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Why 2021 is the Year for Donor Retention

Lindsey Salmony
Published:  08/17/2021

During what was arguably one of the most challenging years, 2020 witnessed the emergence of a reanimated spirit of generosity. Supporters responded to urgent needs and expressed their desire to help the causes they cared about. And, many hospitals and healthcare organizations witnessed the same: an influx of new support came in from what we sometimes call “crisis” or “episodic” donors.

Perhaps your organization received gifts from new donors who had a passion for healthcare but weren’t compelled enough to give until they witnessed their local hospital become overwhelmed with COVID patients. Maybe new donations came from people who believed in the importance of equity in healthcare delivery but weren’t motivated until the pandemic highlighted the critical need to address it. Meanwhile, some hospitals may have seen their grateful patient circles grow bigger as COVID survivors demonstrated their appreciation through charitable giving.

However, if your organization did not receive an influx of new donors, your staff is now hopefully more aware of the significance of receiving continued support from existing donors. With your strategic effort, you were able to lean on your already reliable donors to provide a sustaining layer of support while your hospital’s earned revenue saw a sharp decline. There is now an ever-growing awareness of how organizations can even out the dips from economic downturns by focusing on sustained giving or repeat gifts from mid-level or major donors.

No matter the situation, donor retention has now become a significant and rather compelling opportunity. Research shows that this is only the second time in at least a decade that organizations have experienced a spike in new donors. Though smaller, a similar rise in donor acquisition came in 2017, as people responded to an unstable political environment, a mass shooting in Las Vegas, and a rush of hurricanes. 

However, after 2017’s new donor uptick, retention continued to decline. Donors are slipping through organizations’ fingers every year, and they are leaving faster than they are being replaced. According to the Blackbaud Institute’s Vital Signs series, the giving landscape is financed by fewer households every year.

Now is the time to pay particular attention to what 2020’s new pool of donors represents: an opportunity to establish relationships, build more engagement, show impact, and grow donor value over time. Retaining newly acquired supporters will require significant intention. In fact, the Blackbaud Institute’ 2020 Charitable Giving Report found that nearly two-thirds of first-time donors never make a second gift. So, your donor retention efforts should be immediate and thoughtful.

Of course, the backbone of retaining new supporters is building meaningful and lasting relationships. Contextualizing donor relationships within stages can help you demonstrate your understanding of your supporters’ individualized needs so you can build engagement and trust over time.

Donor stages throughout their relationships are unique to every organization, but the simple power of communicating effectively in each stage can provide a valuable framework for your team as you get started on building an effective retention program. Here are a few tips for each stage as you move through welcoming new donors and demonstrating your value.

Welcoming New Donors

As you welcome new donors, this is your chance to frame the conversation with supporters whose episodic passion for your work could be converted into lasting support. 

Consider developing a welcome series to help new donors get to know your organization and your cause. A welcome series is a set of communications sent to new supporters over time. It can educate and inspire without making donors feel like you’re only reaching out to them for donations. 

According to the 2019 Blackbaud Luminate Online Benchmark, welcome series emails tend to outperform regular campaign emails. In 2019, welcome series emails boasted a 19.32% open rate (versus 15.56% for routine emails) and a 1.55% clickthrough rate (compared to 1.25% for routine emails). These numbers demonstrate the benefits of reaching out to new donors swiftly and intentionally.

You can take your welcome series even further by creating separate streams for certain personas and donor segments. For example, you should communicate differently with those aforementioned new grateful COVID patients than with non-patient donors who gave for different reasons. Tapping into donor passions can provide meaningful rewards with minimal investment. It can be as simple as surveying your new supporters about their reasons for giving and then subsequently communicating with them appropriately.

Another approach to segmenting your welcome series could come from developing touchpoints based on gift level. Certainly, you should continue engaging your donors who made small one-time gifts but spend more time and energy on developing a stream that is targeted to those supporters who made larger one-time gifts and could be cultivated into larger level support. 

Demonstrating Your Value

Welcoming new donors and engaging them in their journey are integral to a retention strategy, but if donors are to be partners in your mission, they must be informed of the progress made possible by their contributions. 

Communicate your value to crisis donors by telling them how their support helped you respond during the pandemic but also remind them that new COVID strains continue to place a demand on your services. 

Even more importantly, episodic donors need to become aware of how your organization has been an integral part of their community. Share stories of your history of supporting community health needs outside of the pandemic. Help them understand how reliable and effective you’ve been, and for how long.

According to a survey by RootCause, a marketing consultant for nonprofits, three-quarters of donors are interested in learning about their contributions’ impact. Nearly as many are interested in organizational efficiency, like overhead costs.

In other words, to understand their role in supporting positive change, donors want open, transparent communication around questions like:

  • “What problem is this organization trying to solve?”
  • “How effectively is the organization operating today?”
  • “How does my contribution help?”

Combining the power of storytelling with data can help you tell a compelling story around your mission and how supporters can help you get there, so the answers to these questions should communicate your impact through data-driven content. Think about what data you already have access to—whether it comes from your fundraising system or financial system—and how you can use it to show your impact and build trust with your donors.


Without an effective retention program that maintains existing supporters, all your fundraising efforts can amount to feeling like you’re running in place. Acquiring new donors annually without working to retain current donors is like filling a leaky bucket.

Donor retention is the most cost-effective way to keep your fundraising bucket filled, and its power accelerates over time. 

Find more donor retention tips and best practices in the new Retention Toolkit: Your Ultimate Guide for Building Lasting Support from the Blackbaud Institute.

Meet The Author

Lindsey Salmony Headshot
Lindsey Salmony
Senior Content Manager
Blackbaud Institute

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