You know the old trope: a family of four is in a station wagon on Route 66.

“Are we there yet?”

The parent inevitably answers, “No!”

This exchange repeats itself over the course of hours. The children are agitated they’re not where they want to be; the parents are frustrated the children keep asking.

Too often, fundraisers find themselves in the role of the child, and donors find themselves in the role of the parents. Year after year, it can feel like your fundraising efforts have you tapping the same well, and you might be worried you’ll exhaust your supporters.

retain donorsPeople will be solicited for donations countless times over the course of a year. The best fundraisers and development experts know that despite this statistic, you can still have a highly successful fundraiser if you commit to combating exhaustion with inspiration. Expert fundraisers Sarah CliftonDeborah Kaplan Polivy and Jeffrey David Stauch all discuss the model of the “gift cycle,” a fundraising concept that translates well into any setting that is looking to generate gifts on a periodic or annual basis.

The gift cycle or “donor lifecycle” essentially describes the relationship between fundraiser and donor or customer, and refers to the process of informing donors about your mission; making “the ask”; communicating results; expressing gratitude; and then returning later for renewed commitment.

Organizations successful in cultivating donors through the gift cycle minimize the gap between making a donation or buying a fundraising product and the impact that these contributions will make.

Closing this gap involves defining your fundraising mission; communicating the impact a successful fundraiser will make; and expressing gratitude to donors for helping your realize that mission.

Here’s what your fundraising strategy should include to master the gift cycle.



Mission-Driven Fundraisers Retain Donors


Jason Saul, CEO of Mission Measurement and author of “The End of Fundraising: Sell Your Impact,” describes succinctly the transformation that has led to a revolution in the way all fundraisers must approach their donors.

“The exacerbation of social and environmental conditions has bolstered interest in the social capital market. Today social change is no longer exogenous to our economy,” writes Saul. “[That] means that the “product” that nonprofits manufacture—social impact—now has mainstream economic currency.

retain donorsWhat is your organization’s social impact? You may do many things to improve your community, or you may do one thing really well. Ideally, a mission should be focused enough to communicate in a tweet (140 characters or less!).

In the nonprofit world, charity: water is a young organization. Nevertheless, they’ve quickly risen to popularity because of innovative marketing and a clear, compelling mission: “Our mission is to bring clean and safe drinking water to every person in the world.”

Charity: water achieves their goal by installing wells in developing countries, transforming the environment and health of the communities. It takes all of 30 seconds to describe what this global nonprofit does with their fundraising dollars.

Local community fundraisers can still have a compelling mission behind them. Whether you’re selling a tangible good to raise money or going for a pure ask, you can help others understand why your group is fundraising by articulating a mission that is based in a broader context.

On a smaller scale, a Florida food pantry hosted a canned food drive to meet the extra demand for Thanksgiving. They could’ve just said, “It’s Thanksgiving, we’re collecting cans.” Instead, they framed the mission in systemic terms: “We’re stabilizing our community’s health and economy by eliminating hunger.”

Mission statements that address “systemic change” are powerful, and help people see the difference their purchase can make. The FrameWorks Institute uses the metaphor of a wide-angle camera lens to help describe how telling stories that look at systems instead of individuals can amplify change and produce positive results. It’s the first step in engaging your community in long-term fundraising support, because it’s helping them see their purchase of flowers, discounts cards and chocolates as a means of improving their community in a way that benefits everyone.


Fundraisers that Communicate Impact Retain Donors


A friend was at dinner the other day and took a work call. When he returned, he was smiling. A long-time client with a very modest investment was filled with anxiety over a negligible expenditure. As a seasoned finance professional, my friend made an astute observation: “Doesn’t matter if it’s $20,000 or $2 million. Everyone cares about their money nearly the same, but sometimes they care more when there’s less of it.”

Fundraisers, take note. Donors deserve for you to go through the trouble of From the fundraiser’s point of view, grassroots community fundraisers sometimes seem too small to warrant this kind of approach. From the donor or customer’s point of view, however, communicating how their dollars are spent brings their purchase or contribution full circle.

With this in mind, all resource development teams should consider communications part and parcel to raising big money. The most successful fundraising communications will implement storytelling.

Stauch sums up the critical purpose of storytelling in his book “Effective Frontline Fundraising,” noting that how you tell your story matters: “The more details you include in your story, the more likely you’ll connect to a donor…[It] should be crafted in such a way that it answers the essential question on a donor’s mind: why should I support your organization[?]”

How many pairs of scissors did you buy, how much money did that save teachers, and what lesson plans were created because a donor purchased some flowers and candy? How many social service hours were supported by a donor’s annual contribution? These kinds of connections are how storytelling works as a powerful tool that makes donors feel engaged with your cause. Share this in a letter to donors with pictures of the impact, and provide testimonials. The more tangible, the better.

And, remember that mission? Make sure your story ends by addressing where you began. If your mission is ongoing, highlight the progress that was made because of their support.

Alyce Lee Stansbury, a professional fundraising consultant lauded by school districts, sums it up best: “Donors respond to urgent human needs, not organizational needs. Start telling your best story and people will respond.”



Fundraisers that Express Gratitude Retain Donors


Speaking of appreciation, you’d be hard pressed to find a fundraiser who doesn’t give thanking donors equal weight with asking donors when it comes to running fundraisers that work.

retain donorsSuccessful fundraising at all levels is punctuated by expressions of gratitude. A southeastern United Way CEO regularly reminded her staff that donors must be thanked seven times before they feel genuinely appreciated, a rule borrowed from an age-old cross-cultural custom that fundraising consultant Janet Hedrick explores in “Effective Donor Relations.”

Hedrick suggests that a fundraiser should consider thanking a donor multiple times in multiple ways, and while your capacity for continued outreach to donors may be limited by organizational codes, it never hurts to leave an expression of gratitude at their doorstep after the campaign has ended, or upon delivering a purchased product.

When thanking someone who participated in your fundraiser, keep these guides in mind:

  • Use donor-centric language, and remember that “you messages” communicate gratitude better than “we messages.”
  • Begin and end your oral or written communication with a “thank you.”
  • Communicate in a way that is meaningful to your audience. While nearly all audiences will appreciate a handwritten letter or note, consider your capabilities for public recognition, and thank major supporters in a more public way. This adds value to their purchase or contribution.
  • Provide a timely thank you to avoid making donors feel like an afterthought.
  • If your program or mission is on-going, keep donors or customers informed about recent developments. A donor who never grows cold never has to be resold!


Mapping out your donor cultivation strategy, and continuing to engage them in your impact even when you’re not fundraising can lead to increasingly successful campaigns year over year. If your stewardship plan is one that mission driven, committed to expressing continued impact, and adequately makes donors feel appreciated, donors will likely come to associate your fundraising ask with a chance to make a tangible difference in the quality of life in their community.

Thanks to Clay Boggess for this article. Clay has been designing fundraising programs for schools and various nonprofit organizations throughout the US since 1999. He works with administrators, teachers, as well as outside support entities such as PTA’s. Clay is a Senior Consultant at Big Fundraising Ideas.