Resources Home

Donor Acquisition: A Proven 4-Step Model to Acquire New Donors

Published by Nathan Hill

Donor acquisition is the lifeline of nonprofit fundraising. Not only do new donors help you grow and expand your nonprofits efforts and programs, but low donor retention rates mean you have to keep acquiring new donors just to maintain.

While there are plenty of “best practice” blogs and guides on donor acquisition, this guide is going to show you how to build a sustainable donor acquisition program that is cost effective, digital-first, and proven to work.

The 4-Step Online Donor Acquisition Model

There are 4 key ingredients that you need in order to acquire donors effectively online:

  • A free email acquisition offer (like an eBook)
  • A landing page to download the offer
  • Advertising (or another traffic source) to get people to your offer page
  • An instant donation page to convert subscribers into new donors

But these 4 ingredients have to be arranged in the right order. Here’s what it looks like from your potential donor’s perspective:

Step 1: Your potential donor sees an advertisement for your eBook on Facebook and clicks to learn more.

Step 2:
Your potential donor comes to a landing page to read more about your eBook and fills out a form to download it – becoming a new email subscriber in the process.

Step 3:
You send the eBook to your new subscriber’s email.

Step 4:
Your new subscriber lands on a special type of confirmation page (called an Instant Donation Page) where they can become a new donor right away.

In the rest of this guide, we’re going to look at key principles and ideas to keep in mind for each of these 4 steps. And we’ll look at each step in the order you (the fundraiser) would create them.

Creating a Free Email Acquisition Offer

This donor acquisition model only works if you have a high-quality email offer that is free.

Many fundraisers have tried running advertising that points straight to a donation page, but most of these campaigns deliver zero donations.

Email Acquisition Offer Example
An eBook being used for email and donor acquisition

Using a free email acquisition offer (like an eBook) can help a potential donor get something of value from your organization, begin to trust that you can make an impact on your cause, and build momentum towards a donation ask.

Here are a few examples of various email acquisition offers:

  • eBooks (PDF helping potential donors learn more about a topic)
  • Quizzes (Online quiz to test a potential donor’s knowledge on a topic)
  • Petition (An opportunity to give potential donors a voice concerning an issue)
  • Online Course (A learning opportunity for a potential donor to dive deep on a topic)

Below are 3 key principles to keep in mind as you consider what to use as an email acquisition offer.

Key Principle 1: Email acquisition offers need to be for your ideal donor

In the offer examples above, you’ll notice that each one is focused around providing value to your ideal donor.

You don’t need to create an offer that is appealing to everyone on planet earth. In fact, making your offer too broad may dilute its impact.

Consider what your donors find valuable and how you can empower them with new insights and knowledge unique to your nonprofit’s cause or area of expertise.

Key Principle 2: Email acquisition offers need to be relevant to your organization

This donor acquisition model will fall apart if your email offer is not relevant to your organization. The purpose of the free offer is to help a potential donor discover that your organization is uniquely equipped to solve a problem that your donor cares about.

Offering a free cruise, vacation getaways, move tickets, and other sweepstakes-style offers can be very popular – but they do nothing to help your new subscribers trust you with a donation.

To help you start brainstorming, here are a few examples of donor-focused offers that may help potential donors begin to trust your organization:

  • Environment & Wildlife: A free eBook on 10 Daily Habits to Help Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
  • Faith-Based: A free 40-Day Devotional to Prepare Your Heart for Easter
  • Public Policy & Advocacy: A free eBook on 6 Proven Ways to Reduce Police Violence
  • Social Services: A free eBook on 5 Practical Ways You Can Help Serve the Homeless in Your Community
  • Higher Education: Offer a simplified and relevant online course to potential donors for free

*Note: The examples above are just that: examples.All offer ideas must be a/b tested to know what will truly be most effective for your ideal donors.

Key Principle 3: Not all offers have the same potential for donor acquisition

The likelihood of acquiring a new donor from a free email offer varies based on how much time a potential donor must invest.

A petition takes very little work to create, and tends to lead to low email-acquisition costs. However, petitions have a low likelihood of converting instant donors. An eBook takes a little bit more work to create and has a relatively low cost-per-email, and it also a decently high instant donor conversion rate. An online course takes a lot of work and thus has the highest instant donor conversion rate, but it also has a fairly expensive cost per email.

The sweet spot seems to be the eBook. It takes some time investment from your potential donor, has a decently high conversion rate, and it doesn’t take too much effort from you to create.

A Few Tips on Crafting an Effective eBook

Below are a few ideas to keep in mind as you craft the title for you eBook or other email offers. While these experiments are focused on eBooks and webinars related to fundraising, they represent clear ideas that you can test with your own eBook and email offer titles.

eBook Tip #1: Make the title of your eBook actionable.

In the experiment below, we were promoting a webinar on how to create more effective year-end donation pages. In Version A of our Facebook ad, the headline and title of the webinar said “The Elements of a Year-End Donation Page. This was an accurate description of what someone would learn in the webinar. But we wondered if a more actionable title could lead to more registrations.

Version B’s headline and title focused on how to “craft an effective year-end donation page.” While version A was passive in its tone, version B made the content actionable. And the more actionable title led to a 275% increase in webinar registrations.

eBook Tip #2: Make the content of your eBook tangible.

You can also test making your ebook or email offer titles more tangible.

In the experiment below, we were advertising a blog post an wondering how to get more traffic. We hypothesized that a more tangible headline could lead to greater traffic.

Version A described the content well” “The Nonprofit Email Subject Line Formula.”

Version B used a number to make the content of the post clearer and more tangible saying “5 Ways to Improve Your Email Subject Line.”

The more tangible headline led to a 201% increase in clicks. Consider using a number in your eBook or email offer title to make the content more tangible to the reader.

eBook Tip #3: Use language in your eBook that is relevant to your ideal donor’s interests.

In the experiment below, we were trying to see which messaging angle would lead to more people signing up for a webinar on online donor acquisition.

Version A focused on the primary outcome: growing online donor acquisition.

But we hypothesized that focusing the title on the platform might be more relevant to fundraisers at the time. This ad was run around the time when Facebook was rolling out more donation and fundraising tools. And there were lots of conversations happening about how to best leverage Facebook.

In support of that hypothesis, Version B focused on “Facebook Fundraising.” And by using more relevant language in the title and description, it led to a 197% increase in conversion.

Crafting a Landing Page to Acquire More Email Addresses

A “Landing Page” is just a dedicated page for someone to go read more about your free offer and access it by filling out a form.

There are lots of tools you can use to create landing pages (I’d recommend Unbounce), but the key principles of an effective email acquisition landing page are the same regardless of the tool you use.

Key Principle 1: Your landing page must explain what someone gets and how they’re going to get it.

From your headline to your body copy (and even your call-to-action button), your landing page needs to be abundantly clear about 2 things:

  • What am I (your potential donor) going to get?
  • How am I going to get it?

In one experiment, the original landing page headline certainly sounded more descriptive. It actually used more copy to explain what the offer was.

The treatment, although it is shorter, actually explains what the offer is and how someone can access it. (see example below)

Email landing page headline example

By explaining both the what and the how, this treatment led to a 6.2% increase in emails acquired.

Key Principle 2: Your landing page must only ask for essential information

When creating a landing page, it’s tempting to ask for tons of information. As fundraisers, we often want to know things like:

  • What’s your name?
  • What’s your email?
  • What’s your phone number (so I can follow up)?
  • What’s your birthday (so I can send you a card)?
  • What’s your zip code (so I can attribute you to the right fund/designation/chapter/branch/etc).
  • What’s your mailing address (so we can send you direct mail appeals)?

But your would-be donor is not going to access your free offer if you ask for all this information. Asking for too much info creates friction. And asking for un-expected information creates anxiety.

In this experiment, the nonprofit was offering a free online course. However, their original form asked for someone’s full mailing address.

In the treatment, they only asked for the essentials: first name, last name, email, and a password to create an online course account.

Email landing page form example

Asking only for the essentials led to a 9% increase in emails acquired.

Converting New Subscribers into Donors (Using an Instant Donation Page)

At this point, someone has just filled out the form on your landing page to either download an eBook, sign a petition, activate a free course, etc.

Most “free offer” pages send new subscribers to a confirmation page that just says “Thank You!” and asks them to share something about the organization on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social platform.

The instant donation page takes a different approach.

It clarifies that there is no more work needed to get the free offer, and then immediately makes a donation appeal in order to acquire a new donor right away.

Below are 2 key principles to help you get have a better chance of earning instant donations.

Key Principle 1: Make it clear that this is not a bait and switch

The most important thing you need to do right away on your instant donation page is clarify that nothing else is needed in order to get the free offer.

You need to clearly say something to the effect of: “Thank you! Your offer is on its way to your inbox.”

And you don’t need to be too wordy about it. In fact, you should be clear and concise, and then move on to your donation appeal right away.

In one experiment, this organization’s original instant donation page spent about 50% of the copy explaining what the subscriber can expect to happen next with their free course.

In the treatment, they spent just 2 sentences talking about what happens next with the course. And the rest of the copy focused on the donation appeal.

Instant donor acquisition page intro copy example

Spending less time on the “logistics” and more time on the appeal led to a 165% increase in donor acquisition.

Key Principle 2: Make your donation appeal relevant to the free offer they’ve just received

How do you actually ask for a donation in order to acquire new donors? The key is in the context.

If someone has just downloaded an eBook, or signed a petition, or activated a free course, they have given you critical information about what they value.

Your instant donation page should then make a donation ask based on the interests and values presented in the free offer.

For example, in one experiment, this organization had offered a free online course. The original instant donation page focused on donating to get a companion guide for the course.

In the treatment, they wondered if focusing the donation ask on reaching more people with this valuable course could actually lead to more donations.

Instant donor acquisition messaging example

Sure enough, the appeal focused on impacting others with this valuable resource led to a 164% increase in donations.

Getting Potential Donors to See Your Offer

Now that you have an offer, a landing page, and an instant donation page, you’ll need to get people to see it. And there are several ways you can start driving visitors to your email acquisition landing page.

Here are a few options to consider in order to drive visitors to your page:

  • Facebook Advertising
  • Google Search Advertising
  • Banners on your website
  • In-line offers on your blogs or articles
  • Emailing your existing subscribers

While we could spend a whole day talking about advertising and web traffic generation, let’s look at 2 key areas to help you get high quality traffic to your email acquisition page.

Using Facebook Ads to Target Your Ideal Donors

Facebook is one of the most (if not the most) powerful tools you have to find new donors. There are a million and one way you can use Facebook’s data, audience, and advertising tools to reach ideal prospects.

For example, if your ideal donor is female, in her 60s, love cats, and lives in the US or Canada, Facebook has 11 million users who meet that criteria that you can show advertising to.

Facebook interest targeting example
Actual audience estimates from Facebook interest targeting

Facebook also lets you do many other types of targeting that can be just as (if not more) effective including:

  • Tracking and retargeting your website visitors when they are on Facebook
  • Uploading a list of event attendees and showing them ads
  • Creating a “Lookalike” audience of Facebook users who are similar to your existing donors

If you’re new to Facebook advertising, I would recommend starting with these audiences to see how they perform for you:

  • Website visitors
  • Lookalike audience based on existing donors
  • Lookalike audience based on existing web traffic
  • Facebook users interested in similar organizations/causes to yours

Crafting a Better Facebook Ad

There is no such thing as a perfect Facebook ad. This template, however, will help you craft a Facebook ad for your donor acquisition campaign that is based on principles that are tested and proven to increase conversions.

Get the Free Facebook Ad Template

Donor Acquisition Using Your Existing Email File

One other means of driving traffic to your landing page that doesn’t involve any advertising budget is simply sharing your new email acquisition offer with your existing email subscribers.

It doesn’t cost you anything. It’s valuable content that helps cultivate subscribers. And it leads them towards a donation ask after receiving something of value.

In fact, one organization tested a new version of their email welcome series using only free content offers.

The original welcome series for new subscribers used a combination of surveys, background info about the organization, stories with soft donation asks, and direct appeals to try and acquire new donors.

The treatment version used only free content offers (like eBooks) followed by an instant donation page to cultivate new subscribers over the course of 8 emails. It did not include any direct donation appeals.

Email welcome series example

The free offer series led to a whopping 920% increase in donor acquisition.

Let me repeat that in case you missed it: The email series that used only free content offers and never asked for a direct donation led to 920% more donations!

Donor Acquisition Doesn’t End at the Instant Donation Page

This 4-step donor acquisition model is just the start. In the best-case scenario, your instant donations can offset your costs and replenish your donor acquisition budget. Some organizations even make more from instant donations than they are spending on advertising.

But while you’re acquiring new donors, you’re also acquiring a whole lot more new subscribers to your email file. And if you want these new email subscribers to turn into new donors someday as well, you’ll need to send effective email fundraising.

In this blog post on Nonprofit Email Fundraising, you’ll learn specific tactics (based on data and proven through a/b testing) that can lead to more revenue from your email appeals.

Have other donor acquisition strategies that have worked for you? Feel free to share them in the comments below.

Published by Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill is Vice President, NextAfter Institute.