Successful Donor Engagement in the Digital Age

Mark Kelly
June 5, 2018

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The engagement of nonprofit organizations with donors must combine strong ties with ties that are weak to maintain positive relationships on social media, as well as offline. Examples of strong ties include personal relationships like friends or family; weak ties are acquaintances. From queries and updates on the organization’s progress to personalized communication and thank-you notes, technology can be an aid if used well.

It is important to remember, however, that the manner of use matters just as much as the fact that staff are engaged with technology. In addition, nonprofit organizations must consider how their communication will be received by donors, stakeholders, and the public. Though this practice was always necessary for any organization, it is especially important now.

Building Trust for Engagement

In 2014, Deschamps and McNutt of Canada’s University of Regina found that online advocacy among social media users occurs in stages. Before users engage with an organization’s content, they must trust the organization. It is only after trust and the engagement are established that information is shared. The trouble for organizations is that increased awareness is measured in volume. How then, do they avoid “mission creep;” that is, becoming so focused on maintaining a social media account that the organizers are distracted from the mission? Given the small sizes of many nonprofits, this is a valid question. The authors recommend that “nonprofits using social media treat the technology as participatory, enabling people to create as well as consume media.”

After all, staff already use social media for practical purposes, including coordinating events and recruiting volunteers. It may be beneficial to let volunteers promote the worthiness of the cause through personal accounts. This engagement cannot be automated, though. “One activity that does not appear to benefit social media activities is the use of web-based software to feed posts from one social media account to another. Different users use different social media for different reasons, and automatic feeds tend to take organizational statements out of their original context.” Software like marketing automation tools can be most beneficial when helping with donor acknowledgement letters and tax information.

Stewardship and Relationships

In an analysis of Facebook use by nonprofits associated with symphonies, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas found that certain values held by nonprofits translated to both online and offline stewardship. The researchers analyzed stewardship theory and held that good stewardship is comprised of four practices that enrich the relationship between donors and nonprofits: reciprocity, responsibility, reporting, and relationship nurturing. These practices can be largely conducted online. Annual reports and other relevant documents can be posted on the web and communication can be maintained often. “Facebook users prefer two-way communication over simple information sharing…Once stakeholders become engaged, organizations may work to sustain and nurture those relationship by working in their stakeholders’ interests.”

Bringing Back Lapsed Donors

If donors do lapse in their giving, new media present new opportunities to regain him or her. Shanfei Feng of Monash University in Australia found that the most common reason for donors to lapse in giving was a change in the donor’s budget. Feng writes that rather than focusing on direct mail, nonprofits should appeal to lapsed donors’ senses of guilt. “The two critical determinants of lapsed donors’ decisions to resume donating are a feeling of regret at leaving the charity or cause and a feeling of satisfaction with the organization’s reacquisition communications. By implication, then, organizations should carefully design the communication content of messages to lapsed donors and whenever possible induce donors to feel regret.”

The donors who are most likely to be revived are younger donors who have long relationships with the organization and who have experienced positive communication with the organization before the lapse in giving. Feng recommends that organizations focus their efforts on these donors. These are the donors who are also savvier, due to the transparency created by the internet. Websites like Charity Navigator and GuideStar enable young donors to have access that would not have been possible a generation ago.

For this reason, nonprofit organizations should always be mindful of donor intent. Transparency is worth the risk taken by organizations if it prevents a poor reputation online. “Electronic media have the ability to remove or, at least, to rearrange the boundaries between public and private spaces. (Therefore), social media provides an opportunity to reach out directly and to engage existing and prospective supporters through new opportunities for sharing, collaborating, and mobilizing collective action.” On Twitter, the most effective tweets for nonprofits focus on “attitudes, values, or character traits.” Because of social media’s focus on emotional appeal, Deschamps and McNutt recommend that nonprofits combine their efforts with those of organizations whose causes are similar. If users see the profiles of more than one group in social media feeds, awareness of the cause will increase.

Ultimately, the concerns of nonprofit organizations in the digital age are similar to those they faced before. The organizations that succeed appeal to their donors’ emotions, as well as their wallets.

Author Bio

lacey_lyons_headshotLacey Lyons is a writer for She is a  freelance writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared on the blogs of Empower Tennessee, Disability Rights Tennessee, The Charlotte Viewpoint, and HealthLeaders Media. She can be reached at

Topics: Donor Management Fundraising
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