Want to know what it takes to create repeatable, sustainable funds for your nonprofit?

It’s all about the donor list.

Think about it: when you surround your nonprofit with a lot of people who care about your work, you have a ready-made army of supporters. They’ll be there to support your work in an ongoing way because they care about the lives your nonprofit is changing.

The more importance you place on the list, the better.

Nurture it. Take care of it. Grow it. It’s your future.

1. What the Donor List Is and Isn’t

Your list, or house list as it’s sometimes called, is the list of names of people you can reach out to for support.

It’s your rolodex of partners. Your donor list is critical to your success.

It’s people who have given you permission to connect with them. At some point, they’ve willingly given you their information (and maybe a donation).

They’re interested in what you’re doing and they want to see you succeed.

The worst thing you can do is treat them like an ATM machine and show up with your hand out all the time. We all have that friend who only calls when they want something. Don’t be like that with your donors.

Treat them like partners. Communicate regularly. Keep them in the know about what’s happening in your programs and the impact you’re having. Most importantly, tell them the stories about the lives that are being changed by your nonprofit’s work.

Key takeaway: Think of the people on your list as valuable, caring partners, not just faceless, nameless sources of donations.

2. The Four Main Segments of Your Donor List

Your donor list has several segments or groups of people:

  • Active donors. These are people who have given sometime in the last year. (You can define “active” as the last 15 months or 18 months if you like. I use 12 months just to keep it simple.)
  • Lapsed donors. These folks have given at some point in the past, but not in the last 12 months. The more time that goes by, the lower your chances get of renewing them.
  • VIPs. These are people who haven’t given, but there’s a really important reason for them to be on your list. They may be reporters who have done a story on your organization and you’ve developed a relationship with them. They may be your local county commissioners, city counsel, state or federal senators or representatives. Or maybe they have another important connection to your organization.
  • Prospects. These are people who haven’t given and you don’t know who they are or where they came from. It’s probably time to take them off the list.

As you’re connecting with donors on your list, you may want to communicate differently with each segment. For example, your active donors are much closer to your nonprofit and you might use warmer, friendlier language with them. You might need to use more encouragement with lapsed donors to remind them that giving to your mission is a good thing.

Your list of donors and prospects is pure gold. Treat these people well, and you’ll see donations increase. That means you need a communications strategy for your list. Don’t just shoot out an email because you need money. Be sure you are providing them great information and stories with plenty of emotion. Space the communications out so that there aren’t several all bunched up together followed by months of radio silence.

Remember that communication with people on your list is about their convenience, not yours. Make sure that everything you send them is interesting and relevant. When you communicate based on segments, it’ll be easier to share the right things.

Key takeaway: Communicate regularly and appropriately with the people on your donor list, based on their experience with you.

3. Manage Your Donor List in the Right Container

There are plenty of good ones out there. Go to www.idealware.org and to get an idea of the various programs out there. Also check out www.techsoup.org to find software at a great price (especially for the really small nonprofits!).

Key takeaway: Pick a donor-tracking database that fits your needs to house your list and then use it.

4. Where and When to Grow Your Donor List

There are lots of ways to add names to your donor list. The thing that I learned as a Development Director was to always be on the lookout for list-growing opportunities.

  • If I was exhibiting at a volunteer fair, I had a signup sheet for people to give me their name, address, email, and phone number.
  • At events, I made sure I got complete info for attendees.
  • Online, I made sure I had an opt-in box on the website for people to sign up for our newsletter.

The key here is to get permission. Never add a bunch of names to your list without permission. You’ll just annoy those people and screw up your chances of ever getting support from them.

When I teach list-growing in a class or to my clients, I show them how to leverage relationships of current donors and supporters by asking them for referrals to others who might also care about the organization. That can be as simple as asking each Board member to send letters to 10 of their friends, or asking current volunteers to bring a friend the next time they come. It’s a simple strategy, but it does require some planning.

List building is an ongoing activity. It’s easier to do in the Fall when people are more charitably-minded, but it can happen in smaller amounts all year long. You might even set a goal for yourself to add 10 new donors to your list each month. (If 10 seems too easy, make it 100.)

Key takeaway: Always be on the lookout for ways to grow your list. And add new names regularly.

5. How to Keep Your Donor List Clean

List hygiene is really important.

If half your email addresses are bad, then you won’t see the results you’re hoping for when you send out an email appeal. Likewise, if you have hundreds of bad mailing addresses, you’ll waste a lot of money on printing and postage when your direct mail is returned to you or worse, trashed.

Always watch for email bounces and returned mail. You must be diligent in keeping donor records updated to the best of your knowledge. It’s an ongoing job and not very glamorous, but it’s critical to your overall success.

Designate someone to do regular maintenance. Scan your data for duplicate records. Update the donors who have changed jobs or moved and now have a new address or email. An hour or so each week can mean a big difference in the quality of your list.

Key takeaway: A clean list is a responsive list. Spend time regularly keeping the data up to date.

6. Focus on an Equal Exchange With The People on Your Donor List

Owning a donor list gives you power, and you must use that power for good, Batman.

Use the list to share updates, invite people to events, and to ask for money. Keep in mind that every time you ASK for something, you’re taking points out of the emotional bank account. To balance that, add points to the emotional bank account by giving the people on your list something of value, like stories of the lives being changed by your nonprofit. Share photos and videos. Give your list something that warms their heart, makes them chuckle, or pisses them off.

The work your nonprofit does should have a deep emotional component to it, and the more you can connect your list with that emotion, the better.

Key takeaway: Give something as often as you ask for something. And give things that are meaningful to your list.

The Bottom Line

Good fundraising is about getting in front of the right people at the right time with the right message.

When you build a list of the right people and keep it clean, fundraising gets a whole lot easier.

In other words, the key to successful fundraising is in the strength of your donor list.