Black envelope filled with American dollar bills in a pile of dollar bills

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

During a career spanning six decades (That’s right – I started in the late 70s, so now I’m in my sixth decade!) the most frequent query people ask me is, “What’s the secret to successful fundraising?” In this series of posts, I’ll address three key aspects that lead to successful fundraising: donor acquisition, donor cultivation, and donor appreciation.

For this first post, we’ll start at the beginning: the donor acquisition process. As with everything else, there is no single secret, but there are a few general-purpose concepts. These steps will help guide any organization toward achieving their development goals.

1. Develop a strategic plan for donor acquisition.

Know who you will be soliciting, how you’ll contact them, and what your organization’s mission is. How will that motivate a donor’s response? These fundamentals are relevant for all communications. Since direct mail is the largest vehicle (in terms of volume), most of this post will relate to that medium.

2. Assemble a talented team of dedicated professionals to execute the plan.

Non-profit entrepreneurs are typically visionaries driven to engage any and every cause. Their passionate motivation is key, but so are strong executive skills. The one-man organization or small team isn’t likely to have the array of skills needed to identify, create, and perform effective programs and raise the funding to pay the bills. Just as you probably don’t have the in-house legal and auditing resources needed for regulatory compliance, you probably won’t have a full development and creative staff straight out of the gate. Outside development personnel can – and should – be used for creative and strategic execution of most functions until your budget can afford full-time staff. Doing otherwise would be akin to forcing that square peg in the round hole.

3. Initiate documented procedures for donor communication operations.

Before the first gift is solicited, have in place a process for efficient and immediate opening of the mail (often called “caging”) and a database and attendant schedules for additions, updates, corrections, and deletions. This system is the first element of the infrastructure required to effectively manage a strong donor relationship. The system will track gifts and provide prompts to acknowledge that transaction with appropriate “thank you” messages – the first being the immediate dispatch of letters, emails, or calls to the donor.

Getting a donor to take a call or open a letter is easiest when it follows a gift, since they don’t expect another appeal for financial support. Nor should they receive one! Perhaps the biggest mistake made by fundraisers is the failure to show appropriate gratitude in a timely fashion. I’ll address this more in a future post.

4. Learn as much as you can about your donor and record that information.

Through various coding schemes, you should be able to record the date, amount, and source of the gift. What offer did they respond to? Who made the request (letter signer or personal solicitation)? What was the source of the name for the appeal? Most database systems allow for the management of a related database that easily collects and makes accessible this information, often including images (PDFs) of the appeal as sent (i.e., traditional letter, email). Also, include the date and a copy of the “thank you” communication or the date and time of the phone call. With that, include any relevant notes or comments collected during the call. Donor acquisition means very little if you have no relevant data on your new donors.

5. Analyze results of the broader campaign by list/source and respond accordingly.

In the strategic plan, you should have benchmarks for required response rates, average gift, and return on investment (ROI). It should also include a budget. These objective standards should direct future actions. In addition to these short-term measures, longer term analysis pays off when it finds those hidden gems out there. For example, some lists may yield disappointing returns of .50 to .75 return on investment, but the donors acquired may have a much higher long-term value (LTV).

6. Finally, approach donor acquisition with plans to conduct multiple campaigns simultaneously.

While mail solicitations are effective and have been implemented for more than 250 years (read Ben Franklin’s autobiography), digital, print, broadcast and other media can be effective and are worthy of exploration. ClearWord is excited to be a part of the HSP family of companies, working alongside organizations like Blitz Digital so we can offer this wide range of services to clients looking to improve their donor acquisition. The plan may seem overwhelming, but you’ll only achieve income stability and growth with the continuous addition of new donors.

If you’re looking to up your donor acquisition game, here’s your key takeaway: relationships matter. Better donor communications and relationships mean better results for your organization.


If you would like to submit a fundraising question or topic, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at: