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Donor Cultivation: 5 Data-Driven Strategies to Boost Your Retention Rate

Published by Nathan Hill
Donor Cultivation - Five Data-Driven Strategies - blog image

Donor cultivation is an area that every fundraiser wants to get better at. But the truth is, few people are actually trying to discover what works to improve cultivation efforts.

  • Should you send handwritten thank-you notes?
    Sure, but you can’t scale that.
  • Should you call all your new donors?
    Maybe, but again, it’s hard to make that truly personal at scale.
  • Should you invite them to special events?
    Yes, but only a small portion of donors could actually travel to your event – let alone the difficulty of hosting an event for your whole donor file.

There are hundreds of ideas out there on how to cultivate donors. And they all sound fine. But what ideas exist that are A) feasible, and B) proven to work?

The Latest Online Donor Cultivation Research

We partnered with Kindful in 2019 to conduct a study on the current state of donor cultivation – largely focused around how organizations are cultivating donors via email.

And in this study (The State of Nonprofit Email Cultivation), we found tons of data-driven ideas that can improve your donor cultivation efforts – and lead to more online fundraising revenue.

Below, you’ll find 5 specific donor cultivation ideas that I’ve pulled out of this study that are highly relevant and highly feasible for a nonprofit to implement. Many of them have already been field tested and proven to improve revenue.

Ready to get started? Here are 5 donor cultivation strategies you can use to boost your retention rates and revenue.

Send More Donor Cultivation Emails

This idea is easy enough. Most organizations simply aren’t sending enough emails.

And I don’t mean that you should send more donation appeals. I mean you should send more emails that don’t have a donation ask in them at all.

A cultivation email has no donation ask. Its exclusive purpose is to give your donor something of value that will cause them to engage with your organization on a deeper level.

Here’s a quick case study where sending one cultivation email per week led to a 21% increase in revenue.

How Increasing the Number of Donor Cultivation Emails Impacts Revenue

In this experiment, the organization realized they had been asking for donations almost twice as often as they were sending donor cultivation emails. So they thought “What would happen if we added a cultivation email each week?”

And that’s exactly what they did.

This organization split their file in half and ran an A/B test. The control group received the normal email cadence. The treatment group received an additional email per week that was purely cultivation.

Adding an additional donor cultivation email - experiment image

After running this experiment for 3 full months, the result was clear. Increasing the frequency of donor cultivation emails increased revenue among existing donors by 21%.

It even increased lapsed donor revenue by 14%.

Case and point? Send more cultivation emails.

Don’t Ask Donors to Do Too Much at Once

One fatal mistake that we as marketers and fundraisers are always tempted to make is to ask people to do too much all at once.

Speaking personally, I want our own email subscribers to watch a new video, listen to our latest podcast, read a new blog, download an eBook, and sign-up for a course. But asking people to do all those things at once is overwhelming.

Asking people to do too much can create decision friction (more on the different types of friction here).

The same concept applies in a cultivation email.

In the following case study, we see that asking our donors to just do one thing at a time can make a significant impact on donations.

Yes, I said donations – not clicks.

How the Focus of a Donor Cultivation Email Affects Donations

In this experiment, this organization was already sending a weekly cultivation email every Saturday. Their typical donor cultivation email was written in a relatively personal nature and included links to multiple pieces of content to engage with.

Sometimes they sent articles. Sometimes they sent podcasts. But there were always multiple links.

They split their file in two and ran an A/B test. The control group received the normal donor cultivation email with multiple links. And the treatment group received emails with just one link.

Sending an email with multiple links VS sending an email with just one link - experiment image

Asking donors to engage with just one article at a time led to a 27% increase in donations over the span of three months.

Test sending just one thing at a time. It may make a significant impact on revenue.

Send Donor Cultivation Emails When Others Aren’t

Let me start this section with a confession…

Just a few years ago while working at a nonprofit, my common approach to deciding when to send an email was this:

  • Search Google for “Best time to send an email”
  • Find the latest benchmark data from a random email marketing platform
  • Scroll to the nonprofit section (if there was one)
  • Find the time that most other organizations were emailing

I was making an assumption that the “best practice” send time was in fact the “best performing” send time. But this honestly flies in the face of common logic.

If you send when the inbox is most crowded, wouldn’t you have the lowest likelihood of getting someone to open and engage with your email?

As part of The State of Nonprofit Email Cultivation study I mentioned above,we tracked the send times of cultivation emails and solicitations sent by 199 organizations.

Here is the breakdown of send times for donor cultivation emails:

Heatmap of donor cultivation email send times
  • 49% of donor cultivation emails were sent from 6am to 1pm
  • 17% of donor cultivation emails were sent between 4-6am and 1-3pm
  • 16% of donor cultivation emails were sent on the weekend

Based on the heatmap, the most open windows of time for sending emails are in the early morning or afternoon to evening – especially on a weekend.

Test sending your cultivation emails in these off-peak times. You might be able to increase your donor’s engagement with your emails by simply catching them when their inbox isn’t super crowded.

Welcome, Thank, and Confirm New Subscribers Within the First 2 Days

We all know that the first impression you make in any type of relationship can set the foundation for things going forward. If you blow it or make a fool of yourself, it can be hard to recover.

On the other hand, making a great first impression on someone can win you over to be instant friends.

I believe that the essence of email marketing is all about personal communication and building real relationships – even at scale. That’s why if I you ever reply to a “marketing” email that I send, I’m going to see it and send you a personal reply back.

So if you want to start off your relationship with a new donor or subscriber on the right foot, you need to communicate with them as soon as they come on your file. Or at least in the first couple days.

These first emails that you send are going to be your most consistently high performing emails. Here’s a quick screen grab of the top metrics from our current welcome series.

Welcome series performance metrics

These 4 emails average a 49.8% open rate and an 11.3% click rate. (Don’t worry about the clicks in email 1. All we’re hoping for is a reply.)

For comparisons sake, a recent digest email of ours had a 40% open rate and a 6% click rate. I’d consider these really good rates, but they’re still not as good as the emails we send in the first few days of someone subscribing.

What does nonprofit communication look like in the first 2 days?


Not great news here overall. Out of 199 organizations, 48% of nonprofits sent nothing in the first two days after we signed up for their email list. Not even a confirmation email.

You can see the breakdown of the different types of communication we received in the first 45 days in the chart below.

Timeline of various types of email communication from 199 nonprofits during a subscriber's first 45 days

The pro-tip here is really simple. Make sure you communicate with new donors and subscribers when they first come on your file. If you don’t, you’re missing out on a huge engagement opportunity.

Want to learn more about optimizing your communication strategy? Discover our 7 proven strategies to optimize your email appeals.

Use Brand Advertising to Bolster Your Other Messaging

Here’s my last donor cultivation idea for today. And it’s a bit different.

I’ve rarely been a huge fan of “brand marketing.” Mainly because most brand marketing discussions are just about logo treatments and what words you’re not supposed to say.

But this cultivation tip is all about how to use brand marketing (or advertising) to help make your emails more effective.

Here’s a quick case study that shows how brand advertising can make your emails 760% better.

In this experiment, the organization had a 5 email welcome series. When a new email came on the file, they would send a welcome email within 2 days. The rest of the 5 emails were sent over the course of about 2 and a half weeks.

The cadence looked like this:

Welcome series cadence - experiment control

For the A/B test, this organization split their file and ran paid brand advertising on Facebook to 50% of the new subscribers going through the welcome series. These brand ads reinforced key messaging about the organization, their cause, and what they stand for.

Welcome series cadence with brand advertising - experiment treatment

The result? Running brand ads at the same time as the welcome series impacted 2 important metrics:

  • Brand ads increased donations by a whopping 760%
  • They shortened the average length of time from subscription to donation by 41%

It used to take 29 days for the average donor to make their first gift. This experiment shortened that time to 17 days.

There are lots of other ways you can increase your revenue without sending more appeals, but this is one super easy way to see a boost in your donor cultivation efforts.

Looking for more insights on donor cultivation?

The State of Nonprofit Email Cultivation - book image

You can get a free copy of the full study on The State of Nonprofit Email Cultivation at You’ll find even more quick tips, insights, and case studies to help improve your donor cultivation efforts, and hopefully boost your donor retention.

Have you tested any donor cultivation strategies that have improved your revenue or retention rate? Share your ideas in the comments below.

Published by Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill is Vice President, NextAfter Institute.