. Use them to learn about the people who support you. Write outstanding communications they’ll love. Automate what you can. And remember, above all, that no technology can replace the most important part of donor retention—reinforcing the human desire to connect with others and change the world.

How has recurring giving grown and evolved? We analyzed five years of recurring gifts from more than 100,000 donors to find out!

Grab your copy of this report to explore how this dedicated group of people supported their favorite nonprofits from 2018 to 2022, learn what those patterns mean for your nonprofit, and discover practical advice and insights from real-life fundraisers and industry experts that you can apply to your own organization.