Every(Re)Action | Engaging and Retaining Sustainers to Raise More

February 28, 2022 | Grace Duginski
Engaging and Retaining Sustainers to Raise More

Sustainers (recurring donors who give the same amount on a regular basis) are very valuable to nonprofits. However, it requires timely communication and a human touch to acquire, engage, and retain them—that’s what a new report found, based on research from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and data from our friends at Network for Good. As longtime fans of recurring giving programs and their ability to help nonprofits raise consistent and sustainable revenue, we’re exploring the report’s key findings about what they refer to as “subscription donors,” and how fundraisers can take action in response.


This report is the third in a new series of briefs, The Giving Environment. “The goal of the series,” according to the Lilly School, “is to better understand giving behavior and donor participation of diverse individuals and communities, especially in recent years, during which time the United States experienced several political, economic, and societal changes.”

Like the second brief in the series, this report explores how donors make giving decisions. The study “is among the initial efforts to explore how to increase donor engagement through subscription-based giving,” although the report’s authors were careful to emphasize that “[their] survey research was not representative of a general donor population, and did not engage with non-donors or lapsed donors.” With these caveats in place, the two guiding questions this report focused on answering were:

  • Are there any differences in socio-demographics and giving preferences between donors who signed up for the subscription method and donors who did not?
  • What influenced a donor’s decision to sign up for subscription giving?

It’s well-known that the for-profit sector loves the subscription model—and nonprofits recognize how valuable it is to grow a body of support out of small amounts of regular, recurring revenue too. However, the report’s authors specify that they don’t see all recurring gift models as true “subscription” giving:

Most nonprofit organizations understand the value of recurring revenue and want more of it. The problem is that nonprofits generally tend to treat recurring donors the same as one-time donors and overlook the fact that these donors are truly invested in the future of the organization. Even calling it “recurring giving” causes insufficient framing from the start because the “set it and forget it” mentality implies that there is little to no additional stewardship. […] Nonprofit organizations fulfill their side of the subscription by building a deeper relationship with the donor.

New Models to Engage Donors

Using this framework, the report divided the outcomes into five key findings that “examine the differences and similarities between subscription and non-subscription donors” and analyze what influences donors to participate in subscription giving. Let’s dig in.

Key findings

1. Subscription donors are likelier to adopt new giving tools.

Key finding #1 stated that “although subscription donors and non-subscription donors in the survey shared similar demographics, subscription donors indicated higher adoption of new tools of giving, such as giving via social media or crowdfunding sites, and a stronger preference for communicating via social media.”

Research continues to demonstrate that donors of all types tend to give through nonprofit websites, which means investing in your digital presence and treating your website as a valuable source of donor revenue—not just in terms of acquisition, but also in terms of retention—is worth the effort.

More traditional forms of communication, such as personalized mail and emails, “were popular preferred communication methods for all donors,” but the 40 percent of subscription donors who said they preferred to be communicated with via social media (and the 53 percent of subscription donors who said they had given to an organization via social media within the past 3 years) serve as a strong reminder that in an effective multi-channel fundraising program, a range of channels can serve different purposes for different audiences. Creating a seamless experience for donors to connect with your mission via social media, and tracking the actions they take with you in a unified CRM, can help you ensure that you’re deepening your connections with them over time and therefore are more likely to retain them.

2. Subscription donors generally show higher levels of trust in other people.

Key finding #2 revealed that “subscription donors demonstrated a higher level of general trust toward other people and were more likely to attend religious services. All donors indicated at least a fair amount of confidence in nonprofits to utilize donations in an impactful way.”

We know from other research that affluent donors hold generally high levels of trust in nonprofits as agents of societal change. Substantial levels of trust also seem to show up for the subscription donors whose responses are included in this report: 44 percent “stated they had a great deal of confidence in nonprofit organizations” and 43 percent trusted organizations to use their gifts effectively. If nonprofits don’t already see these levels of trust with their own audiences, they can work toward them through reliable, transparent communication, including automating messages as needed to ensure donors receive the right nudges at the right times, and speaking to donors using ethical and effective creative.

3. Subscription giving is not exclusive to millennials or younger generations.

Key finding #3 held that recurring gifts are popular with donors of all ages. “Roughly three-fifths of subscription donors (62 percent) were aged 55 or above in our survey, compared to 57 percent of all non-subscription donors from this age group. This age distribution[…] shows that it is possible to engage donors of all generations through subscription-based giving.”

Other research has confirmed that donors in Gen X and other generations enjoy the benefits of automated, recurring gifts, so don’t assume older donors will be uninterested in digital giving or engagement! The beauty of an automated subscription format of giving is its ease and simplicity—and it’s the rare donor who sees those qualities as negative. If you can educate donors on how the technical process works, along with how their regular gift benefits your organization, donors across generations will likely be interested.

4. Subscription-donor-only content is a strong way to connect with these donors.

Key finding #4 found that “exclusive content that connects and shares stories and experiences from the beneficiaries is highly valued by all donors, especially subscription donors.”

This is something fundraisers have known for quite some time: donors want to know their gift makes an impact. Sharing with donors what their regular revenue helps you achieve is incredibly important when it comes to retaining their support—and donors have their own preferences about the ways they receive that information. Respondents said the types of communication and content they’d like to get from nonprofits they support were:

  • Stories and experiences shared by the people their gifts have helped (52 percent)
  • Frequent updates about organization’s programs and services (32 percent)
  • Emails with their donation’s impact and heartfelt thank you(s) (32 percent)
  • Educational and interactive webinar series related to the organization’s mission and impact areas (25 percent)
  • Invitations to special events just for subscription donors (25 percent)

These strategies are important for stewardship, but they’re also important for upgrading donors and converting single-gift donors to recurring donors as well. When asked, these same mechanisms were, in almost identical order from most to least popular, “the types of communication and content that would persuade non-subscription donors to switch to a subscription donor.” Additionally, about 40 percent of subscription and non-subscription donors indicated that they were “likely to increase their donation amounts if nonprofit organizations reached out to them, frequently or periodically, in a more personal, customized manner.”

This data is an important reminder of why supporter-specific communication—and an efficiency boost from your nonprofit platform—is so important: when fundraisers speak to donors based on their specific history and interactions with your organization, donors are likelier to be converted, upgraded, and retained.

5. Your mission matters most.

Key finding #5 maintained that “a nonprofit’s mission—the fundamental purpose of the organization—is the top factor that influenced donors to sign up for subscription giving in order to make a larger impact. Personal relationships also matter when donors decide to become a subscription donor.”

It’s clear that many, many donors feel emotionally connected to organizations thanks to their mission: “among non-subscription donors, 78 percent indicated that the nonprofit organization’s mission and efforts would be crucial in determining if they would become a subscription donor.” Personal relationships are also important when choosing causes and organizations to support, as 50 percent of non-subscription donors claimed “their relationship to or connection with the organization’s staff or team would positively influence their decision to become a subscription donor.”

This is why, as other research has found, many supporters enjoy direct giving: it allows them to support real people they know, who are part of their lives, in a tangible way. Nonprofits can take cues from this type of generosity by combining the efficiency of technology with the humanizing effect of putting a familiar face on their campaigns: precisely targeting donors based on their location and interests and trying out techniques like P2P campaigns in order to encourage donors to feel more connected to the campaign can help organizations succeed.


The report’s authors drew up a list of implications based on their findings—here are some of our favorite ways to take action on these conclusions:

  1. Focus on communicating the ways you are advancing your mission—this is something many organizations are likely already doing and should continue to emphasize.
  2. Track the moves your supporters make in your CRM in order to ensure you’re sending the most up-to-date and accurate messages, at precisely the right times.
  3. Develop moves management and communications plans for different segments of donors as well as individual donors—your nonprofit platform should help you automate some of these tasks in order to fulfill this goal effectively and efficiently.
  4. Experiment with different blends of channels and remember that different donor segments will likely respond to different channels in different ways.
  5. Test different messaging variables with your donor audiences—A/B testing subject lines, calls to action, creative, the blend of channels used, and more will help you determine the strategies that result in the most meaningful response.
  6. Build relationships with donors—use automation for whatever you can, so that your staff can devote their time to relationship building and other valuable, interpersonal work that a machine cannot do.

Our take

It’s no secret that a robust sustainer program can help nonprofits create more reliable, predictable fundraising revenue. And using the principles of multi-channel communications, engagement, and fundraising programs, organizations are better able to fund their missions by growing and maintaining their recurring donor programs. With the right platform, building a true multi-channel sustainer program can be accessible and successful at organizations of all sizes—talk to us to learn more.