Use These 7 Strategies to Build Stronger Donor Bonds

Cornell Psychology Associate Professor Vivian Zayas says relationships are like gravity.

“We are born to be connected with other people,” she says.

In our own work, each of us builds donor relationships differently. But we view the process largely the same, as changing and evolving, not a hard-stop destination. Think about your own “best” relationships, to grow, they require attention and intention.

Build your best donor bonds with these strategies.


“Nonprofits need to understand the motivation driving each donor relationship.”

—Linda, community volunteer and nonprofit board member

Dig deep to understand donors’ stories of giving. What motivated them to give the gift? How do they want to stay involved? From Linda’s perspective, some donors are inspired by compassion, some by social connection and recognition and others from a sense of obligation. Some may include elements of all three. 

Take a back seat when you’re with donors. Listen and discern their motivations. Allow them to share their life stories and hopes for your nonprofit and its work. Your job? Be still. Be patient. Lean in to the interaction.

Demonstrate your love of listening with these tips:

  • Paraphrase to show understanding.
  • Maintain eye contact and use appropriate facial expressions.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Avoid interrupting. (It comes off as not listening, only waiting to interject your thoughts.)


“I don’t care what your goals, industry or interests are, there’s no getting around it: Personal relationships run the world.”

—Scott Dinsmore, entrepreneur

People need people—and for people to be real. Filter a photo for social media all day, but honestly, I believe people value seeing the wrinkles and misplaced hair even more.

Remember, too, that relationships don’t revolve solely around the donor. Your nonprofit’s work offers psychologically uplifting benefits to donors.

The act of giving benefits both your nonprofit and your donors.

Studies show that people who have social support from family, friends and their community, including your nonprofit, are happier, have fewer health problems and live longer. Though investigations continue, scientists have found that caring behaviors trigger the release of stress-reducing hormones.

Stelter national research also shows that far and away the biggest reason people give to a nonprofit is because “it makes me feel good to help other people.”  


Expressions of gratitude from senior-level leadership or board members is extra, showing donors that their planned gift is a big deal. Put together your internal go-to thank-you team to make phone calls or send handwritten letters. Follow up with your team to ensure notes or calls are sent promptly.

CAREFUL: Not to gush. Inundations of thanks may turn donors off, especially those who prefer to remain anonymous with their gifts.


Planned giving isn’t one and done. It’s a commitment—a marriage, some might say. Even if you haven’t put time into nurturing the relationship (unexpected gifts are always a boon!), think about ways to strengthen your relationship after receiving the donor gift.


  • By building the bond, you strengthen donors’ propensities for future giving.  
  • Donors evolve into advocates, becoming your most ardent “ambassadors.”

Set the stage to show donors the impact of their generosity.

IDEA: Host “get-to-know-you” events.

Get your donors and recipients together. Try a lunch, perhaps a family-style picnic on your grounds, program site or facility. Make it joyous, fun, and stress-free; simply a time to gather, so donors can put a face to their gift. Those on the receiving end can connect with the source of support. Get creative with these ideas for events:

  • Pair donors and recipients for a scavenger hunt that highlights donors’ gifts in action (e.g., lifesaving equipment purchased or food pantries expanded).
  • Make a donor treasure map with points of interest as another way donors can see their impact. End at a treasure chest where donors get an appropriate and meaningful thank-you gift from recipients.


Drill it down to show impact on a relatable, personal level.

“Scholarships created through estate gifts saved each student $3,500 per year in tuition.”

“Your thoughtful planned gift put a smile on John’s face today. Now he knows that others in need in the future will get a hot meal that warms their heart.”

Virtual and/or in-person strategies:

  • Personally deliver annual reports to donors with notes and highlights showing impact.
  • Share photos and videos via text or social media.
  • Invite them on facility or programming tours.
  • Think outside the box. For example, if your nonprofit offers theatre or arts programs, have participants create a small gift of appreciation or perform a thank-you skit. Record and send to donors.
  • Get inspiration from these other creative ways to steward your donors.


Coach a small group of committed, enthusiastic donors to share your nonprofit’s work with others and, ultimately, invite them into your nonprofit.

This grassroots approach organically grows sentiment and loyalty among donors and reaches new supporters in ways that you, social media or other outreach never will.

Other ideas:

  • Ask donors to be guest bloggers, do a social media takeover or share their giving story with other community groups. Encourage supporters to share photos, videos, essays or podcasts that can make a strategic contribution to your communications.
  • Invite them to become involved with your operations through task forces, subcommittees or working groups. Show people they don’t have to be a board member to share their time, thoughts and enthusiasm.


“Consistency matters. Without recurring contact, the relationship will fade and the motivations for giving lost.”

—Linda, community volunteer and nonprofit board member

Stay top of mind with a regular calendar of diverse outreach tactics. Post social media updates on programming and other news regularly, with a rotating mix of direct mail and email sent quarterly.

While the frequency varies, the overarching consensus on donor outreach is this: Less mail (or donor outreach), less giving, says fundraising authority Jeff Brooks. “Never assume donors will give more or retain longer if they get less contact,” he says. “It almost never works that way.”

Looking for a noninvasive way to check in with your donors?

Survey is a multi-faceted problem-solving tool. It can reveal priceless conversation points, like why the donor cares about your mission, how they want to be involved and what they’re most interested in learning more about. See our other resources on surveys and uncover the opportunity they present here.


If you missed our webinar, “Ten Best Practices That Will Energize and Transform Your Gift Planning Program,” you can still view it on-demand in our library of recorded webinars.

In the presentation, Kathryn Miree, J.D., President, Kathryn Miree & Associates, Inc., examines ten key principles to success built on the National Standards for Gift Planning Success from the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners.

Watch now to:

  • Learn about resources available to build a strong, effective gift planning program
  • Evaluate your gift planning program and create a strategy to strengthen effectiveness and outcomes
  • Understand the ten principles that drive success in gift planning programs


Do you think your donor relationships are like gravity, a natural aspect of life that tethers us to one another? Feel free to share how you strengthen donor bonds and any memorable outcomes from your efforts.

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