Create a Sustainable 2024 Stewardship & Retention Strategy

At the start of a new year, you should focus on reinforcing relationships and expressing your gratitude for donors’ year-end support. But don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s been a very challenging couple of years for you, your organization, and your donors.

Donor engagement and fatigue are a real problem—nonprofits ranked them at the top among their biggest challenges, ahead of recurring giving and donor retention. Donors need to be be made to feel connected to the mission and shown why their support matters.

To retain and engage more supporters in 2023, you’ll have to keep your mission on donors’ minds without under- or overdoing it.

This requires communicating in targeted ways and making the right kinds of asks at the right times while emphasizing donor impact. With the right strategies and tools, it’s easy for teams of any size to tackle stewardship and retention.

Sustainable Stewardship & Retention: 8 Steps

Taken together, these steps cover critical and interrelated areas that nonprofits need to address—donor retention, building relationships with lower-level donors, mid-level and major gift cultivation. The steps don’t have to be completed in sequential order; they can and should overlap as ongoing activities as you incorporate them into your normal stewardship practices.

To tackle these steps, you’ll need a few essentials:

  • A CRM with donation and relationship data
  • Various outreach and marketing tools for email, social media, phone, and text message
  • Fundraising, event, and programming plan
  • Data mining to measure donor propensities based on your data

With these tools and resources in hand, you’ll have what you need to start handling stewardship and retention strategically, following a plan rather than taking an ad hoc, often unsustainable approach.

Follow these steps to create a sustainable donor stewardship and retention plan.

Step 1: Lay Out Your Vision and Goals.

What do you need to accomplish in 2023 in terms of retention and donor stewardship? Dig into your current data and try answering questions like:

  • What was your donor retention rate last year?
  • How does it track against retention in previous years?
  • How many mid-size and/or major gifts have you received in the past year?
  • How many mid-size or major prospects are you actively cultivating on average?
  • What is your current average donor lifetime value? How does it compare to past years?

Using these insights, lay out a vision for the changes you’d like to see happen in the realms of donor retention, stewardship, and development. Set specific goals to work towards and clearly document them in a place that’s accessible to everyone who’ll be involved in the plan.

Step 2: Identify Your Immediate Churn Risks.

Start by tackling the most immediate drain on your potential revenue: donor churn.

Rather than trying to figure out exactly who’s at risk of churning from your giving program on your own, we recommend turning to technology for help retaining your at-risk donors.

Machine learning software can screen your database to pick up on deep trends that lead to churn. From there, it will rank your donors by their likelihood to stop giving in the near future. When integrated with your CRM, this tool makes it easy to generate a quick list of the most at-risk donors, share it with your donor outreach team, and get started boosting retention.

Step 3: Create a Retention Cadence and Stick To It.

Develop a communication cadence specifically for reaching out to at-risk donors with phone calls, emails, event invites, or more—just don’t ask for another donation for a while.

We’ve seen nonprofits find the greatest retention success by starting their cadence with a phone call. In each call, express your gratitude for all of the donor’s previous support, explain the impact that it’s had on your work, and see if they have any questions. This kind of no-pressure personal outreach can be extremely effective for reminding donors that their help matters (and isn’t just sucked into a donation form on your website).

From here, keep it going as a rolling retention outreach program. Once a month or so, spend a day identifying at-risk donors and working your way down the list. It’s a direct and time-efficient way to proactively tackle churn at the source.

The beauty of this AI-driven approach is that it’s proactive, efficient, and feasible for nonprofits of any size. Personal outreach would typically be a time-consuming and unsustainable use of your team’s time, but AI-generated lists give you the focus and prioritization that traditional approaches lack. This same approach works for donation upgrades and stewarding high-value donors, covered in the following steps.

Step 4: Identify Donation Upgrade and Conversion Opportunities.

Now, turn back to your data. Run AI measurements of donors’ likelihood to join your recurring giving program or to upgrade their existing donation to the next level if they’ve already joined.

This process can take all the guesswork out of growing your giving program over time. It lets you focus on making the asks most likely to generate results rather than send everyone a blanket request to join or upgrade.

Step 5: Build These Insights into your Fundraising Outreach.

When you know who’s the most likely to set up a new recurring donation or to upgrade to the next level, you can easily begin targeting those donors in your fundraising outreach. With a ready-made list of individuals, put together an email or direct mail appeal explaining the benefits of your giving program and the impact of increased support on your mission.

This process makes it easy to grow your giving program efficiently and without over-communicating with any donors who aren’t ready yet to join or upgrade. For those donors, you can instead focus on retaining at their current levels.

Step 6: Identify Mid-Level and Major Gift Opportunities.

With sustainable retention and donation upgrade processes in place, you can start using AI to help your development team more efficiently identify mid-level and major gift opportunities, too.

Machine learning software can study all the trends that have historically led to these larger gifts for your organization and generate lists of individuals likely to make the equivalent of a mid-size or major gift in the coming year. Compare these lists against your own prospect research for an added level of verification and accuracy as you begin cultivating relationships.

Step 7: Personally Reach Out to Prospects.

From here, kickstart your stewardship and cultivation process with confidence.

Major gift cultivation is always a highly personal, one-on-one task, which shouldn’t change. But using AI to refine your prospect lists beforehand allows you to quickly prioritize your prospects and give your development team a clear sense of who to begin talking with first.

Step 8: Actively Track Your Progress and Adjust Over Time.

Finally, ensure that you actively track your progress toward the various stewardship and retention goals outlined in Step 1. As you identify and reach out to at-risk donors, donors likely to convert or upgrade, and/or high-value prospects, make sure that you record a few things:

  • Phone call responses
  • Email engagement metrics like open rate and clickthrough rate
  • Conversion rates on fundraising appeals
  • All touchpoints or moves with prospects

The exact data points you choose to record will vary depending on the exact strategies you roll out, and any software you use should help to simplify this process. This data should flow into your CRM for easy future reference (and to help your machine learning software continue refining its predictions). Keep adjusting in real-time as your metrics and priorities evolve.

Why Strategy Sustainability Matters: The Traditional Challenges Facing Nonprofits

Your resources and your team’s time are finite, and you have a mission to pursue—that’s what your donors are there to support. You have an intricate balance to strike between pursuing your mission, reaching new donors, retaining and growing relationships with existing donors, and turning a positive fundraising ROI so that your mission can keep growing.

For many organizations, the difficulty of finding this balance between activities means that stewardship and retention often fall to the bottom of the to-do list.

Historically, the bulk of a nonprofit’s stewardship attention goes to the highest-impact donors. For organizations with dedicated development teams, allocating resources this way makes sense when you have limited time. But a tight focus on major donors can leave a big stewardship and retention gap among small and mid-level donors. Plus, small nonprofits with limited resources face an even greater challenge of choosing where to focus their attention to generate the most impact.

Truly sustainable strategies will include the stewardship and retention of lower-level donors through methods that are scalable, quick, and easily repeatable over time. New technologies and changes in the landscape can help. For example:

  • Many nonprofits have enjoyed decreased campaign and event overhead costs with relatively little impact on revenue through the shift to virtual and hybrid options.
  • Online fundraising has changed the acquisition game over the past decade, especially with the effectiveness of peer-to-peer fundraising for organically expanding your network of supporters.

Machine learning software has also become an accessible tool that’s easily integrated into your existing processes, as outlined in the stewardship and retention steps above.

It can streamline or completely eliminate the parts of traditional stewardship activities that made them so unfeasible for small or busy teams, like segmentation for appeals, complicated data analysis, and deciding who to contact and when. This makes it possible to start devoting more of your attention to retaining and growing your relationships in sustainable, highly-targeted ways.

This post was contributed by Chris Paver, COO, Dataro.

Chris is the COO of Dataro, joining the team as a business partner in 2018. Chris has a wealth of experience from the world of commercial law, where he specialized in advising technology, media and high-growth businesses across the full spectrum of strategic, commercial and regulatory issues. As COO, Chris has helped drive Dataro’s rapid growth in the nonprofit sector.