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How to Build Successful Nonprofit-Donor Relationships: Forefront Interview (Part 1)

In a phone interview with our friends at Forefront (formerly Donors Forum), the nation’s only statewide membership association for nonprofits, philanthropy, public agencies, and their allies, we were given some great insights into nonprofit-donor relationships.

Successful Nonprofit-Donor Relationships

How can we, as nonprofits, improve on how we engage with new, current, and past donors, in order to optimize and sustain these relationships?

Delia, the director of strategic initiatives, and Marlee, the associate manager of member engagement, shared their perspectives on some of the common challenges nonprofits face with their supporter relationships.

Building Relationships with New Donors

Marlee likened this to “going on a blind date” with your new donors.  You don’t really know each other that well and so need to be cautious about how quickly things progress.  In other words, don’t ask for too many details from these new-comers.  Asking for their home address or phone number, for instance, can come across as invasive and scare potential donors away.  On this note, Marlee provided the following advice:


Platforms are trying to help you make the initial connection, so then you can do the follow-up work and connect.  You don’t want to scare folks off.  For instance, we see people asking for the type of credit card people use, but you can tell that from the first few numbers of the card [from their initial online donation].  So, there’s no need for questions like that.”


Delia elaborated on this point by stating:
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[When asking these detailed questions in the initial ask]… “ you’re presuming that this is the only opportunity that you’re going to have to communicate with this donor…if you’re going into this donor relationship with the thought that this is my one and only chance, then you’re cutting yourself short.  Because you want to cultivate a relationship with that donor that develops over a longer period of time.”



Basic information required from initial online donors, like email address, credit card, and billing information, provide you with more than enough details for you to reach out to say “thank you”.  This

This thank you email is the time to ask some follow-up questions and further build on your relationship with them.  And, perhaps most importantly, this second interaction is an ideal time to ask your donors how they prefer to be contacted!  On this subject, Marlee shared with us:

I love when I can get a follow-up email or follow-up question from an organization and they ask me, How would you like us to communicate with you going forward?’.”

Knowing the exact means of communication your donors prefer is like an open invitation to contact them via that channel.  Some will prefer email, but others might still like to be contacted by phone or even sent a text message.

By reaching out in this way, you’re also showing your donors that you care enough about their personal preferences to ensure that they are met by your organization.

Delia followed up on this point by stating that giving is also changing, so those individuals who used to prefer making donations by postal mail might now prefer to do so digitally.  Delia went on to say that organizations should periodically do an internal assessment, asking questions like:

Do we know what we think we know about our donors and how they behave?

Instead of assuming that people’s preferences don’t change or that they will follow the same trends as other groups, Delia added:

It’s really about that organization knowing what their particular demographic prefers.  I would say that a lot of organizations haven’t asked yet.”

Cultivating relationships with your donors includes asking the right questions to the right people at the right time.  You want to build these relationships gradually and in small pieces so that it isn’t overwhelming.

Another tactic being increasingly implemented is the use of inbound marketing to attract new visitors and collect their information.  For instance, providing a downloadable eBook on a topic of interest to someone after they first provide their name and email address, is a more passive way to collect data from potential or current donors.  Delia said of this point:

I think that savvy nonprofits are finding push-pull ways, new ways to push content out there, but also pull people to their missions and engage them with their organizations….so your strategy isn’t just about a special fundraising campaign that’s happening, but it’s also integrated with your strategic communication and marketing and even your programs, so that there’s a full cycle of cultivation opportunities coming throughout the entire organization where you’re able to communicate and talk to likely donors, current donors, or donors who are passive.”

Many organizations shy away from the concept of gradually getting to know their donors and attracting new donors through inbound efforts and prolonged data acquisition because it seems like a lot to take on at once.

Marlee and Delia suggest trying out this approach in small bites, possibly keeping your original strategy with some of your donors and not with others.  This way you can compare and analyze the success of your new (more gradual) strategy to your old one!

Was this information helpful to how you approach relationships with your donors?  

Check out the remaining articles from our Forefront Blog Series!