Donor Cultivation: 6 Tips for Modernizing Your Approach

Donor cultivation is crucial for any successful nonprofit. After all, it’s likely this process of establishing and growing relationships with your donors that results in a significant portion of your fundraising revenue.

As a nonprofit professional, you understand that retaining a donor is much more cost-efficient than acquiring a new one. Yet, many donors are known to give once and never return. So how can you retain that donor and keep them coming back time and time again? By cultivating that relationship, of course!

Here at Snowball, we specialize in effective fundraising tactics for nonprofit organizations of all shapes and sizes. Plus, we understand that having the right tools is everything. That’s why we’ve created this quick guide to explain the importance of donor cultivation and some actionable ways to improve your strategy.

In the midst of a crisis, such as the global pandemic we’re currently in, you might be tempted to press pause on any relationship cultivation efforts in order to focus on other struggling operations. However, donor engagement is more important now than ever before! To that extent, here are six things you can be doing right now to modernize your nonprofit’s approach to donor cultivation and see impactful results:

  1. Implementing prospect research.
  2. Segmenting your donors.
  3. Establishing a digital marketing strategy.
  4. Encouraging recurring gifts.
  5. Utilizing a nonprofit CRM.
  6. Nurturing leads year-round.

While these tactics might seem overwhelming at first, it’s important to remember that utilizing the right fundraising tools can streamline each and every process. Ready to get started? Let’s jump in.

1. Implement prospect research.

Prospect research is a specific fundraising strategy that provides valuable insights into your current and potential donors by analyzing publicly available information. For example, if you’ve decided to seek new major donors to support your organization, it’s crucial that you do some background research first. Otherwise, you risk wasting valuable time and energy on prospects who either can’t or won’t support your cause.

Prospect research tactics most often screen supporters to identify the following:

  • Ability to give: A donor’s ability to give is fairly self-explanatory. You’re not likely to receive a major gift from someone who is already struggling financially— especially in the current economic climate. In order to deduce this ability prior to donor outreach, many fundraisers look at financial markers such as real estate ownership, stock holdings, and business affiliations.

  • Affinity to give: On the other hand, a donor’s affinity to give can be a bit more complicated. This marker describes the likelihood of a connection between your organization and the potential donor. Do they have a history of philanthropic giving? Do they support causes similar to your own? This is a crucial element of prospect research because even if an individual has the ability to give, it won’t make a difference if they don’t feel drawn to your nonprofit.

Donors with both a high ability and affinity to give are going to be your major donor prospects. For a deeper look into prospect research and distinguishing between a donor’s ability and affinity to give, check out this handy guide from DonorSearch.

Implementing strategic prospect research is an excellent way to tailor your donor cultivation plan to those that are most likely to make a significant contribution to your organization. This way, your efforts can be highly personalized and will be more likely to form a connection between the prospect and your organization.

2. Segment your donors.

Speaking of personalization, your efforts shouldn’t stop once you secure your first donation. Instead, it’s more important than ever to utilize available resources and create targeted cultivation approaches with each donor through segmentation.

Effectively segmenting your donor base by certain characteristics and metrics sets you up for more personal and meaningful communications with each individual. Let’s walk through a few types of donor characteristics to keep in mind as you begin the process of segmenting your audience:

  • Demographics: Collecting basic demographic information such as age, gender, race, marital status, occupation, and annual income can allow you to build a strengthened profile of each donor and better understand them as an individual. Plus, this knowledge can affect your fundraising asks. For example, you might be willing to suggest a larger donation from an individual with an income that’s significantly higher than average.

  • Engagement history: How long has this donor been contributing to your organization? What is their average gift size? Do they have a history of event attendance or a previous volunteer engagement? Answering these types of questions is a great way to get a feel for the extent of the donor’s commitment to your mission. And don’t worry, you can easily extract a lot of this information from your nonprofit CRM (which we’ll cover in more depth later!).

  • Preferred method of giving: Understanding a donor’s preferred method of giving is crucial for creating targeted fundraising asks. For example, if a donor has solely contributed through text-to-give fundraising in the past, but you send a request for a cash or check donation, that donor would be more likely to ignore your appeal altogether.

  • Preferred method of communication: Your donor’s preferred method of communication is one that will most directly impact your cultivation approach. For example, continuously calling a donor (who repeatedly does not pick up) would be a waste of time— especially if you know that their email response rate is significantly higher. In order to take any guesswork out of the process, you can even ask your donors directly to select their preferred communication method!

The more personalized your correspondence, the stronger your donor relationships will be. On the other hand, if your messaging comes across as too out-of-touch or irrelevant, the donor is more likely to unsubscribe and lower their level of engagement— which is the exact opposite of what you’re looking for.

3. Establish a digital marketing strategy.

A great way to practice effective donor cultivation is by using digital marketing tools to raise awareness of your organization, along with any specific campaigns. Not only does this expand your potential donor base to include those across the globe, but it also allows even the most local of donors to stay up-to-date on what you’re doing— and how they can help! Here are three main digital marketing tactics to employ:

  • Social media: While the top three social media platforms, both for marketing and personal uses, are still Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, you might not want to leave out a few of the more niche and/or growing networks. For example, TikTok has seen huge successes in the nonprofit sector for raising funds and increasing engagement.

  • Email marketing: Email marketing offers the ability to personalize your messaging (thanks to your donor segmentation tactics) and effectively relay important information. Because your message is sent directly to your donor’s inbox, email outreach is one of the best ways to ensure the individual receives and views your marketing.

  • Web presence: Your nonprofit website should be the foundation of any digital marketing tactics you employ. Namely, your social media posts should constantly link back to your website (and more specifically, your donation pages) and the same with any email outreach. That means that providing an informative, easy-to-navigate website is essential for encouraging donors to become more involved in your efforts.

These tools, along with any others not mentioned, are the best ways to reach new audiences and grow your relationships with your current network. For example, you might use paid digital advertisements to increase your reach, and follow up with more personalized outreach to build donor relations.

4. Encourage recurring gifts.

Recurring donations are one of the most powerful tools for any nonprofit organization. Not only do recurring gifts signify a long-term donor relationship, but they also provide steady income throughout the year. And (with the right tools) the recurring donation process can be quite simple:

A donor completes an online donation form.
The donor fills out their payment information a single time.
The donor sees an option to check for a recurring donation .
The predetermined amount is automatically taken from the donor’s account on a regular schedule.

As a nonprofit, all you need to get started is an online donation platform that provides recurring gift functionality. Simply having an option on a donation form to “click” for a recurring donation can lead to a substantial increase in fundraising revenue. You might be surprised at how many donors take the option just because it’s there.

However, it’s also a good idea to use your platform to promote the recurring gift option beforehand. For more information, check out Snowball's guide to leveraging recurring donations!

5. Utilize a nonprofit CRM.

Your nonprofit CRM, or constituent relationship management system, is another powerful tool for boosting donor cultivation. This software system collects donor data from your online donation platform that can then be used to optimize the following resources:

  • Donor profiles: Understanding who your donors are, outside of simply a wallet or an ATM, is key to establishing effective relationships and securing life-long donors. Each person who contributes to your organization is an individual with their own lives, struggles, and opportunities. Collecting and organizing information about them in an easy-to-manage way is crucial for understanding what makes them tick.

  • Communication tools: Like mentioned earlier, your donor communication goes a long way to implementing a positive donor cultivation strategy. Understanding how to best reach an individual is one of the most important aspects of a strategic communication plan. By integrating your nonprofit CRM with your marketing and communication tools, you’ll be better equipped to form strengthened relationships.

  • Fundraising dashboard: Because your CRM collects information from your donation tools, it makes sense that it would be an excellent resource for organizing and visualizing your fundraising data. This way, you and your team can have a solid understanding of the health of your organization and point out any opportunities for growth.

Without the use of an effective nonprofit CRM, you likely have a whole realm of data that will be underutilized. By implementing such a tool, you can start to see the ways that your donor information can easily go toward your cultivation strategies. For more information about choosing (and using) the right donor database, read more with this guide.

6. Nurture leads year-round.

Nonprofits everywhere see a huge surge in giving right around the holiday months (November-December), with significantly lower revenue throughout the remainder of the year. While this rise in fundraising revenue is great, it can become an issue when you don’t bring in enough donations on a more regular basis to sustain operations year-round.

A healthy donor cultivation strategy, on the other hand, focuses on sustainable revenue by nurturing leads year-round. You can do this by implementing unique fundraising tactics such as:

  • Quarterly campaigns: Many organizations rely on a huge annual fundraiser to bring in the majority of their revenue. While this can be effective to a point, you might also consider hosting multiple, smaller campaigns throughout the year. For example, you could host an extravagant fundraising event once a season— Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall— to bring in donations, and still have time to prepare for the next.

  • Optimized personal outreach: Having a consistent schedule of marketing outreach is great for raising awareness throughout the year. However, building personal relationships often requires a more intimate component. For example, if you notice that a normally highly-engaged donor has not given to your last several campaigns, you might want to reach out and see if everything is okay!

Keeping donors engaged year-round is an important part of maintaining a relatively steady income of charitable donations. Cultivating donor relationships is a great way to do so without sacrificing your year-end revenue.


As you begin to implement these specific strategies, you’ll start to notice more meaningful relationships with your donors are sprouting. And even if they’re unable to give during this time, cultivating that growth will set up your organization for long-term success in the end. Good luck!


Special thanks to John Killoran for his expert advice. John is an inventor, entrepreneur, and the Chairman of Clover Leaf Solutions, a national lab services company. He currently leads Clover Leaf’s investment in Snowball Fundraising, an online fundraising platform for nonprofit organizations.

Snowball was one of John’s first public innovations; it’s a fundraising platform that offers text-to-give, online giving, events, and peer-to-peer fundraising tools for nonprofits. By making giving simple, Snowball increases the donations that these organizations can raise online. The Snowball effect is real! John founded Snowball in 2011. Now, it serves over 7,000 nonprofits and is the #1 nonprofit fundraising platform.