Moving Donors Up That Giving Ladder

Donor value is one of the most important, if not the most important, metric in a fundraising program. So, there’s good reason that focusing on upgrading donors to increase that value is a primary focus for many organizations.


MINDset specializes in enhancing donor relationships for our clients and there are a few things we have learned along the way that may be helpful as you are in the planning phase for upgrade strategies and tactics.


Our guiding principles are to put the donor first and meet them where they are.

You want the upgrade, or increased interaction from the donor, to be meaningful – not forced.


Make the donor’s POV your POV.

When you’re faced with moving new organizational agendas down the field as well as meeting a long list of short-term and long-term program objectives, it’s not hard to drift into an organization-first mindset. So, it requires a proactive reset to put the donor first. Creating some supporter personas (if your organization doesn’t already have them) can help make what donors think, feel and need real and salient so you’re less likely to inadvertently slip into strategies that might not resonate. Even taking a moment to reflect on the simple (but never simplistic!) act of trying to put yourself in the donors’ shoes can re-center your focus on the donor. Would you feel comfortable staring down an ask string that’s several times the amount of your highest gift (even if you technically have the assets to give that much)? Would you feel appreciated after you’ve just fundraised your heart out for a fall 5K, only to have the experience immediately followed by seemingly continual giving season asks to make a difference this year?


Make it personal.

Identify the right donors for upgrade, the right channels to talk to them, the right message to give them and the best time to present that message. Use everything you know about these donors to drive your strategy and meet them where they are now. Thank them for their current capacity of support and note what an impact that support has made. It also bears reiterating that, even if you get the audience and messaging right, if the timing and/or channel aren’t, your message won’t always get through or it may cause donor confusion/frustration even if it did. The “when” and “where” are just as critical as the “what” and “who.” In the case of the examples above, wealth scores should not be the only data point driving a decision to present an ask beyond someone’s previous level of giving, and just following an event may not be the best time to ask event participants who have just worked hard fundraising for your organization to make a donation to another initiative.


Call out the upgrade.

If you’re asking the donor to give more than they have before, acknowledge that ask, and tell them why. So maybe, instead of testing just a higher formula in your built ask string – use some real estate in your letter and on the reply to acknowledge that you are asking the donor to go above and beyond because the need at this time is more critical than ever, or because of the rare matching gift opportunity, or whatever your case for giving in the campaign may be. Translate for the donor what their decision to give more means for your mission – even if it is just $5 more.


Make the donor the solution.

This is especially key when trying to move lower to mid-level donors into major donors. Very often we try to focus on recognition at this level – what else can we ‘give them’ to make them want to give more? What circle can they be part of, so they feel like they are recognized among their peers? Instead, maybe approach this with “What else can we show them about how their support is making a difference?” Donors giving at these levels want more information about programs, and stories about those who have been helped because of their support. Instead of a fundraising appeal every month, consider slotting in some cultivations with soft/no asks to these audiences that just highlight their dollars at work. And, most importantly, genuinely tell them how much it means to those who are benefiting from their support.


Remind donors of their options.  

Don’t miss an opportunity to remind (the right audience of) donors that one of the most efficient ways to support your mission is by becoming a monthly donor.  Make sure donors remember that they can give through their Donor Advised Fund (as appropriate based on ask/organization). Give donors the opportunity to request more information about gift planning options to start that dialogue. All too often we let that valuable space on reply forms, or back of inserts, labels, etc. stay blank when just having those reminders throughout could prove to be extremely valuable.


Communication is key.

Don’t stop talking to your donors when they’ve made the ‘upgrade’ that you were looking for.  All too often once a donor reaches ‘major gift’ status, the communications are cut off, or significantly scaled back. The communications should be enhanced, the relationship should become more personal, and it should be tailored to the preferences of the individual – but it should not be stopped. Direct response can do a great job bringing donors up that giving ladder, and it can serve as communications in between major gift officer meetings that will keep the audience ‘warm’ and engaged, but once a donor reaches a certain level – having those internal strategies and staff in place to further that relationship is key.


Upgrading donors is in a fundraiser’s blood, so it can be difficult to not weave in an upgrade attempt at every turn, and even more difficult to admit that some upgrade efforts aren’t in the best interest of the organization because they’re not in the best interest of the donor.


In that vein, next week, we’ll dive into some other thoughts about upgrades. Specifically – when NOT to upgrade. (We know, we know – is there ever such a time?)


Until then. Stay safe, healthy, and warm!


Candice Briddell

Candice Briddell, Managing Partner and Co-Owner, has worked within the fundraising and marketing industry for nearly twenty years and has been a part of the MINDset team for over a decade. Prior to that, she was integral in the retention marketing program at AOL.