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3 Donor Behaviors to Recognize Right Now – and How!

Blog title graphic: 3 Donor Behaviors to Recognize Right Now — and How!

One of our favorite aspects of the recently redesigned DRG website is the Free Resources section, featuring a revamped and expanded Sample Library where inspiration for just about any donor relations project is waiting to be found. Facilitating the exchange of ideas and highlighting best practices has been at the heart of our work from the beginning, and we still jump at any chance to shine a spotlight on the excellent work of the DRG community.

If you’ve been watching this space the past few years, you already know we’re big proponents of behavior-based donor relations. For those needing a refresher, here are a couple of blog posts (one and two) that dive deeper into our definition, but essentially, it’s about recognizing donors for their giving behavior, instead of their gift amount. From promoting inclusivity in the giving experience to improving donor retention rates, a behavior-based approach has multiple benefits for nonprofit organizations – and getting started need not be a complex challenge.

To help, we dove into the library for some stellar examples of communications targeted at three common behaviors you can find in almost any donor base: first-time donors, loyal donors, and lapsed donors.

First-Time Donors

Here is where the journey into behavior-based donor relations begins. Every nonprofit organization should have a program in place to recognize first-time donors. It’s an important opportunity to make a first impression, show donors that we see and appreciate them, and meaningfully demonstrate that their gift was worth the time and effort. Through timely and customized recognition of the first gift, we keep donors engaged on the path to continued generosity.

A first-time donor program can be initiated with something as simple as a postcard, email, or video. And the best part is, donors receive this communication only once – upon making their first gift – so the content can potentially be used for several years without major updates. Keep it simple, focus on the donor, and devoid of excess text – remember the goal of this communication is to thank the donor and begin sharing with them what to expect as a member of the giving community.

Here are two examples that do just that:

University of Tennessee Knoxville first-time donor postcard with university timeline including year of donor's first gift.

What we love:

It’s light, airy, and easy to read. And the “timeline of firsts” for the university effectively communicates that this initial gift is part of something bigger, while also highlighting pivotal moments in the organization’s history and its commitment to inclusivity. Overall, it is a great touch point for donors to begin their journey with the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

Tulane University first-time donor postcard welcoming new donors to the giving community.

What we love:

Tulane University offers a warm welcome that is both colorful and easy to read. Words like “took a bold step” help convey appreciation for the selfless act of generosity, while being part of a “family of donors” signals the formation of a strong bond. And perhaps the best part is the foreshadowing of impact communications to come – by sharing what to expect, Tulane helps ensure this relationship is off to a positive start!

Loyal Donors

Another group to consider segmenting for targeted communications are our organization’s loyal donors. Loyal donors are those who have contributed consistently to the organization for a specific timeframe. That could be three years, five years, or even more. By recognizing the value of these current supporters and specifically acknowledging the consistency of their giving (HOW they give), we increase the likelihood of both continuing and, potentially, increasing their generosity. After all, loyal donors are not only making an impact right now, they are also prime prospects for planned gifts and many may already have included the organization in their estate plans.

When it comes to incorporating loyal donors in your communications strategy, the most immediate and easy-to-implement solution is to customize existing communications already reaching them. Reference their loyal and consecutive giving in impact reports, acknowledgment letters, and pledge reminders. This simple approach reinforces that we know the donor and value not only their generosity, but also their loyalty in giving again and again.

As a next step, we can level up our donor retention strategy even more by designing communications specifically for this audience, like these:

First-time donor letter from YMCA featuring child splashing in water.

What we love:

  • There’s no trifold, semi-gloss, or laser-cut details on this piece, proving that we don’t need a significant budget to warm someone’s heart. In fact, this simple piece could just as easily have been sent via e-mail.

  • It’s brief and donor-centric language is woven throughout. In fact, the word ‘you’ is used twice as many times in here as the organization’s own name.

  • By highlighting a significant giving milestone (five years), this piece is intended to be a friendly reminder of gratitude and impact at the exact moment a donor may be most at risk for not renewing their support. Kudos to those organizations who dive into the data to figure out when the greatest attrition happens and uses the information to inform retention strategy! (Fun fact: this approach to celebrating “giftiversaries” also works well in year two for your first-time donors)

Screenshot of loyal donor email from nonprofit. Email features a photo of a woman opening a box with two young children.

What we love:

  • The use of video to bring the story to life. Rarely can a donor actually shake the hand of a beneficiary, which is why featuring specific beneficiary stories like Cori’s is critical. When interviewing beneficiaries for pieces like this, consider a prompt such as, “The person that made this happen will be watching your video. What would you like to say to them?” We feel Cori’s gratitude as we read this piece and watch the accompanying video.

  • The use of the donor’s name twice within the communication. This strategy gets our reader’s attention, builds connection, and improves the likelihood they will remember the organization.

  • It speaks directly to WHY the donor is receiving the communication: “Lynne, we are so grateful for committed monthly donors like you who make stories like these possible.”

Lapsed Donors

Success in donor retention isn’t always immediate or consecutive; sometimes donors stop giving to our organization for a variety of reasons – and then they come back. One of the most meaningful communications we can send donors is one acknowledging they made a gift after not giving for a period of time (typically a minimum of three years as a non-donor). By noticing and acknowledging the behavior of this group of donors, we increase the likelihood they will continue to invest in the future – they now know they were missed!

Lapsed donor communications should be sent monthly in addition to standard acknowledgments. To help identify lapsed donors, consider the following criteria in building a report:

  • Include donors who made a gift three or more years ago but have not made a gift in the past three years.

  • Exclude donors with cumulative giving above a threshold that is significant for the organization (e.g., $5000).

  • Include any associated Donor Advised Funds (DAF) or Foundations from which a donor may have made a gift in the past three years.

Below are two communications that may serve as inspiration. What we love is that each provides a direct message, so the donor immediately knows why they are receiving it.


  • The samples are brief, yet warm and inviting.

  • And in both examples, the images portray action and growth, letting the donor know they are pivotal to propelling the organization forward – and most of all, they were missed.

Lapsed donor postcard with students walking on campus and the words "Hello Again."

Lapsed donor postcard featuring photo collage of university campus and the words "Welcome back to Rocky Top as a big orange donor!"

Lapsed donor postcard with text welcoming a donor back to the giving community.

Behavior-based donor communications are vital to expanding our reach and creating a more inclusive, engaging donor experience – one that acknowledges donors for where and how they give and reinforces the important role they play in our organization’s success, regardless of amount. And as these examples have shown, it doesn’t have to be complicated.

Starting the journey is as easy as 1-2-3!

  1. Identify a donor behavior to recognize – perhaps one we’ve highlighted here, or another meaningful action you hope to increase. Then, develop a report from your database that makes it easy to identify these donors to your organization. Partner with your data wiz to explore criteria and help you truly target the population you seek.

  2. Develop the communication piece. Be it a postcard, email, or video, remember to keep it simple, use donor-centric language, and be sure to highlight the behavior you’re acknowledging.

  3. Hit send and spread the donor love!

If you need more inspiration, please explore our full library of samples. And be sure to share your successes with us – your story could be the next source of inspiration for our community!


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