Strategies and plans for digital donor cultivation

Digital Donor Cultivation: Strategies and plans for donor cultivation domination

November 29, 2023
8 minutes
Two hands are reaching toward each other, ala Michaelangelo. The hands are blue and the background is blue, and there are coins flying in between the hands.

Digital donor cultivation is becoming an increasingly important part of fundraising, to the point where you can't separate it from digital fundraising. Paired with solid online fundraising tactics, digital donor cultivation can help generate more donations from current donors, reach new donors, and build stronger relationships with potential donors. It also helps organizations better understand their supporters and track which donation channels are hot fire and which are colder than an icy breeze.

What Is Donor Cultivation?

Donor cultivation is like gardening—watching fruit grow from a seed that you've been caring for through all types of weather. It's the process of developing meaningful relationships with individual donors by creating an individualized plan to engage donors in activities that will help build a strong connection between them and your organization. Stuff like sending personalized thank-you notes after donations, hosting donor cultivation events that allow prospective donors to interact with other supporters, or simply staying in touch via email, phone calls, or social media. 

How does digital donor cultivation build relationships?

Donor cultivation is an important part of any successful nonprofit’s fundraising strategy. So when we narrow down to the digital realm, digital donor cultivation builds virtual relationships between nonprofit organizations and their donors by utilizing a variety of digital tools to foster communication, cultivate relationships, and encourage donations.

Specifically, relationships with donors are strengthened when nonprofits use donor engagement strategies to increase transparency, showing donors what their gift has achieved. For donors who utilize the nonprofit's services, being part of a community that offers support in addition to asking for it makes for a strong relationship. Finally, a donor cultivation process that's personalized to the donor pipeline is naturally going to be effective cultivation, so don't skip the segmenting step!

7 steps to donor cultivation domination

If you want your donor cultivation efforts to actually contribute to relationship building and therefore give your fundraising an increased chance of success, you've gotta have an effective donor cultivation plan in place. Here are seven steps to donor cultivation domination:

  1. Establish your goals
  2. Make a plan
  3. Create content
  4. Segment your donors
  5. Take a break
  6. Automate it
  7. Repeat as necessary

1. Set a goal for donor retention

This doesn't have to be just financial; think in terms of increased first-time donors, a broadened donor pool, or new types of donors—peer-to-peer fundraisers, social followers, recurring members, etc. But don't forget a $$ goal for your fundraising efforts, obv. And then how does donor retention and cultivation play into your ultimate goal? How is your nonprofit organization's impact increased through donor retention rates?

2. Make a donor cultivation plan

Easier said than done, amirite? Using your stated mission and goals, make a plan for donor cultivation just as you would for any fundraising campaign. Include timing, resources needed, expected results, and stakeholders. 

3. Create content for existing donors

The fun part! (says the editor writing about donor cultivation...) No, seriously, put yourself in your potential donors' shoes and think about what you'd like to be updated on. Look at what your favorite charities are sending out. And then put your own spin on it. 

4. Segment your donors

Here's where the data nerds get excited and where your donor database comes in handy. Look at your donor history and current donor base to find loyal donors, major donors, individual donors and households, and other types of donors (you can read about donor segmentation here).

5. Take a snack break

We're gonna go get some hot chocolate right now!

6. Set up automatic reporting to be delivered regularly

This is gonna be a huge win. Instead of having to remember to pull and track analytics, just hook up a program like Funraise's Fundraising Intelligence and have it pull the good stuff, then send it to you, your Executive Director, and your board. You should be doing that anyway, friend.

7. Rinse and repeat

Here's where the magic comes in; donor stewardship strategies are long-game plans. So if you quit after one iteration of your donor cycle, you're going to miss out on the true fruit of your labor: long-term relationships. It's all about the consistent communication!

How to use digital donor cultivation strategies to stand out

Here's your approach in a nutshell: Keep it innovative and targeted. A successful donor cultivation strategy will take into account your donors' communication preferences and involve a multi-faceted approach —you can't stick solely to tried-and-true hand-written notes. 

Here are some donor cultivation ideas to inspire regular communication!

Invite donors for a tour—digitally

A digital donor tour can provide an engaging experience that allows potential donors to learn more about the organization’s mission, programs, and services directly from, well, the horse's mouth. If the horse were on a zoom call. 

Send an e-card

Don't get us wrong, handwritten notes are the gold standard. But besides being not-so-great for the planet (hi, factory creation, paper trash, shipping), they're expensive and time-consuming, they're not great for people who have trouble writing, and they're easy to put off until another day... and another day, ad infinitum. 

Send an e-card for people you know like email and keep the handwritten thank-yous for folks who prefer old-school communications. Make it easy on yourself and pleasant for your donors. 

Forward your newsletter with a personal intro

Here's a new one: DON'T send your newsletter. Yep, that's right. Filter a select segment of donors and forward your newsletter to them with a note. It'll come from your personal professional email, so it'll land in their inbox, and it'll have a note about something you thought they'd like. Almost like a love note.

Invite donors to volunteer for something special

Inviting donors to volunteer can be a great way to get them to expand their support. Look at your volunteer opportunities for ways to incorporate people who feel passionately about your mission. Get them involved with volunteer events or tasks that get them more involved with your work.

Send a voice or video text

It's the next generation of communication! Voice notes and video texts sound contradictory, but they're the way that younger folks are talking with one another. Try it... what do you have to lose?

Ask for feedback

Everyone loves to be asked what their thoughts are—including your donors. Try a few different surveys, several times a year. One can focus on your nonprofit's impact, one to ask about programming, yet another to inquire about communication preferences, and finally, one to explore responses to fundraising campaigns.

Social shout outs

This is one of the easier ones. Social media is easy when you have the content, so talk up your donors on your social media platforms! Pick a few donors, find their profiles, and give them a public thank you via social media posts. Repeat across social media channels, and rest easy.

Common donor cultivation mistakes you won't make

Being impatient

As we've said, donor cultivation is a long game. If you tire of communicating with your donors, you'll need to have other funding opportunities waiting in the wings because your fundraising will be facedown in the mud.

Not recognizing that each segment has different needs

The value of segmentation has already been discussed—here and in other articles—so we're going to focus on the major donors segment and moving mid-level donors through the donor cultivation cycle to give major gifts!

Your major gift donor level is what your nonprofit considers a larger gift. Major donations aren't all created equal, which is fine, but your task is to separate your major gift program from your major gift prospects and put those prospects into a major donor cultivation plan. The result? Major gift cultivation will lead to major donor relationships and then major gift fundraising, with the upshot being major impact.

Not focusing on the details

The whole magic behind donor cultivation is keeping it personal. And when it comes to digital donor cultivation, it's harder to put a face with a name—and that goes both ways! In the past, you may have met with major donors for coffee, but now they're fielding emails from you. 

Look for ways to double down on the details. For example, in a household, do you know who's greenlighting donations? Do you know your donors' pronouns? Do they have children or pets? And which kind? Know your donors and run with that information.

Digital Donor Cultivation Takeaways

Build from the ground up

When building relationships with donors, it's important to take each supporter through the donor cultivation cycle. Make initial contact quickly, don't make an ask every time you communicate (but do leave the door to donating open), and keep interactions familiar through personal phone calls. Think of each donor as an individual relationship to build, and your level of engagement will increase.

Keep your eye on the prize

What's the goal of donor cultivation again? Nope, not donations. Not even impact, although that's central to it.

The goal is relationship building. Understanding your donors, getting them invested, and delivering on that bond. 

Have fun with it

Last, but not least, this is the fun part of fundraising! Getting to know your supporters is almost as rewarding as making impact, so go out there and have a great time.

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