How to Build Systems That Enable Deep Donor Relationships at Scale

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By Gabe Cooper

One of my favorite nonprofits works with governments in Asia to provide forever homes for orphans. Adoption is a big part of my family story, so when I was first introduced to their work, I had an immediate personal, heart-level connection. And that connection led to a donation.

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that most giving happens this way. We give for personal reasons. It’s not that our giving is completely irrational, but at some level, it’s always driven by a personal connection to the cause. The problem is that many nonprofits struggle to create this type of personal connection with donors at scale. Most organizations are still handcuffed to traditional fundraising systems that are largely impersonal simply because they don’t have the systems in place that enable a personal connection to their entire donor file. Their major donors get high-touch, personal experiences and the rest of their donor file gets the standard monthly email or appeal.

At the same time, we know that donor expectations have changed over the past 15 years. Donors have grown accustomed to deeply personalized experiences provided by their favorite brands, newsfeeds and mobile apps. They have come to crave this type of personalization from the nonprofit organizations they choose to support. When donors don’t feel like a valued part of the organization, they will move on. In fact, the average nonprofit loses 76% of donors after their first gift.

Most fundraisers understand this shift in donor expectations, but they still struggle to leverage tactics that cultivate rich relationships with non-major donors. But it’s these “every day” repeat donors who prove time and time again to have a higher lifetime value and champion the cause to the broader community.

When there’s so much at stake, why aren’t nonprofits prioritizing building deep relationships with existing donors? For many, it’s simply because they lack the systems and processes to achieve personalized and multichannel donor communication in an efficient way.

Barriers to Personalization at Scale

Think about your most meaningful relationships. They weren’t built from once-per-year birthday greetings or anniversary celebrations. They formed over time through a series of thoughtful interactions small and large — through quick text messages, a phone call to see how you are, a thank-you card, a personalized gesture of support or simply just being there to listen. In other words, multichannel engagement through the channels most relevant and meaningful to you.

There are three primary reasons nonprofits struggle to create this level of communication and thus deep donor relationships:

  1. Irrelevant fundraising systems. Legacy fundraising systems have neglected the individual donor, and instead, look at the donor base as the strategy. These systems focus on a broadcast or one-to-many approach rather than personalization. The fundamental problem is, these fundraising strategies were designed for a world that no longer exists. There’s a tremendous disconnect between these outdated tactics and donor expectations.
  2. A lack of resources. Many nonprofits are under-resourced in terms of budget, team headcount and systems. But to achieve personalization at scale and deliver the type of experience today’s donors expect, organizations need to have three critical Ps in place: platform, people and processes. In other words, the platform and the people have to be working in concert so that organizations can do more with less. In most cases, there is the desire to meet this new demand for personal connection, but there’s simply not an infrastructure to support it.
  3. Misprioritized focus. Another major obstacle to building deep donor relationships at scale is a lack of focus on the big picture. Nonprofits are sometimes overly focused on tactics and activities rather than the holistic donor experience. Instead of thinking just about next month’s campaign, fundraisers have to be thinking about how to celebrate donors and partners over the life of their relationship.

These challenges have understandably been hard to overcome because under-resourced teams are being pulled in so many directions — organizing the next gala, golf tournament or walk. One good thing that came out of 2020 was the elimination of many of these types of events, which forced fundraisers to look at how they were connecting with their supporters without these one-off fundraising tactics.

Layering in Multichannel Communications

Organizations today have to create unique experiences if they want to earn donor attention and grow giving, and that means communicating in thoughtful and intentional ways. This will become increasingly imperative for nonprofits to not only survive but thrive going forward.

The most successful nonprofits today are so because they’ve realized how impactful and critical personalized and multichannel donor communication is to earning attention, trust and loyalty. And just as repeat donors bring a higher lifetime value, so, too, do multichannel donors. In fact, multichannel donors, on average, give more than three times as much as their single-channel donor counterparts. Yet, according to a study we recently conducted in tandem with NextAfter, only 3% of the 102 nonprofits we evaluated sent multichannel communications to online and offline donors upon receiving a donation.

In the report, “The State of Multi-Channel Donor Communications,” we also found that none of the nonprofits leveraged all four of the communication channels we tested — email, direct mail, text and phone. Perhaps more alarming, one in five organizations did not communicate to the offline donor at all over the four-month evaluation period. Of those who sent at least one communication to the online donor, 40% were single-channel communicators, only communicating in the channel in which they received the donation. For the offline donor, 88% were single-channel communicators.

This data simply suggests that there’s a lot of opportunity for nonprofits to think about how they can improve their multichannel communication and processes for receiving online and offline gifts, and ultimately move toward a more responsive fundraising strategy.

Foundations of a Responsive Fundraising Framework

As a fundraiser, how do you begin to close the chasm between being a single-channel, one-size-fits-all communicator and becoming a more personal, responsive organization? The answer to this question is more simple than you might think. Your ability to become more responsive to donors depends on how well you listen, connect and suggest at scale.


The first step in becoming more responsive and personal with donors is to gain visibility into what’s going on across your donor community. It may seem counterintuitive, but you have to listen to donors first instead of blasting out more communication to reach monthly goals. What are you listening for? All donors provide signals that indicate involvement, interest and intent. You should know how donors are involved in your organization, what their capacity is, how they were introduced to your cause, what they’re interested in and which channels they prefer to communicate through.

This can be achieved in proactive and passive ways. The proactive approach is direct, one-to-one interaction with the donor. This could be through online surveys, phone calls, or even questions placed on donation “thank you” pages or in follow-up emails that simply ask why they gave.

A more passive approach to listening to the involvement, interest and intent signals is using third-party data. This can be done using social media scraping tools that gather publicly available information from profiles on LinkedIn or Facebook or through donor intelligence tools like DonorSearch. Website and email tracking through URLs, tracking pixels and UTM codes can also be used to determine donor engagement and interest. But these are truly only one part of the picture. Third-party data should really be used in tandem with intel gathered directly from your donors to build authentically personal experiences.


The data you gather will help inform how to best connect with your donors. This might be through automated workflows that trigger based on individual milestones or behaviors. This type of data-driven automation is exactly how brands like Nordstrom or Disney are able to better connect with their customers. Automation can drive real-time emails, text messages or phone calls all designed to respond to donor behavior and signals in a more personal way.


After you’ve established a more responsive, personal connection with a donor, use it as an opportunity to suggest the most meaningful next step that’s specific to them — and that may not always be a financial commitment. Focus on delivering value to donors and suggesting next steps for giving that creates a direct connection to the front lines of your cause.

The most important thing to remember is, this is not a one-and-done process. Think of responsive fundraising and relationship building as an ongoing endeavor that requires experimentation, failure, evolution and iteration. Seek to be curious and proactive. It’s only through agile, adaptive strategies, and building personal, impactful relationships, that nonprofits will be able to create predictable, sustainable generosity in an efficient and cost-effective way.

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