Donor Engagement Strategies for Small Fundraising Departments

Effective Donor Engagement Strategies for a Fundraising Department of One

November 13, 2023
7 minutes
Five purple sets of hands sit on a golden-yellow spraypainted background. The central set is making a heart with their fingers, and the others are holding money, giving a high five, scrolling a phone, and writing on a paper

We see you, fundraiser. You're small but mighty. Wee but fierce. A fundraising department of one, flying solo but not alone. And we know that you want connected, positive relationships with your entire donor base. But as a one-person team, accomplishing your donor engagement goals can be a challenge. How do you balance fundraising campaigns with engagement opportunities and donor conversions with genuine connections?

"When I think about the work of nonprofit organizations, technology and strategy matter greatly. But it's ultimately the people that are the fuel that drive outcomes," attests Olga Woltman, founder and principal of LemonSkies, a strategic nonprofit agency that specializes in turning communications into conversions. We sat down with her on the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast to discuss all things storytelling and nonprofit donor engagement. "To not really lean into that and not pay attention to that aspect of the nonprofit work just seems like missing a pretty huge, pretty critical piece of the puzzle."

As a fundraising team of one, you have a lot on your plate, and focusing on relationships can be a challenge. But just like Olga said, it's really important, and your nonprofit organization is relying on you to get the job done! So, we know you're gonna do it. Let's rev up our donor relationships engines; it's time to get engaged already! (But really, you're perfect just the way you are. You don't need another person to complete you.)

First things first: how do you even know if your donors are fully engaged?

How to measure nonprofit donor engagement

There's no single metric to measure your success when it comes to donor relationships. That being said, there are several key indicators. All of these can be calculated with minimal effort, thanks to your loyal donor database and the right dashboards and reports.

  1. Donor acquisition
  2. Donor churn
  3. Recurring donors growth
  4. Donor retention
  5. Donor communications
  6. Donor feedback

1. Donor acquisition rate

You can't have engaged donors if you don't have a solid donor base in the first place. The rate at which you acquire new donors is your first indicator of whether your engagement strategy is working for you from day one.

2. Donor churn rate

How fast are donors leaving your organization? That none-too-pleasant percentage of donors who stop giving is your donor churn rate. If donors stop contributing to or supporting your cause, it's a red flag for your relationships with donors.

3. Recurring donors growth rate

Monthly donors are a solid indicator of engagement because they're committed to regular gifts (and thus engaging with your organization on a regular basis). By measuring the increase in your number of recurring donors, you can tell a lot about donor engagement. Oh, and if you don't have a monthly gift program, now's the perfect time to start one. 

4. Donor retention rate

Ah, yes, a classic! Your donor retention rate is a reflection of the rate at which donors stick around from one year to the next. If it's a high percentage, you have a high number of donors who are engaged with your organization. For context, FEP reports that donor retention increased 1.3% from 2022. According to our calculations, that puts the overall donor retention rate for Q1 2023 at just over 44%. So, if you're doing over 50%, high five! Or, y'know, since you're just one person, give yourself an awkward pat on the back.

5. Donor communications

Effective communications are crucial for any nonprofit organization's donor engagement. To determine the effectiveness of your outreach for donor relationships, you can look at various metrics, such as email open rate, website click-through rate, and donation form conversion rate. 

6. Donor feedback

You can also measure donor engagement by soliciting direct feedback from your loyal supporters.  Send out donor surveys or schedule check-ins to determine whether you're meeting donor expectations and how you can improve. 

Donor engagement boosting tips

So, you have plenty of ways to determine how you're doing engagement-wise, and maybe, upon reflection, you're not entirely satisfied with the numbers. How can you spark an emotional connection with your donors so they stick around for years to come? We have the donor engagement ideas you're looking for.

Video content

Video content engages donors and smashes fundraising goals because it connects with the viewer through storytelling.

"When we think about building a compelling case for support ... their numbers only tell a partial story. Our brains are really wired for storytelling, so they invoke stronger emotions," explains storytelling expert Olga. "We're rooting for the outcome. We're much more invested. So, stories are really an illustration of that impact."

However, videos are resource-intensive. Since it's just you, focus on the authentic angle, creating video content that's personal and honest. For instance, you can give a behind-the-scenes tour of your facilities (just use your phone!) or film some TikToks with regular updates and insights.

1:1 feedback request

In case you haven't noticed, people like to share their opinions. Personalized feedback surveys and requests show that you really value the individual donor experience, so they're a great way to build stronger relationships.

Unique volunteer opportunities

If you see folks drifting, think outside of the wallet to get them more involved through firsthand experience with your organization. Offering volunteer opportunities is especially useful for solo fundraisers because the benefits are twofold: you foster stronger relationships with donors, and you get some much-needed support.

In addition to the classic volunteer options (event set-up and database entry still helps!), consider looking at donor behavior and history to build an all-volunteer fundraising team that lightens the load and boosts engagement. So that new donor's a retired writer? Maybe she can write your email newsletter or lead your marketing efforts. Go big or go not-engaged! (That's the phrase, right?)

Exclusive benefits

Sometimes, you need to get a little fancy. Making your donors feel special is a great way to boost engagement, so host some low-key exclusive events, send handwritten holiday cards, or put their names on a donor wall. Sound like too much? Try giving them early access to certain content (you'll have to create it anyway!) or give them a direct channel to provide you with feedback. 


Customization shows that you really care. You know each donor's name, job, likes and dislikes, and number of pygmy goats. Get those donor segments in tip-top shape to ensure personalized communications and a donation process that's tailored to every donor's preferences—and then take those segments even deeper. Now, that's how you build a personal relationship!


Chatbots have come a long way, and they can be a great tool for fostering engagement, especially on a one-person team. They can answer donor questions in a snap, at any time of day (or night!), taking work off your plate while making donors feel supported. And yeah, there are lots more reasons for your nonprofit to get a chatbot.


Events are a great way to mix up your engagement efforts. Dabble in a bit of everything to reach a wider audience, offering fundraising events big and small, accessible virtual events, and donor appreciation events that just make folks feel special.

What to do once donors engage

All those efforts are sure to pay off, and soon, you'll have engaged donors aplenty. But what can you do to keep up that level of engagement and ensure they don't become the dreaded one-time donors?

We have some thoughts, but first, a few words from Drew Friedrich, Director of Marketing at Orphan's Promise, who chatted with Funraise CEO Justin Wheeler on the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast. "When Donors are investing in your organization at a high level, they need to know that they're not just a number or a name in CRM. They need to know there's a relationship there. So, we've kind of worked double-time to just make sure they know that we actually care about them a ton. And we do. We're not faking it. That's the truth."

Wise words indeed! Now, onto some tips to make it happen.

Stay in touch

First things first: once a donor has engaged with your nonprofit, you need to keep them connected to your organization. No dropping off the map! They're on your email list, so send them updates, asks, and impact stories. No response? Send a text or pick up the phone. Keep that donor stewardship going strong!

If you do it right, it can be overwhelming

First, something to keep in mind: if you're doing donor engagement right, it's a lot, and there's no getting around that. Building a personalized relationship with donors requires time, energy, and dedication. So, give yourself permission to set priorities, enlist others to help, and take a break when needed. This is what your donor management/fundraising software was made for!

Automate as much as you can

Streamline your engagement processes by letting your fundraising tools lend a helping hand. Automate all those routine tasks, from email campaigns to donation receipts. The more you automate, the more time you have to devote to building long-lasting relationships.

Ask for help

It bears repeating, but as a one-person fundraising department, you need to ask others for support! Turn to your colleagues, volunteers, and networks. Plus, engaged donors are that much more likely to want to contribute more than just dollars, so take them up on the offer. They can do everything from filling envelopes for direct mail to managing your social media channels.

Go back in time and set up further engaging experiences

What, you don't have a time machine?! But seriously, take some time to reflect on the donor journey (and potential donor journey) thus far and consider how you can facilitate deeper connections going forward. Do you need more frequent communication or more personalized experiences? Maybe it's a membership program or better social media strategies. Whatever you do, put building relationships at the top of your to-do list every day.

Which group of donors should you spend your time cultivating?

If it's just you, you might need to make some tough choices when it comes to optimizing your fundraising efforts. Yep, we mean focusing on just one or two groups of donors to preserve your limited resources (and limited sanity). Get your donor segmentation plan in top shape, then review the case for each type of donor to decide where to build your donor cultivation strategies.

First-time donors

A risky choice, for sure! But there's a lot of potential there. If you're really looking to diversify your donor base and mix up your fundraising strategy, first-time donors present a lot of opportunity. On the con side, first-time donor cultivation takes time, and the conversion rate is a big question mark.

Mid-level donors

Next up, mid-level donors! They give more than the average donor but less than major donors, and they tend to respond well to personalized engagement efforts. Because there are more of them than major donors, they might require more resources than you have to spare. But if you find yourself with some time on your hands (LOL), it can be a huge opportunity for major donor prospects.

Major donors

The obvious choice for cultivation is major gift donors. They've already made a major gift, so you know they have the means to make additional donations to your cause. But major gifts mean major efforts when it comes to engagement, so make sure you're ready to go big.

Recurring donors

Recurring donors are already loyal donors, providing a cost-effective, reliable source of revenue. And, because they already give regularly, they're typically more engaged than other donors. All of this makes your monthly gift program participants ripe for cultivation!

P2P fundraisers

If you want to build your network of prospective donors, look to cultivating your peer-to-peer fundraising campaign fundraisers. P2P campaign fundraisers can leverage their networks on your behalf, leading to new opportunities.

Corporate donors

If you want major gifts, corporate donors might be the way to go. They have substantial financial resources, plus they often offer additional opportunities for employee engagement (let's hear it for more volunteers—and more potential donors!). Of course, corporate donor outreach can be a lot of work, so make sure you have the capacity. 

Forget donors; focus on clients

Wildcard! While your clients' well-being is always the goal, maybe you want to toss the rulebook out the window and prioritize their needs above all else? It might not pay off financially in the short term, but it's an effective strategy when you're looking at the long-term picture. Happy clients = better results = happy donors = improved donor engagement KPIs.

Donor engagement pitfalls to watch out for

As with anything else, donor engagement can go awry if you're not careful. Here are a few areas that can mess up even the most beautiful donor relationship.

Don't let the conversation end

When there's radio silence, there's donor attrition. The solution? Don't let current donors go silent; it means they're feeling disconnected. If you want the donor cycle to keep turning, be sure to account for regular follow-up with consistent, meaningful outreach. If you have trouble start-stopping, consider a year-round campaign. This is not just general fundraising; it's setting an ever-evolving goal and consistently contributing to it.

But give them some space

At the same time, don't bombard folks with constant donor outreach in their inbox and mailbox, on their phone, and with skywriting. If someone asks you to stop sending direct mail, do it. If someone gives a major gift every November for six years, don't prod them too much during the rest of the year. Seek the balance and remember that strong relationships don't need constant communication.

Do more than just ask

Write it down in your donor engagement plan: If you're always asking for money, your donors are going to burn out and disengage. Even your most loyal donors want to be more than a number, so balance fundraising initiatives with impact stories, volunteer opportunities, event invites, and other content.

Don't make it hard to give

You want donors, so make sure the actual donation process is seamless and tailored to your audience. That means a few essential components like a mobile-friendly donation page, user-friendly donation form, personalized donation amounts, and various payment options.

Don't forget to say "thank you, and"

You know that you need to thank your donors, but it's easy to forget that you always need to have a next step. Give them a clear path to continued engagement, whether it's touring a new program site or reading your latest blog post.

Ignoring donor feedback

Newsflash, nonprofit sector: the only thing worse than not getting donor feedback? Getting that feedback and then ignoring it. If you ask donors to express their thoughts and concerns but do nothing about it, loyal donors become donors no more.

How technology can drive donor engagement

Donor relationships are a lot of work, but technology can help keep the donor cycle running smoothly. Here are some examples of donor engagement strategies driven by technology. Make them a part of your donor engagement plan today!

You can be everywhere, all at once

Technology stretches far and wide, all over the world, and that means you can easily engage with donors across channels and platforms and borders and time zones. Follow those donor engagement signals to meet donors where they are, literally and metaphorically.

Replace in-person events (mostly)

In-person fundraising events require so many resources and so much planning, and your solo department probably finds them pretty overwhelming. Good news: virtual events still feel special and connect donors to your cause, but they take wayyyy less money and time.

Tailor automated content by donor data

Put your donor management software to good use personalizing your automated content. That's right: you can use donor data to boost online fundraising and up donor engagement! Customize your messaging and appeals based on giving history, interactions, and preferences, then set it to go out regularly to keep the communication flowing while making a personal connection.

Schedule communications waaaay in advance

Tech can help you plan and schedule your communications weeks or even months in advance, giving you the flexibility to prioritize activities that need to be done at a certain time. So go ahead and draft the success stories for your next 12 monthly giving program emails! 

Get social to meet donors where they are

These days, social media is a key nonprofit marketing strategy. But it's also a great tool for donor engagement. From sharing peer-to-peer campaigns to posting compelling stories and broadcasting live events, it lets you reach a broad network of donors and foster a sense of connection.

Donor engagement is a big job, but someone's gotta do it, and right now, that person is you. With the tips above, we have a feeling you'll rise to the occasion, building meaningful relationships with your donors and still finding at least a little time for yourself.

Donor engagement FAQs

What is donor engagement?

Donor engagement is all the interactions and relationships a nonprofit has with its donors. It encompasses all the stages of getting to know and cultivating a relationship with donors, volunteers,  foundations, or corporations, with an emphasis on continued and meaningful relationships.

Why is donor engagement important?

Donor engagement is essential because it builds strong, lasting, and meaningful relationships between a nonprofit organization and its donors. Engaged donors are more likely to continue their support for a nonprofit, so with better engagement comes more effective fundraising and greater stability.

What are the stages of donor engagement?

The donor engagement cycle is usually broken into several stages, including awareness, cultivation, asking/solicitation, recognition, and stewardship.

How do you write a donor engagement plan?

Writing a donor engagement plan is a complex process, but it starts with setting a goal and identifying your target audiences. Then, segment your audience by donor type and draft a strategy to engage each group. Remember to set clear timelines, define donor engagement KPIs, and set a budget. Review your plan regularly to determine its effectiveness.

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