There’s a well-known maxim in non-profit fundraising: your best prospects are your current donors. This means that the people that are most likely to give to your organization this year are the people who gave last year.
That’s why non-profit experts place such a huge emphasis on donor retention: if you aren’t keeping your current donors giving year after year, you’re going to have trouble raising the money you need to grow.
In my experience, there’s another rule of thumb about your current donors that is equally important: the best way to raise 10% more this year is to get your current donors to give 10% more. The actual numbers don’t matter. Plug in 5%, 20%, or 40%. What matters is this: if you want to raise more money, the easiest way to do so is to ask your current donors to give more.
We call the process of getting current donors to give more “upgrading your donors.” It’s an important part of donor stewardship. Most non-profits think that they best way to raise more money is to find brand new donors. While finding new donors is important, making sure that your current donors keep giving – and keep giving more each year – is even more important to the overall success of your fundraising program.
Every non-profit needs to put a strong donor upgrade system in place in order to grow and thrive.
Important Rules about Upgrading Your Donors
There are several important rules that your non-profit needs to understand if it wants to successfully upgrade donors:
Donors Only Upgrade if You Ask – The first rule to upgrading donors is that donors only upgrade if you ask. Rarely will a donor give more money this year than last year without being asked. Likewise, very few donors will give more than you ask for. Thus, if you want donors to upgrade, you’ll need to ask them to do so.
Donors Upgrade Because They Believe in Your Mission and Your Team – Your donors will agree to upgrade their gifts if they believe in your mission and your team. This means you need to cast a big enough vision so that donors want to give more to support your mission this year than they did last year. Likewise, they need to trust that your team is using their money wisely and for the purposes the donor intended.
Upgrading Needs to be Deliberate – Most non-profits that successfully upgrade donors do it in a slapdash manner. They upgrade based on a hunch that this donor or that donor is ready to give more. Thus, they only ever ask a handful of donors each year to upgrade. Smart non-profits are deliberate about upgrading, and build an upgrade system that ensures that all donors are asked to upgrade on a regular basis.
Ask Your Donors to Upgrade Every Year– Most donors should be asked to upgrade every year. If someone gives your non-profit $50 this year, ask them for $75 next year. If they gave $25,000 this year, ask them for $30,000 next year. Donors can always say no, and decide to renew at the same level as the previous year. But you’ll never know until you ask.
The 3 Types of Donor Upgrades
There are three basic types of donor upgrade asks that you can make:
Low-Dollar / Mass Upgrades
The first type of upgrade is the “mass upgrade,” which applies only to low-dollar donors. These upgrade asks are made through mass solicitations, such as via direct mail or e-mail. These types of upgrades are usually done algorithmically – meaning that if you are sending out a direct mail appeal, you set your ask amounts based on what the donor typically gives.
For example, if you typically ask Mrs. Smith for $25, $50, $100 or whatever you can afford…, and her gifts are normally in the $50 range, your upgrade ask would be for $50, $75, $100 or whatever you can afford…
Unlike some authors and consultants, my recommendation is that you do run an actual upgrade campaign for your low dollar donors each year that includes an upgrade ask based on the upgrade ask formula laid out below. This means that if you send four mailings to Mrs. Smith each year, three of them include asks for consistent amounts, while the fourth is based around the idea of an upgrade and includes a specific upgrade ask,
Mid-Level / Data-Driven Upgrades
The second type of upgrade is the “data-driven upgrade,” which typically is used for mid-level givers. With this type of upgrade, a member of your fundraising team runs a report on your donors’ recent giving history and identifies donors who have the capacity to give more and who are likely to do so (based on length, consistency, and range of gifts).
The fundraising team then calls these donors to set up in-person meetings (or, in some cases, phone or video conferences) to discuss the organization and lay the foundation for an upgrade ask. This strategy (moving donors from mass solicitation asks to personal asks) is generally reserved for those who have the capacity to give mid-level gifts or higher, because of the personal cultivation required.
Major Donor Upgrades
The third and final type of upgrade is the “major donor upgrade,” which is an upgrade ask made to someone who is already a major donor, to ask them to give even more. This type of upgrade ask is almost always made in person, though it can sometimes be done through other means, depending on the donor.
How to Upgrade Your Donors – The Upgrade Ask
No matter what type of upgrade ask you are making, the ask should be deliberate and focused on the fact that this an upgrade ask. Some fundraisers try to sneak in the upgrade… they figure, “This person gave $1000 last year, I’ll just ask for $1500 this year and see what happens, without acknowledging that we’re asking for more this year.” This is a mistake.
You know you are asking for more, and the donor does too. That’s ok. Don’t harp on the fact that you are asking for more, but make it clear that you know you are asking for more and that there are important reasons for you to be doing so.
Regardless of whether you are making an upgrade ask through a letter, call, or in-person meeting, use this basic outline to guide the ask conversation:
#1 – Thank the Donor for Their Past Support
The first step is to thank the donor for their past gifts to your organization. Make sure that it is clear to the donor that they are an important part of your team. Let them know that your non-profit wouldn’t be where it is today without their support.
#2 – Show Your Organization’s Positive Outcomes
The next step is to show the donor the positive results you have achieved using their past gifts. The donor has invested in your mission and your programs – make sure to demonstrate for them that they have made a wise investment.
If the donor is a major donor or has made a restricted gift in the past, you may be able to show them the specific outcomes or gifts they funded. If you are making an upgrade ask through a mass communication appeal or to donors who made general, unrestricted gifts, you can tell donors about the general outcomes you are achieving and show them the positive things your organization is doing in the world, thanks to their generous support.
#3 – Explain the Need
The third step is to explain to your donor why you need the money you are asking for. Your donor has already made one or more gifts to your non-profit… why do you need more? Are you trying to expand your programs? Are you hoping to help more people? Are you hiring more staff, or building additional locations? Tell your donor why you need more money this year than last year.
#4 – Ask the Donor to Upgrade
Finally, make your ask. Remember that in order to be successful, your ask should be a question, and should give a specific amount (or, for a direct mail or e-mail appeal, a range of amounts). For example, “Would you be able to make a gift of $50,000 to help save more lives this year?”
Every non-profit needs to put a strong donor upgrade system in place in order to grow and thrive. Your donor upgrade system should lay out a process for asking every single one of your donors to upgrade every year. How strong is your donor upgrade system?
Photo Credit: Tony