Donor Retention

Understanding the Donor Hierarchy

by Rick Dunham, Founder+CEO

One of the most common misconceptions among the vast majority of nonprofits is their belief that donors to their organization are their donors. Uniquely, theirs.

This is a grossly false presumption.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve led dozens of donor research projects, and each one has asked donors what other charities they support. On average, donors indicated they are supporting six other organizations. And with major donors, it’s more like fifteen… or more.

Nope. The donors who support your organization aren’t YOUR donors. You don’t have exclusive claim to them. They just happen to have your organization somewhere on their hierarchy of giving.

Now, you may have never thought of your donors having such a hierarchy, but you need to think in these terms, and let me explain why.

Almost all donors have a variety of causes they like to support. Rarely are donors so one-dimensional as to support just one organization. So the question becomes, how well have you done in moving your donors to place your organization at the top of their hierarchy?

If you’ve never thought about it, here are four things you need to consider to make your organization more likely to gain top billing in your donors’ hierarchy of giving:

1. The first thing to consider is the clarity of your brand strategy and the ensuing case for support, both of which are designed to clearly articulate the uniqueness of your cause and motivate and inspire your donors to understand the impact they can uniquely make through your organization’s work/mission.

2. Next is the need to keep communications focused on the transformational impact the donors’ support is making possible. The primary way this can be demonstrated is through stories that reveal how lives are impacted through your cause.

3. Another key is a well-designed series of offline and online communications to new donors. Just because they have given your organization a gift doesn’t mean they are committed to you. You need to take them on a journey that will begin to unpack the difference they can make as a result of ongoing support of your organization. You don’t have a bona fide donor until the third gift and you certainly aren’t moving your organization up the hierarchy of their charitable causes unless you are motivating ongoing support.

4. Develop personal touch points with those donors who are showing increased loyalty to spur that loyalty on and to make your organization an increased priority in their mind.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you will not move your organization up your donors’ hierarchy by being protective. Donors to your organization are bombarded constantly by other charitable opportunities. That’s just a reality. So what your donors need is to be inspired by your cause to such an extent that you become the charity of choice for them.

So as you think about your donors, understand that they have multiple organizations which they support and it is your responsibility to cultivate, nourish, and inform the relationship in such a way that they will want to place your organization in a priority position in their hierarchy of giving.


More Insights from Dunham Institute: “Major Gift Development: Your Case for Support”

Ready to take the next step? Dunham+Company is here to help your organization have more impact and establish deeper relationships with your donors and supporters. Contact Bethany Cranfield at 469-454-0100 to get more information. 

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