Best Practices

6 Ways to Take Your Donor Relationships to the Next Level

6 Ways to Take Your Donor Relationships to the Next Level




December 22, 2020

Last modified: 

July 20, 2023

As a fundraising professional, you understand the importance of building relationships with your valuable donors. They’re the ones who provide the funding that make it possible to provide new opportunities for students and alumni. Therefore, building relationships with them secures support both now and in the future for these fundraising programs to continue taking place. 


Considering the disruptions that everyone experienced (and continues experiencing) during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, your relationships with many donors might appear to be wavering. When everyone changed up their strategies to incorporate the latest trends in engagement, there were some strategic aspects that undoubtedly fell through the cracks. 

We recommend taking your approach back to the basics of engagement and donor relationships this coming year. Revisit some tried-and-true ideas that have been proven time and time again to bolster relationships with your supporters. After all, these are the strategies that are most often forgotten when we embrace new methods and change up our approach to relationships. 

The tips we’re covering in this article are ones that you may have seen before. However, they’re immensely important to maintain throughout the hubbub and chaos of the year. Without further ado, let’s dive deeper into these important and timeless strategies to help take your donor relationships to the next level. 

Personalize Outreach

For students, alumni, and donors, it’s painfully obvious when you send out emails or other communications that do not employ segmentation or other personalization strategies. Everything from a “To whom it may concern” introduction to the lack of personal details in the message makes it clear that you sent the same message to everyone on your email list. 

Generic, impersonalized outreach is the easiest to ignore and causes the downfall of many marketing programs. See how institutions such as Gann Academy increased alumni email open rate by personalizing their email campaigns. 

When it comes to your donors, you should include the same personalization strategies for outreach. 

The easiest way to start making the most of personalization is to use the same approach as Gann Academy: start with your email campaigns. Use the information in your donor database to fill in some gaps and to show your supporters that the message you’re sending is customized  just for them. You can do this by: 

- Using the donor’s preferred name in the introduction. 

- Including details about the supporters’ engagement history. 

- Approaching specific segments of donors with targeted messages. 

- Sending messages relevant to the interests of the donor. 

When you have access to an effective donor database, a lot of this information can be automated to save your time and energy in sending these highly targeted messages. This effective donor database buyer’s guide explains that automation features, when used correctly, can make personalization more effective and efficient. 

Your database can be used to auto-populate details into message templates and ensure you reach the right audience segments in your communications to enhance donor engagement.

Host Engaging Opportunities

Building relationships is impossible if it’s a one-sided effort. Your institution needs to not only work to communicate and show your donors that you care, you need to invite them to engage back with you by providing ample opportunities. 

In the age of COVID-19, engaging opportunities look a little different than they have in the past. To create engaging opportunities in the midst of a pandemic, you’ll need to adhere to social distancing guidelines by coming up with new virtual events ideas. 

We’ve come up with a list of our favorite virtual fundraising ideas that any educational institution, nonprofit, or other organization can make use of. While you can find the full list here, we’ll highlight some of the options below: 

- Online Gala - This is a great opportunity to encourage your major donors to get dressed up and network with one another using virtual conferencing software.

- TED Talk Events - Encourage your donors while enforcing your emphasis on education by providing TED Talk-style events to spread knowledge about certain topics. 

- Online Classes - Provide online class opportunities for donors as well as students. These may not be full-fledged courses, but mini opportunities to sharpen skills. 

- Annual Giving Days - Giving days encourage a great number of people (especially alumni) to give on a very specific day, similar to #GivingTuesday. 

- Matching Gift Drives - This is a great way to encourage more donations and maximize impact. Promote corporate giving opportunities and remind supporters to check their eligibility for matched gifts. 

When your donors get involved with all of the opportunities you offer, they strengthen their ties to your institution. This makes it all the more likely that they’ll continue supporting you in your upcoming fundraising events.

Make a Phone Call

A phone call is an often overlooked relationship-building strategy because it can be somewhat time-consuming. However, it’s a valuable tool and makes a huge difference, especially when it comes to new donors. 

For instance, consider the new donor cultivation timeline below. It shows that a thank-you call within 48 hours of a donation can dramatically improve your donor retention rates. Plus, it’s the first step to begin a strong relationship with your donors. This is because you establish a personal connection with the donor while showing your appreciation for their contribution.

Donor Cultivation Timeline

Phone calls are a great way to start a relationship with donors on the right foot. However, don’t forget to employ the strategy with your seasoned donors as well! Call them to maintain regular contact and to express your gratitude for their continued support in your fundraising initiatives. 

Hand-write letters

You’ll notice that on the cultivation timeline from the previous section that the step after a “thank you phone call” is sending a “signed thank you letter.” While email is likely your primary method of communication with the donors, the power of a physical letter of appreciation should not be underestimated, especially when it’s hand-written. 

Hand-written notes are a classic way to show your donors that you will truly take the time out of your day for them. They want to feel like a priority for your organization, which is what a hand-written note should communicate. 

When you write these notes, there are specific elements that you should make sure to include, such as: 

- The preferred name of the donor. Just like in email communications, you should make sure to refer to the specific donor as you hand-write letters (be sure to double-check your spelling, too!)

- The activity they participated in. If your donor has just contributed funds, be sure to thank them for the specified amount. If they attended an event, thank them for their involvement and participation. 

- The president’s signature. Letters are generally better received when they come from the top office of your institution. Therefore, you should make sure the president of your institution’s signature is on each and every one of them.

Just like phone calls, hand-written letters tend to be important strategies as you cultivate relationships with your new donors. However, don’t forget about the strategy for your veteran donors! 

Be sure both phone calls and hand-written letters are a part of both your cultivation and stewardship strategies to strengthen donor relations. 

Tell stories

Don’t we all love stories? Your donors want to hear your inspiring story. They want to hear the reason behind all the great work that you do and the support that you provide to your community. Sharing these stories with your donors is a great way to show them what it is that their contributions support. 

One of the current trends in the higher education space is the use of images to communicate these types of narratives. This trend is important to keep in mind because there are so many different platforms on which you’ll be telling stories. For instance, consider the following examples: 

- Email - Whether it’s an email to a certain segment of your audience or a regular newsletter sent to many, include an image of an individual who attended your institution along with their story. This adds a face to the name and a personal touch to show the impact of donations. 

- Social media - Platforms like Instagram and Facebook are made for visual storytelling. Be sure to use an image that tugs at the heartstrings to gain the attention of your audience, then caption it with details about the story itself. If it’s a longer story, be sure to provide a link to where donors can read the rest of it. 

- Blog posts - Blogs are the perfect way to write long stories about individuals or about the progress of your institution. Showing images, faces, and specific names make these even more powerful. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And it’s true! Be sure to leverage both text and image when you tell the story of your institution’s successes.

Show impact

In the last section, we mentioned briefly that stories are a method of showing impact. Communicating impact is critical for donor engagement and continued support down the line. Think about it. If you give to an organization, you’re not contributing money for the sake of spending it. That would be silly! Rather, you’re making a donation to help accomplish a mission. 

Communicating the progress of this mission and the impact of specific donations is a great way to give your donors the warm and fuzzy feeling in the pit of their stomachs that was probably what drove them to contribute in the first place. You’re reinforcing the positive aspect of donating. 

Check out this nonprofit annual report guide that conveys the story of The Johnsons and how their impact was communicated to all contributors in an end-of-year report.

Donor Spotlight

Notice some key aspects of this example: 

- It shows a picture of The Johnsons

- The text uses a statistic showing the impact their contributions made

- The text is framed to put all of the emphasis on the Johnsons rather than on the efforts of the organization

These aspects are some of the most important things to remember when you communicate the impact of specific donors. Generally, on annual reports such as this, it’s your major donors that you’ll highlight. However, you can still use these strategies in emails, letters, phone calls, and other methods of communication to show any supporter that they’ve made a difference. 

Building donor relationships is an incredibly important part of the fundraising strategy at your institution. Therefore, even as you explore all of the new and exciting ways to communicate and engage with them, don’t forget about the basics. Form a strong foundation for your donor relationships by using these tried-and-true strategies. Then, continue to cultivate and build these relationships to watch your fundraising soar!


About the author

Jay Love

Jay Love

Co-Founder and current Chief Relationship Officer at Bloomerang

He has served this sector for 33 years and is considered the most well-known senior statesman whose advice is sought constantly.

Prior to Bloomerang, he was the CEO and Co-Founder of eTapestry for 11 years, which at the time was the leading SaaS technology company serving the charity sector. Jay and his team grew the company to more than 10,000 nonprofit clients, charting a decade of record growth.

He is a graduate of Butler University with a B.S. in Business Administration. Over the years, he has given more than 2,500 speeches around the world for the charity sector and is often the voice of new technology for fundraisers.

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