A Subscriber Referral Program to Increase Donor Acquisition

How to Start a Subscriber Referral Program for Nonprofits and Supercharge Donor Acquisition

August 13, 2023
6 minutes
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We’re all well acquainted with matching gift campaigns. You gently nudge a generous donor to match other donors’ still-generous-but-not-quite-as-massive donations, driving gifts and acquiring a few new donors in the process. But here’s a wild idea that just might get me laughed out of the room: What if you used your next match to run a subscriber referral incentive program?

Common knowledge says that a match is a prime opportunity to boost giving and meet your fundraising goals. We know it works, and getting an immediate return on your fundraising efforts is pretty irresistible. But what if you could use that opportunity for long-term growth instead of short-term gratification?

If you want to kick (fundraising) butt and take names, hear me out.

What is a subscriber referral program?

A subscriber or customer referral program is a model where existing customers or subscribers are given the chance to win or earn something with tangible value in return for getting people in their network to sign up for the product. Simply put, it is incentivizing someone to get someone else to subscribe to you.

When you scroll through Instagram and spy a photo of a gorgeous gift basket captioned, “Tag three friends for three raffle tickets!”, that’s a referral incentive program. When you get an email post-purchase with a $20 gift card in exchange for reviewing the item on Amazon? Ditto. While luxury product brands first introduced the idea, the e-newsletter industry soon adopted it—and soon, it became wildly popular.

Here's more info if I've caught your attention. And if you want to talk about this idea in detail, reach out to me on LinkedIn.

Why use a matching gift challenge on a referral incentive program?

I’m so glad you asked. You see, your database is a wealth of information, a bounty of opportunities, a profusion of enlightenment—but sometimes, it’s hard to pull in new names. Most organizations don’t make a concerted, strategic effort to grow their email and follower lists, relying on online donations, the occasional viral post, or the odd “happened to stumble on a ‘subscribe’ option in the footer of our website.” But no more!

With a subscriber referral match, you get to incentivize the people who are already supporting you to grow your email or social audience without incurring the cost of a traditional incentive program! And here are a few more benefits to pump you up:

Build loyalty among existing subscribers.

When supporters know that they can raise funds for your cause without spending a dime, they feel good, and donors who feel good about the good they’re doing stick around. Plus, now that they’ve put their reputation behind your organization, they’re extra motivated to see you succeed.

Get new donors who already trust you.

In the oft-murky waters of the advertising world, 88% of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family above all else (Nielsen). So, since a friend, family member, or colleague referred them to your organization, these new subscribers already have a reason to trust you, and greater trust means greater donor retention.

Recruit some volunteers while you’re at it.

Wherever there are new names, there are new possibilities, including drawing in some fantastic new volunteers.

Convert non-donors to first-time donors.

Chances are a lot of your TikTok followers are just in it for your hilarious cat dances. But when they see all their friends rallying around your cause, joining your community of change-makers, they might see the donation light.

Get the most bang for your buck.

If you choose to incentivize new email subscribers, you’re getting a great return on your investment (which, incidentally, is nada thanks to that match sponsor). That’s because email consistently maintains the top seat in ROI for digital fundraising, earning $36 for every dollar spent—and $45 for every dollar spent in certain sectors (Statista).

Know your biggest advocates.

Sometimes, it’s hard to identify your biggest supporters among a sea of likes and $5 donations. But the more prospective donors someone sends your way during a match, the better you’ll be able to identify future ambassadors, influencers, P2P team leaders, and even board members.

Get some buzz.

With such a brilliant and unique idea (if I do say so myself), you’ll get earned media value through buzz and exposure.

Sustained growth.

Every single name you learn means a new person to engage and cultivate as well as access to their network of friends, family, and colleagues. That’s a wide net, so you’ll be keeping busy for many months to come.

Potential for new major donor connections.

Think about all the possibilities if you went beyond this campaign and enriched this new audience with wealth and capacity screening. Hand off that warm lead list to your major donor officers and wait for some magic.

What does a subscriber referral program for nonprofits look like?

A subscriber referral incentive program has a ton of benefits, but what does it really look like in action? Here’s a quick play-by-play.

Step 1. You reach out to a donor to sponsor the challenge. Let’s say they agree to a $10,000 match.

Step 2. You introduce the match offer to your existing audience—and that means everyone in your database, not just donors, because it applies to every person who follows your social channels or subscribes to your emails. To keep things simple, let's call this a dollar-per-email-subscriber match: for every new subscriber, the donor will give $1 to your organization.

Step 3. Your constituents are way into this campaign. You not only get the $10,000 match completed by gaining 10,000 brand-new subscribers, but you beat the goal by an additional 50% for a total of 15,000 new subscribers!

Step 4. Each new subscriber enters into a beautifully crafted welcome series, introducing them to your organization, your cause, and your unique approach, as well as how they can choose to support you going forward. (Scroll down for some more ideas on how to turn those new subscribers into committed supporters.)

Step 5. Assuming an overall 5% donor conversion with your welcome series—and that’s a fairly conservative number—15,000 new subscribers turn into 750 new donors. If those 750 new donors give at least $50 on average (and the industry standard average gift is $100, so this is a safe assumption), you’ve now raised $37,500. For those not doing the math at home, that’s an EXTRA $17,500 over what you would have made with a standard matching gift challenge!

Step 6. This match is the gift that just keeps giving. For every donor you retain, you get more donations, which turns into additional revenue that you’d never have seen without that original referral incentive program.

When to use a referral incentive program

Knowing that this program is a mighty (but gentle) weapon that you can’t wield too frequently, you want to be strategic about when you break it out.

You’re launching a new program.

If you’re introducing a new line of service or opening a new location, a referral incentive program can help get the word out from day one.

It’s Giving Tuesday.

On a day when everyone everywhere is asking their network for more funds, you can call in a GT favor that doesn’t require anyone to break out their credit card.

When you’ve done something big.

Did you just finish a new senior center that’s serving hundreds of meals a week? Maybe the adoption rate for dogs in your city went up by 10% over the past year, just when you increased your shelter space? Now’s the time to pounce! You’re doing amazing things, so your supporters should be feeling proud to stand behind your success.

Your new donor rate has stagnated.

If you’re seeing steady results but no new growth, this is the perfect time to shake things up.

You’re in the news.

And it doesn’t have to be your organization specifically—it could be your cause. Capitalize on the opportunity to connect with prospective supporters when you’re making (positive!) headlines and their interest’s already piqued.

It’s an anniversary!

If you’re celebrating a major milestone, like your 10-year anniversary, it’s a great time to engage your existing supporter base and start creating some new relationships.

5 Tips for a top-tier subscriber referral program

To make the most of your new opportunity, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Ask at the right time.

See that list above? Don’t launch a referral incentive program right after you’ve had a really rough quarter and all your donors are kinda cranky. Likewise, don't do it right after a major P2P campaign when everyone is word-of-mouthed out.

2. Consider other incentives.

The incentives don’t have to stop at a matching gift! Maybe you want to do a giveaway along with it—the more referrals, the more entries? (Just like on Instagram; OMG, you’re so with it!) You can also partner with a local business to gift $5 gift cards, give out branded merchandise, or offer social shout-outs.

3. Do double-sided rewards.

And what if that giveaway above was for all your new followers rather than your current ones? By rewarding both current and new supporters, everyone gets to feel warm and fuzzy.

4. Track everything.

If you want to know what’s working and what’s not, look to the data—and that starts with tracking everything. For example, if you’re running a giveaway in conjunction with your referral incentive programs, you need to know if it’s yielding quality leads or not.

5. Move quickly.

Once those new email addresses and FB handles start coming, you want to take advantage ASAP. Follow up (via their preferred method of communication) with a quick introduction, some winning success stories, and a whole lot of appreciation.

What about smaller organizations?

Sure, referral programs are all well and good for large organizations with a devoted customer base, active email following, and engaged social network, but what about smaller nonprofits? Yep, this model can work for you, too, and it can have outsized benefits. But it will take a bit of groundwork to get there. For smaller organizations without a huge subscriber base, you’ll want to build a referral network first. Perhaps the local diner that’s bustling every morning could advertise your match while raffling off a Monday-night pancake dinner for eight? Maybe you want to put the word out in the local paper alongside a blurb about the ah-may-zing new program you just started?

You have a lot of new subscribers. Now what?

Let’s hit pause for a second. Before I send you on your merry subscriber referral program way, you need to have a plan of action for what to do with all those new subscribers. You can’t just leave ‘em there! Here are a few quick tips to ensure they stay engaged and stick around.

  • Create a fantastic welcome series, with a pitch-perfect introduction to your organization and success stories, videos, and must-know statistics.
  • Make great content.
  • Say thank you a lot.
  • Be consistent in your schedule, communications, and branding.
  • Hold an event or two.
  • Personalize your communications.
  • Don’t just ask. Send updates, share successes, and engage with the community.
  • But also, do ask sometimes! Your goal is to get those readers to donate, then to subscribe, then to share, and then to contribute a matching gift themselves. It’s the circle of life!

Subscriber referral program templates

If we’ve sold you, let’s get this show on the road! Here are a couple of key templates to get you off on the most persuasive foot.

Email to potential match sponsors

Dear [Company, Foundation, or Major Donor],

Over the past [number] years, you have generously supported [organization], fighting alongside us to [summary of nonprofit mission statement]. You’ve helped us accomplish so much for so many, and we are deeply grateful for your ongoing partnership. Now, we want to take our efforts to the next level to [goal], and we can only do that by growing our community of supporters.

This [month], we aim to reach [aspirational number] new [subscribers, followers, etc.]. To encourage our dedicated base to connect us to their network , we’re running a subscriber referral incentive program. For each new subscriber someone brings in, [match details, e.g., $1] will go to our organization. To make this vision a success, we need a match sponsor, and we immediately thought of [you/your business/your foundation] for this incredibly impactful gift.

We hope you’ll join us as a match sponsor for our new subscriber referral program, matching up to [number] new [subscribers, followers, etc.] and playing a vital role in driving our mission forward. Each new [subscriber, follower, etc.] means new opportunities for growth, change, and connection.

I would be delighted to discuss the details further and find ways to align your sponsorship with [your/your organization's] objectives. Please call me any time at [number] or email me at [email].

Thank you again for your continued dedication and generosity.

Warmest regards,

[Name], [Position]

Facebook challenge announcement for social followers template

📣 Calling all followers! We want to share some exciting news with you. We’re doing big things at [organization name], but we can only get there by expanding our amazing community. In the next [timeframe], our goal is to reach [aspirational number] new followers. And we need YOUR help! 🙌

We are thrilled to announce our follower referral program: For every new follower you bring in, [match details, e.g., $1] from an incredible donor will go directly to our organization. It's a fantastic opportunity for you to make a direct impact and inspire others to join our cause—and it doesn’t cost a cent.

But wait, there’s more! For every person you refer, you’ll get one raffle ticket and be entered to win [prize item], thanks to [sponsor].

So, spread the word, invite your network, and let's make some BIG changes. We appreciate each and every one of you! ❤️

#makeadifference #referafriend #referralprogram

If you’re tired of treading water in the vast fundraising sea, a subscriber referral incentive program can help you make waves and make a splash with a whole new community of supporters. Let’s dive in!

Subscriber referral program for nonprofits: Key takeaways

  • A subscriber referral program is a model where existing subscribers or customers are incentivized to refer new people to subscribe to a specific brand or use a specific service.
  • Using a matching gift to incentivize new subscribers rather than one-off donations is a cost-effective way to grow your network and increase your impact over the long term.
  • Subscriber referral programs are a powerful tool with many benefits, leveraging the support of your existing subscribers to expand your reach, build loyalty, acquire new donors, and cultivate long-term growth.
  • Subscriber referral programs also work well for smaller nonprofits, but you need to build out a referral network first to get the most benefit.
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