Upgrade Your Email Game to Convert One-Time Donors to Recurring Supporters Most nonprofits aren't taking full advantage of one of the most powerful (and cost-efficient) tools in their fundraising playbook.

By Walter Chen

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Granger Wootz | Getty Images

Email marketing is one of the most effective ways of fundraising online -- estimated to be about 40 percent more powerful than social media. Nonprofits that take full advantage of email as an outreach channel owe as much as 41 percent of their online revenue to this strategy. It's also the most cost-efficient way to fundraise: email marketing generates about $38 for every $1 spent.

Many development teams leverage email for short-term goals, such as asking for that donation during the holiday season or pushing a challenge-match total over the top. But the smartest way to leverage email is for the long-term -- to build a list of recurring donors. If you're a conscientious steward, you can compound your revenue with each addition to your contacts list.

Related: 6 Ways to Build Your Email Subscriber List

To accrue and manage a large list of recurring donors, you'll need to make some changes to your email workflow. You must ensure your process enables you to track and engage every donor with a heartfelt, personal email to inspire ongoing engagement.

Here's a four-step strategy to improve your email outreach and maximize the impact of each fundraising campaign.

1. Set users up for subscriptions from the get-go.

Less than 30 percent of donors are repeat donors. Considering more than 72 percent of all nonprofit contributions come from individual donors, that's a lot of untapped revenue.

Take a closer look at the majority of nonprofit emails, and you'll see many of them don't even present the donor with an opportunity to give on a recurring basis. Instead, donors must navigate back to the page every month or year and go through the decision-making process all over again. The very first time a donor hears your story and feels compelled to be a part of it is the moment to set him or her up for recurring giving. Don't squander the opportunity to get people involved for the long term.

Related: 6 Hacks for Writing Effective Push Notifications

Planned Parenthood sent this email to emphasize a lower-entry ask. But the message's wording limits donors to consider a one-time gift. Imagine this campaign generated 100 donations of $100 each. That's $10,000, but only for this month. Setting up recipients to give recurring donations at even 40 percent of that amount would have generated the same figure in 2.5 months, and the donations would continue flowing in after that time frame.

To get the most out of your email campaigns, make recurring donations the default. Ask donors to opt out using a checkbox or a dropdown if they want to give a one-time donation. You're not tricking anyone into donating more than they want to give. You're making it easier for them to consider a monthly donation.

For example, the following DogsTrust email a "Donate Now" button. Users who click to give are taken to a new page that displays a monthly membership as the default.

2. Follow up to build emotional investment.

Even if you prompt all your email recipients to subscribe, you'll still have more people who sign up as one-time donors than recurring donors. Don't forget about them after the initial gift.

According to fundraising coach Marc A. Pitman, "It goes beyond the fundraising appeal to seeing a gift as a step in a relationship, not a one-off business transaction." If you can maintain a relationship with every donor, no matter how small her or his gift, that individual can choose to become a recurring donor at any point during the relationship.

Related: 3 Lessons Nonprofits Can Teach Businesses About Branding

While you might hesitate to pester donors, a Software Advice survey has shown that donors actually prefer follow-ups that illustrate the impact of their donations.


For these reasons and others, you should structure an email drip campaign to send emails based on the amount of time since a donor's most recent activity. For instance, you can:

  • Send a thank you email within 48 hours of the first donation made.
  • Send a follow-up email showing the impact of the donation within the week.
  • Send another follow-up email one month later to ask for recurring donations.

You can create this email drip dedicated to one-time donors and send it in addition to the newsletter that goes to your entire list of supporters. This ensures no donor falls through the cracks. Recipients will see the impact of their donations, giving you an opportunity to re-engage them and turn them into repeat donors. Here's a thank-you email sent by UNICEF after an individual's first donation:

Related: Can You 'Feel' It? How to Use Emotional Decision-Making in Marketing

3. Add a personal touch to reinforce trust.

One poll published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy discovered 1 in 3 Americans doesn't trust charities. That number is on the rise. Every email must keep your donor community engaged and reinforce trust in your organization's work -- even for donors who already are giving on a recurring basis.

If your email reads as if it's been sent to a list of 500 people, it loses the very authenticity that helps make your copy believable. Here's an example:

The email above is company-centric and not very reader-centric. NaNoWriMo discusses the organization's fundraising goal but includes no details on how the donor's money will be spent or why it's needed in the first place. Compare it to this one, from Water.org and ECI:

This email uses the recipient's name, it mentions the previous donation amount, and it prompts the individual to give more if he or she is able. These small personal details combine with humor to make Water.org's case for support more authentic and human.

Related: 6 Email Personalization Techniques That Go Beyond a Name

You don't have to craft emails by hand to maintain authenticity across a large email list. Use an email segmentation tool to make every fundraising email more personal. You can set up different email campaigns based on donor behavior. You might choose to create segments for some or all of the following:

  • Those who signed up for your newsletter.
  • One-time donors.
  • Repeat donors who aren't recurring donors.
  • Donors who gave a specific dollar amount (or more).
  • Donors who attended recent events.

According to the Data and Marketing Association, marketers who used segmented campaigns noted as much as a 760 percent increase in revenue. In the nonprofit sector, personalization can make or break your digital fundraising strategy.

4. Equip your team for high-impact emails.

Email is the low-hanging fruit of digital fundraising. It has the widest reach of any communication platform, and it's the least intrusive way to ask for donations. To get the most out of it, however, you'll need to use a tool that helps with design, segmentation, and personalization. Here are a few reasonable options to get you started:

  • Campaign Monitor. This is the most efficient email service. The platform offers many resources specifically for nonprofits, and its design and segmentation features are lightweight and easy to pick up.
  • MailChimp. This is probably the most widely used tool. While MailChimp lacks email templates geared for nonprofits, the segmentation features is highly flexible.
  • SendGrid. This platform made its name as a transactional email service. It functions smoothly but falls a bit short on design options.

Related: 3 Reasons Email Campaigns Remain the Best Marketing Tool

Wavy Line
Walter Chen

CEO & Co-founder, iDoneThis

Walter Chen is the founder and CEO of iDoneThis, the easiest way to share and celebrate what you get done at work, every day. Learn the science behind how done lists help you work smarter in our free eBook: The Busy Person's Guide to the Done List. Follow him on twitter @smalter.

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