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How to Retain First-Time Donors

Following the COVID-19 pandemic and sky-high inflation rates in the US, nonprofit organizations everywhere are racing to figure out ways to combat the trends they are seeing in fundraising. New donor retention, repeat donor retention, and recaptured donor rates are down significantly per AFP’s The Fundraising Effectiveness Project. The new donor retention rate is down 14.8% year over year, while the repeat donor retention rate is down 5.4% year over year.  Clearly, many are struggling to on how to retain first-time donors.

Improving the first-time donor retention rate can be one of the most effective ways to improve your overall fundraising results. The good news is that it is much more cost-effective to retain donors than acquire new ones. And, it is easier to retain donors who make a second gift. Start creating your donor retention plan today.  

Begin by calculating the donor retention rate 

To improve donor retention, you must first understand your current nonprofit donor retention rate. You can calculate your donor retention rate by dividing the number of donors who gave this year by the number who gave last year and then multiplying by 100.  

To track your retention rate exclusively for first-time donors, use this same formula, but only include numbers specific to first-time donors. For example, let’s say 1,000 total donors gave last year, and 230 were first-time donors. This year, 210 of those first-time donors gave a second gift. So, your retention rate is: 

(210/230) x 100 = 91.3% 

Continue tracking your first-time donor rate each year, monitoring if your first-time donor rate is going up or down. 

Next, create a plan for how to increase donor retention 

It is vital to retain first-time donors because research shows that if you can get that second gift, your long-term odds of retaining that donor increase dramatically. Many nonprofit boards discuss donor acquisition more often than donor retention, but retaining current donors is a more cost-effective long-term strategy. Your donor retention plan should include these steps: 


  1. Genuine and prompt gratitude– send a thank you letter to every donor as soon as possible after the gift is received. Keep in mind that a thank you letter is different from a tax receipt. Sending genuine thank-you notes will help improve your donor retention. 
  2. Communicate impact– make sure to personalize the thank-you letter and communicate the impact the donor had on the organization. If their gift helps feed 25 families with food insecurity, tell that to the donor.
  3. First-time donor welcome series– set up an email campaign, so first-time donors feel welcomed throughout the year. You can use automation to send a series of emails after a donor makes their first gift, or this can be as simple as setting up a schedule in which you are periodically sending different email messages to first-time donors. This helps guarantee there is ample communication in-between asks for donations.
  4. Involve your board– your board of directors can get involved with making thank-you calls to first-time donors. Researchers like Penelope Burke have found that when a donor receives a phone call from a board member, their donor retention rate is much higher. And what’s better? The board member calls the donor within 3 days of receiving the gift. 
  5. Personalize ask strings in your next appeal– an important part of retaining donors is personalizing the appeal letter and asking for the right gift. Apps like AskGenius can help you set the perfect ask string for each donor.
  6. Continue communicating with donors regularly– did you know the recommended nurture ratio is 8:1? You should send 8 pieces of communication that are informational, educational, or full of gratitude for every communication that contains an invitation to donate.  


Lastly, send them a personalized fundraising appeal letter and re-calculate your donor retention rate 

That’s right, the last step to see if your donor retention strategies work is to send the first-time donor another invitation to donate. Ensure that your fundraising letter is an effective tool for improving your nonprofit donor retention rate with strategies such as personalizing the letter and setting the best ask string for each donor. We cover this and more in the webinar How to Write the World’s Greatest Fundraising Letter – AskGenius 

You can move the mark on new donor retention by taking small steps to thank and communicate with first-time donors regularly. Frequent, thoughtful communication via email, mail, phone, and social media to donors will help them see the impact of their gifts and deepen their relationship with your nonprofit organization. A small commitment of time can have a big impact on donor retention. If you haven’t created a donor retention plan, start today. 

To learn more about donor retention, check out this article: 5 Ways to Improve Nonprofit Donor Retention. Once your donor retention plan is in place, begin to look at the science behind setting the perfect ask string on your donors’ pledge cards and consider a tool like AskGenius to help. Request a demo of AskGenius, free today. 

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