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6 Ideas to Improve Your Recurring Giving Communications

By February 6, 2019

6 Ideas to Improve Your Recurring Giving Communications

By: Brady Josephson, Vice President, Innovation & Optimization, NextAfter

This is post 5 in a series on recurring giving. You can check out the 4th post 8 Ideas to Try and Optimize Your Recurring Giving Process and all the posts in the series.

Nonprofit marketing and communications ideas from 4500 Touchpoints from 115 Nonprofits


You’ve done the hard work of securing a recurring donation from someone, nice work. Job done, right? Just charge the card for as long as you can right? Wrong. Well kind of, you do want to keep your donor around as long as you can, but that requires a great communication and customer service plan.

After tracking all the communications—online and offline—for all three of our mystery donors in The Recurring Giving Benchmark Study for 3 months and analyzing 4500 touch points, we found some opportunities where organizations can improve their recurring donor communications. Here are 6 ideas for you to experiment with to better engage your donors to keep them around longer and build a deeper connection.

1. Create a longer-term communications plan specific to recurring donors

Nonprofit communications were different between one-time and recurring donors right after the person made a contribution. However, after a few months, nonprofits sent pretty much the same content to everyone, even though recurring donors are X times more valuable. Because recurring donors often give for years.

You’d think that a key potential benefit of being a recurring donor would be special treatment, less solicitation, and better communication… but if that all disappears after a few months, than the donor experience may not be great. And you could be breaking the promise you made, stated or implied, when they signed up to be a recurring donor.

One possible challenge is the tracking in the backend, in a CRM, and connection to the front facing communications. You may know someone is a recurring donor in your nonprofit CRM…but can you easily:

  • Send them different emails
  • Remove them from certain campaigns or mailings, and
  • Only send them certain campaigns and mailings?

If you can’t manage the data, all the best communication strategies are all for naught.

Assuming you can segment and keep tabs on these recurring donors, you need a specific plan.

Look at your annual communications calendar and select which touch points recurring donors should and should not get with a focus on what they want to get, not what you want them to get.

You’ll probably cut some solicitations or opt-them out of some campaigns but you should still be communicating with them so then you need to come up with a few new touch points. Some ideas:

  • A thank you postcard
  • Conference call only for recurring donors
  • Special recurring donor reception before your gala
  • Quarterly impact update email
  • Thank you call

Help recurring donors feel as special as they are.

Help recurring donors feel as special as they are.

2. Try sending a thank you/receipt every month

Most recurring donors give every month, but don’t get thanked or acknowledged every month. Sometimes this is at the donor’s request, but it’s often administrative. It’s cumbersome to send out a thank you every month. Why not a once a year statement? That’s putting your short term convenience first, but what is best for the donor?

And here’s the thing: if you ask them, they may tell you they don’t want to be thanked but they really just don’t want to get spammed and asked to give again. So, here are two approaches to handling thank-yous that donors might enjoy:

    1. Your ‘thank you’ doesn’t have to be a pure thank you and tax-receipt. It could be a simple update reminding them of their gift and what it is doing in the world.
    2. Test it. Split your recurring donors into two groups. One gets thanked/receipted every month, and the others get whatever you are currently doing. Tag them and in a year, more so two, see the difference in retention and additional gifts or lifetime value.

At NextAfter, one of our values is to “err on the side of generosity.” When it comes to donor communications, should be to “err on the side of over-communication” and work back from there.

To improve your recurring donation fundraising, engage your donors in additional ways like phone calls or texts

3. Try calling and/or texting your donors

A thank-you call from a board member within 48 hours of a donation can help increase the second year value of a donor by 40%. That’s what Penelope Burk, author of Donor Centered Fundraising and President of Cygnus Applied Research Inc., found which hints at the power of a) thank-you’s b) quick thank-you’s and c) phone calls.

If you want to call (or experiment with texting) your donors, you’re going to collect their phone number—something 1 in 4 organizations in the study did not do. From our experiments, when you collect the phone number on your donation form, make the phone field optional.

For example, in this experiment, the phone number was required and we saw a decrease in donations of 43%. But in this experiment and this experiment, where the phone number was optional, we saw no significant difference.

Making the phone field required adds some friction—it’s one more form field to complete—but it also creates anxiety in the donor’s mind where they ask themselves questions like, “Will I be called all the time and asked for money?” or “Will they share my number with other people?”

4. Make your emails (including customer service) look, sound, and feel more personal

People give to people, not email marketing machines. That’s one of the biggest things we’ve learned from over 1,000 experiments and is a core principle for our email fundraising optimization course.

This personal approach applies to the things that get people to open your emails—we call that your email envelope. This includes subject line, sender name, and preview text—and the things that get people to click your emails—the email body, which is the copy or writing, the design, and overall tone.

When it comes to opens, Litmus and Fluent found that the most important factor that determines whether someone opens your email is who it’s from—the sender—and not the subject line. And time and time again, we’ve seen how emails that are sent by someone who is both believable and personal leads to more engagement.

Take this experiment, for example, where the control (bottom) was sending from the organization and the treatment (top one) was sent from the President of the organization:

Try sending your emails from a person, as opposed to an organization.

The end result? The one from the President increased opens 28%.

Try sending your emails from a person, as opposed to an organization.

That isn’t to say the subject line isn’t important. Subject lines you can optimize, too. Our research suggests there are five main levers you can use to improve your subject lines and one of them is to simply use the word ‘you’ or personal cues—like their name—to help increase engagement

Try using ‘you’ in your subject lines.

And when it comes to the body, this focus on being personal means you need to start by addressing people by their name—you know, like humans do—and not use ‘friend’ or a blank space. It also means stripping down your email design as we’ve seen that things like big hero images, logos, and even buttons can decrease response rates which means your email templates may be costing you time and money.

And it means having a more personal tone in your writing which can significantly increase giving and response rates. Take this experiment where we had already trimmed down the design but wanted to take the personal feel even further.

Here was the control:

Control Caring Bridge example

And here was the treatment:

Caring Bridge Treatment example

You can see we simplified the design even further. And if you look at the copy, you’ll notice how the treatment email starts and sounds less like a great story being told to you and a conversation you would actually have with someone.

The end result in this case was an increase in donations of 145.5%.

So, try calling people by their first name. Try using fewer design elements in your emails. And try using a more personal tone in your writing.

And even if you don’t buy into this touchy-feely approach to personal emails, when it came to customer service emails we found that every single email sent from a real person made its way into the Inbox—as opposed to the promotions or spam folders—so being more personal may also simply help your deliverability.

Not using tools to auto-update donor credit cards is like leaving money on the ground.

5. Use tools, technology, and companies that auto-update credit cards

In the recurring giving study, when we reported our card as lost, 68% of organizations were able to automatically update the lost cards without getting in touch with us. Brilliant. Nothing for the donor to do and no need to ask for their new information or risk them choosing to stop their donation.

But here’s why that’s extra important. Of the 37 organizations in the study or 32% who were unable to automatically update the lost card, only 8 actually contacted us about it to get an updated card. Or put another way, that means 75% of organizations who didn’t automatically update the card did nothing at all to recover it.

So the best way, by far, to deal with lost cards is to have an auto-update feature which many processors have in place nowadays so be sure to ask if yours does (and if it doesn’t consider switching).

Stay organized with your nonprofit fundraising communications

6. Have a response plan for when cards are lost (and not auto-updated)

When we cancelled our credit card, just under half of the organizations in the study (43%) did not contact us to get the new card number. Remember how valuable recurring donors and how hard you worked to get them? Why not work just as hard to a) keep them and b) get them back as soon as possible if they cancel or leave!

This shows a lack of process and infrastructure to both recognize when a card has been cancelled and payment missed and an outreach plan to connect with the donor, in a personal way, to get the new card.

Spend some time reviewing your systems and putting in place some clear processes to get card numbers back as quickly and easily as possible.

Summary: How to improve your Recurring Giving Nonprofit Fundraising Communications

Getting a donor to make a recurring gift is just the start. Now you have to thank and acknowledge them, not just once, provide updates, and send cultivation communication throughout the year. Have a plan, beyond one month, for how to treat your recurring donors. In your nonprofit CRM, be sure to keep them separated out from one-time and other donors to ensure they have a great experience.

In our research, it wasn’t as easy to find, understand the value of, and complete a recurring donation as we had perhaps thought—and hoped. That means there is a lot of room to test, improve, and optimize to grow your recurring giving program.

A quick recap:

  • Send direct mail letters to acknowledge a donor’s gift.
  • Send straightforward emails that use less design, graphics, and images.
  • Use copy and messaging that is clear; don’t focus on catchy phrases or overly persuasive language.
  • Send your lapsed credit card communication from real people.

Want more insights? Get all the details you’ll need to improve your nonprofit fundraising with your free copy of The Nonprofit Recurring Giving Benchmark Study.


The Nonprofit Recurring Giving Benchmark Study