2021: The year of donor retention?!


“Despite concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic would depress donations to nonprofits, giving in the U.S. in 2020 increased from 2019 by 10.6%, with the overall number of donors growing by 7.3%.”

That’s the good news out of the 2020 Fourth Quarter Report from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project (FEP), a collaboration among fundraising data providers, researchers, analysts, associations, and consultants to help the fundraising sector track and evaluate trends in giving.

The bad news? Donor retention dropped by 4.1%, with the overall 2019 donor retention rate at 45.4% and in 2020 at 43.6%.

According to the report, “The chief factor in the decrease was a 9.2% drop in the new donor retention rate (the percentage of donors who gave in 2019 to a charity but didn’t give to the same charity in 2020). The 2020 new donor retention was 19.2%, meaning that less than one in five donors who gave for the first time in 2019 to a charity didn’t give to the same charity last year.”

While this drop may seem small, what these numbers show is a concerning trend of continued retention losses with the 2020 number being the lowest donor retention rate since the FEP started tracking this data.

While we know donor retention is on many of your minds every year, 2021 may be the year to refocus, reinvent, and double down on donor retention efforts.

Looking for some donor retention ideas? Here’s what those in your local fundraising community are up to:


  • We have found that zoom meetings where our donors are one on one with our Director (a practicing physician and researcher who is the head of the cancer center) is effective. They enjoy hearing research updates from him and how they are personally making a difference. - Janie Winston, UW Foundation, Carbone Cancer Center, Director of Development


  • When we started to see donor retention rates drop a bit a year or two ago, we added an initial email ask and a final email ask, instead of adding more direct mail letters. Last year especially we saw a decent increase in responses to the initial email with online gifts. - Heidi Habeger, Groundswell Conservancy, Director of Major and Planned Gifts


  • Dane County Humane Society believes in making deeper connections with all of our donors. Through our donor thank you program, donors get a thank you call from a development team member or volunteer.  It’s a great way to learn more about what programs are resonating with our donors, what inspired their giving, and start building a long term relationship! Even just leaving a voicemail is a great donor touch.  - Sarah Linn, Dane County Humane Society, Development & Marketing Supervisor


  • Within the first two weeks of the pandemic, I wrote personal thank you notes to our monthly donors, reminding them of how very important their gifts were during the uncertainty we were facing. I continued to connect with them, more than usual, throughout the year. - Lori Werbeckes, Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired, Fund Development Director


  • We are a membership organization and had some donors not renew in 2020 due to the CARES Act. We offered those donors 6 more months of complementary benefits to get them into 2021 and keep them engaged. - Anna January, PBS Wisconsin, Director of Individual Giving


  • I don't feel like we did anything too major to influence donor retention this past year. But, one thing we did that was atypical was hand write renewal requests to some of our larger donors who hadn't given their annual gift yet and a few who hadn't given for two years now. This worked in some cases and not in others!  - Creal Zearing, Gathering Waters, Associate Director of Development


  • One retention strategy we used at APT once it became clear we had to cancel the 2020 season was to actually increase our communication to our supporters and patrons through email, social media, and the ever-reliable mail and phone. It kept our loyal friends in the know of all the things we were still able to do virtually, and, in turn, served as clear reminders that we still had great need for their support. - Sean Sobecki, American Players Theatre, Development Director


Read the full article from AFP Global: Fundraising Effectiveness Project: Giving Increases Significantly in 2020, Even as Donor Retention Rates Shrink




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writing thank you card