Donor Relations: Ultimate Guide to Donor Relationship Building

January 3, 2024
8 minutes
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By their very nature, nonprofit organizations are the experts in donor relations, right? Well, yes, of course! But if our time in the nonprofit world taught us anything, it's that there are as many answers to questions as there are people. And another thing we've learned is that it's really valuable to hear others' perspectives. So, with all that in mind, when it comes to something super important like donor relations, we figured we should do a li'l deep dive by sharing our answer to the question, "What is donor relations?".

What is donor relations?

Donor relations is all the efforts a nonprofit organization makes to acquire, retain, and engage with donors. It is personalized relationship-building, and so it is different for every organization and every donor. Successful donor relations efforts yield lasting, stronger relationships, thanks to happy donors who stick around.

While donor relations is a highly personal process that requires a human touch, technology can still lend a helping hand. Great donor relations are focused on the individual donor, and that means keeping track of every detail, from their address to when their dog’s graduating from obedience school. A donor CRM or other donor management software can help with that, allowing every member of your fundraising team to document donor data and details with ease. Delightful!

Donor stewardship's definition

Donor stewardship is all the efforts a nonprofit makes to engage with a donor based on their giving. So, the process of donor stewardship doesn’t begin until after a supporter has become a first-time donor. Stewardship activities often focus on ensuring a gift is used as the donor intended.

A donor stewardship plan usually includes several key steps, such as sending a gift acknowledgment letter, confirming the donor’s expectations for the gift, and reporting back to the donor on the gift’s impact. To ensure you stay on track when it comes to your donor stewardship efforts, track every donor interaction, preference, and relationship with your donor management software.

Donor relations and stewardship: what’s the difference?

Donor relations and stewardship are inextricably intertwined, but they’re not one and the same. Whereas donor relations is proactive relationship-building done consistently from the beginning, donor stewardship is reactive relationship-building done in response to a donation. In other words, donor relations = donor; donor stewardship = gift.

Effective donor stewardship is a key stage in the donor cycle and an integral part of donor relations. Let us set the scene. You’re already connected to a lovely potential donor, thanks to your amazing donor relations strategy. You schmoozed, you chatted, you told them all about your new capital campaign. Now, they’ve given you a generous gift! So, you begin the donor stewardship process, stewarding their gift by ensuring it goes to the right place and the donor feels satisfied with its use.1

Donor relationship key areas

Nonprofits are built on a foundation of relationships with donors, each one a little block of support that contributes to your mission. If you want to spread your nonprofit wings and soar like a beautiful butterfly (well, now we’re just mixing metaphors), you need to nurture every donor relationship to create a positively positive experience, and that means knowing donor relations best practices. Let’s break down the donor management process to ensure a ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ donor experience for every supporter.

Initial meeting

You only have one chance to make a first impression, which makes that first meeting a crucial foundation for a strong donor relationship. Maybe it’s at a fundraising event, or maybe it’s when you’re grabbing your daily espresso at the local coffee shop. Either way, don’t waste the opportunity. Nail down your elevator pitch, preach the gospel of your cause, and plant the seeds for a genuine relationship. Then, make a plan to follow up.


Once your new buddy has made their first gift, send a prompt, personal, and enthusiastic thank you (we like to do it within 48 hours, but 24 is even better). Remember that donor appreciation is a long-term commitment, so thank every donor for every gift, no matter the size and no matter how often they give. 


You’ve expressed your gratitude; now, you want to confirm that this gift is going exactly where the donor wants it to go. No crossed wires or false expectations here—no sirree! Proper stewardship is essential to building trust, especially with a new donor. At the same time, look to the future by building a long-term donor stewardship plan. Then, you’ll have a (generous) friend for life—and maybe a major donor.


In addition to thanking donors through gift acknowledgment letters, many donors like to be recognized in other ways. Now, we’re not saying you need to erect a solid gold statue in front of your office (but hey, you do you). By donor recognition, we mean everything from shouting folks out in your annual report to listing names in your fundraising event program to adding major donors to your donor wall. You can even just give 'em a little nod and wink across social media platforms. Here, it’s really about making the effort.


A meaningful relationship with donors is built on authenticity, so getting honest donor feedback is great for building lasting relationships (and getting major donations). Send a donor survey after your latest event or ask supporters to fill out a brief poll on social media about their communication preferences. People like to share their opinions; it will make them feel valued and included. And, as a bonus, you get lots of juicy info for your donor database.


Once a donor relationship has a nice rhythm to it, you can’t just walk away and hope for recurring gifts for the next 150 years. (Zombies can give gifts, too!) No, you're in a long-term relationship, and you want to keep that emotional connection strong. Make a phone call to check in every few months, grab an annual milkshake at the soda fountain (we're feeling nostalgic), and brainstorm unique ways to connect your donors (especially your major donors!) to your cause and keep them engaged. All told, donor relations is similar to any sort of relations. It requires both people to be invested, to do their part, and to show up.

The importance of donor relationship building

As you can see, donor relationship building is a multifaceted, long-term commitment. Happily, it’s worth it! Because solid donor relationships lead to a solid nonprofit organization, doing a more-than-solid job at making the world a better place. How important is donor relationship building? Let us list the ways …

  • Improve donor retention
  • Hold better events
  • Increase recurring donations
  • Acquire new donors
  • Learn what’s working
  • Expect the unexpected
  • Build your network

Improve donor retention

This here is the number one value proposition for donor relationship building: donor engagement increases donor retention rates. If you don't want a laundry list of one-time donors, you need to forge strong relationships with your current donors. In a nutshell, with meaningful relationships come loyal donors.

Hold better events

Once you’re besties with your donors, they’ll be much more likely to tell you all their secrets—like what types of events they really want to attend or what auction items would make them write a blank check. Better events mean better event attendance means a better donor donor stewardship program means better returns.

Increase recurring donations

We all love a major gift, but recurring gifts are also pretty swell. Upping donation frequency keeps the donor lifecycle moving smoothly, giving you a predictable source of revenue and setting you up for some much-needed stability in the volatile nonprofit world. If you’ve been successful in your donor relationship management, your donors will feel appreciated and connected. In turn, they’ll want to increase their involvement over time. Often, that looks like moving from once-in-a-while donations to monthly donations.

Acquire new donors

Your donors know lots of other people, and every one of them is a prospective donor (who knows even more prospective donors! Trippy, huh?). Once they get to know you and your work on a deeper level, they’ll invite others to join them on the magic carpet ride that is the donor journey.

Learn what’s working

Donors are a font of free feedback, and you’ll reach a point in your relationship when you can ask them, honestly, what’s working and what’s not. When you solicit feedback from donors, their insights will point the way to improved communications, fundraising efforts, and strategic planning—not to mention larger gifts.

Expected the unexpected

It's the 2020s, and if we've learned anything, it's that we need to be able to pivot. And that lesson is particularly important when the donor journey has some bumps. Maybe a major donor ghosts you and you never hear from them again. And yeah, it’s devastating. On the other hand, sometimes a smaller donor leaves you the bulk of their wealth. When that happens, it’s not out of the blue—it’s because you put in the effort to build a long-lasting relationship. When you put in the work with donor engagement, you build something truly special with your donors, and you never know how that might play out (or pay off) in the long run.

Build your network

Everyone has people and businesses they turn to in a crisis, and with a more engaged donor base, you’ll have access to dozens (or even hundreds) of networks. That means more donors over time, deeper relationships, and greater long-term success. And it also means plenty of folks ready to lend a hand when the going gets tough. Need a last-minute caterer for your upcoming event? We bet someone will have a hook-up.

9 ways to improve donor relationships

Sometimes, a relationship needs a little help. Maybe you’ve been busy, and that monthly happy hour has fallen by the wayside. Or perhaps you find yourself scrolling through Instagram instead of making eye contact. It happens to all of us, and that includes donors. When your donor relationships need a nudge to get back on track, we have a few tips. Here are our donor management best practices:

  1. Pick up the phone (or the planner)
  2. Automate your communications
  3. Segment donors
  4. Make giving easy
  5. Get them more involved
  6. Follow the data
  7. Ask for feedback
  8. Hire a donor relations professional
  9. Hold an appreciation event

1. Pick up the phone (or the planner)

If one of your larger donors goes radio silent or a monthly donor ceases their regular donations, it’s time to kick things up a notch from your usual email updates and social media posts. Pick up the phone for a live check-in or ask them out on an actual, in-person coffee date. Nothing revives a droopy relationship faster than a personal touch.

2. Automate your communications

Positive donor relationships are built on consistency, but sometimes life gets busy and things fall through the cracks. But by using your CRM to automate donor communications, you ensure that every supporter gets regular updates and asks. Regular email newsletters, blog posts, and fundraising campaign updates can all lead to long-term growth. And while you’re automating things, don’t forget to set some reminders for personal check-ins, too!

3. Segment donors

To give those vital communications a more personal touch, we suggest taking to your donor database and doing some donor segmentation. Donor segments allow you to customize your outreach based on donor interests, so that every supporter feels like you’re listening. If that isn’t some great relationship building, we don’t know what is. One more pro-tip: use donor-centric language in all your outreach, highlighting the individual donor's impact.

4. Make giving easy

It's fundraising strategies 101: the actual donating is an integral part of the donor experience, so if you want your donor stewardship efforts to pay off literally, you need a seamless donation process. With customized online donation forms, personalized donation amounts, various payment options, and matching gift capabilities, you'll have online donors clamoring to come back.

5. Get them more involved

Sometimes, all those fundraising campaigns and financial reports can feel impersonal. If you see your donors drifting, refocus on building relationships by giving them some other engagement opportunities. Ask them to volunteer, join a committee, or host a fundraising event. Once they feel truly connected to your organization, they’ll want to keep the giving going.

6. Follow the data

It may sound strange, but stronger donor relationships are based in numbers. Use donor analytics and insights to inform your fundraising efforts, stewardship strategies, and communication with donors.

7. Ask for feedback

Everyone likes to feel valued, so asking for feedback is a key strategy for building a donor relationship. You can ask for more general feedback, like what they think of your communication cadence, or direct feedback, like what it would take to get them to join your board of directors.

8. Hire a donor relations professional

If you’re experiencing rapid growth and/or have the resources, having a full-time nonprofit professional in the form of a donor relations manager can really improve your relationships with donors. Sure, it's an investment, but they can help you develop a solid donor relationship management strategy that will take you into the future with a strong donor pipeline. Plus, it's nice to have someone who can answer any donor question while making every supporter feel, well, more supported!

9. Hold an appreciation event

What better way to improve relationships with your donors and reach those fundraising goals than a designated donor appreciation event? Host a special event, like a luncheon or a wine tasting or a puppy-cuddle-a-thon. Then, shout your gratitude far and wide, sharing how your donors have made an impact and how they can keep helping in the future.

Final points

Just like personal relationships, donor relationships take work. At the end of the day, here’s what you really need to know.

  • Donor stewardship and donor relations are often used interchangeably, but donor stewardship is a part of donor relations. Donor stewardship starts after a donor makes a gift, while donor relations is the entire relationship-building process.
  • Donor relations are important for increasing donor retention, recurring gifts, and new donors. Plus, you never know where your next major gift will come from.
  • A solid communication strategy is at the heart of donor relations. To build authentic relationships, reach out on a regular basis with personalized communication, vary your asks, and occasionally, get offline and pick up the phone.
  • A donor management platform can help you segment donors, automate communications with donors, and track your interactions with donors. The result? Deeper relationships.
  • Get everyone at your organization involved in donor relationship building so that each donor feels connected to the whole organization—not just one individual.
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