How to Build a Donor Base from the Ground Up

by: Jen Maslanski, Argenta Copywriter
Without donors your non-profit wouldn’t exist. They support your cause and make a difference by donating their support, their time and their money. Essentially, they are the engine of your operations. That’s why it’s important to build a strong, reliable donor base – a group of people who stay involved and keep tabs on your organization. But it’s not as easy as you might think.

We live in a socially connected world where hundreds of thousands of nonprofits and charities vie for the attention of would-be supporters. This generation is known for its short attention span. Constant innovation and strategic planning is required to make an impression and keep your organization stable and successful. So how can your nonprofit stand out and make an impression among the others?

This article provides an overview on the process of identifying, growing, and maintaining a strong reliable donor base for your nonprofit. While every organization is different, and there isn’t just one path to success, this comprehensive guide will help you define some key strategies that will help you reach your goals.

Know your Donors


Before you can start building your doFnor base, you must understand who they are and which approach would be most attractive to them. Don’t guess at this. A common mistake is to assume you know how your audience thinks and feels. Start by outlining the things that set you apart. What problems are you trying to solve? Be very specific, detailing who you are, create a description and a clear nonprofit mission statement. Nonprofits typically attract very specific audiences. You’re not speaking to just anyone who’ll listen. It’s critically important to find the demographic that will understand or identify most with you. Take an inventory, start by asking yourself these questions…
  • Is our organization supporting local, national, or international communities?
  • Is our cause affecting a specific gender or race?
  • Will a certain generation or age bracket be more inclined to support our good cause than others?
  • What emotional response would our cause create among this demographic?
  • Based on our target group’s interest in us, what other organizations would they be interested in?
A great way to learn how donors choose to support you is simply to ask them. If your organization is new, that’s okay. Social media is a great way to engage with potential supporters. Join focus groups related to your mission and participate in the discussions. Don’t miss this, it could make all the difference. Go and join a few right now.

Once you’ve begun to feel familiar with the group, post a question they will feel compelled to answer. You could start by asking these questions…
  • How would you describe your personal mission?
  • What news stories make you sad or even angry?
  • To whom did you make your first donation, and why?
  • What changes would you like to see happen in your community?
If your non profit is already established, consider asking your donors to take a quick survey. Nonprofit surveys can be a great way to get actionable feedback. Use questions that will provide you with strong insight, but don’t make it complicated for them. Keep it as simple as possible. Include basic questions like age, gender, country/region, so you can consider your target demographic. Here are some other questions you may want to ask them…
  • How did you first hear about us?
  • What compelled you to make a donation to our cause?
  • What does our mission mean to you?
  • What sets us apart from other organizations working on this cause?
  • If you had 10 minutes with our Nonprofit Executive Director, what would you tell him or her?
Try to find patterns in the information you collect and form conclusions to find your ideal audience. These are your people! You will be speaking directly to them every time you produce content.

Remember: By choosing a specialized “demographic”, you are not stereotyping or labeling them. Your donors are a diverse group of people united by specific traits. You are not “targeting” them, but finding the group of people who will understand and champion the problems your organization cares most about. Consider them your “central support group” – those who mutually benefit from the information and aid exchanged from the alliance.

Qualities of Donors

While different people groups have unique traits, there are a few universal qualities to keep in mind about your donors. This will be crucial when determining your marketing efforts, discussed here later.

Human – You can crunch statistics and numbers for hours, but at the end of the day, your donors are still human. They have an emotional, logical, and ethical system used to analyze the world around them. That’s why building a strong donor relationship is important, not just pushing donations. Put yourself in their shoes and consider what you would want to experience from a nonprofit you support.

Helpful – Obviously, donors seek opportunities to help others. They are passionate about making a difference, and if they are taking time out of their busy lives to pay attention to your cause, make sure they find many ways to do so. Different personalities seek different opportunities. Some donors are more active and want to gain direct experience by volunteering. Others simply want to provide support through donations. Even still, some donors find themselves in the middle of the spectrum – wanting to volunteer in a supportive role, like being a data entry volunteer or filing clerk volunteer. Evaluate what opportunities your organization can provide for them to get your entire demographic involved.

Result-oriented – If your donors are putting something into your organization, they want to see something good come out. Document where donations are allocated and every step of progress in-between. Later on, analyze your results and pull key statistics to share with the public. Your donors will be looking for this. Furthermore, add the pathos element of personal testimonies – a first-hand account of how someone was affected by your organization. Take pictures, shoot video, conduct interviews, anything that will display progress to your donors. Application of this data will be covered later on.

Credibility-seekers – The modern world is a skeptical place, so the one way to combat cynics is to gain their trust. Credibility might take some time to build, but it is critical to success. Align yourself with personnel and companies that have an honest reputation. Additionally, take the time to be financially transparent with your donors.

Keep these donor qualities in mind when evaluating the marketability of your nonprofit. Understand who supports your cause and what they’re looking for. What can you say to them that will help them take that final step to get involved? This is the foundation of your marketing, and from there your organization can establish their voice.

Obviously, positive traits for non-profits include ambition, honesty, variety, and helpfulness – but what will make yours stand out? Depending on your organization’s cause, your marketing presence might be upbeat and use humor to catch attention. In contrast, for more serious, sobering causes – focus on empowerment. Find what will make your demographic pay attention, while staying true to the reason your organization was founded.

Grow Your Donor Base

Now it’s time to make your organization known. Get the word out! Growing a following can feel insurmountable and you may feel intimidated, but with the right strategies and a log of stick-to-itiveness, word should steadily begin to spread. Here are your best tools for getting started. These should be the foundation of your marketing efforts…

Your Nonprofit Website

For this technology driven generation, your website serves as the “snapshot” identity of your organization. In seconds, a visitor will make inferences about your organization– either good or bad. Your job is to make sure those insights are positive ones.

A polished, professional website design is imperative – but it’s also important more than ever, to have a mobile-friendly website. According to research done by StatCounter, 50.02% of internet traffic is from a mobile device. If you don't have a website, consider having us build one for you. Argenta subscribers receive a discounted web development package and if we build a site for you, we can connect it directly to your Argenta subscription using our API.

Once you have a site up and running, it’s all about communication, which means writing strong content to convince your visitors why they should unequivocally choose to support your nonprofit. When developing your content, make sure to highlight the following…
  • The story behind your cause. Your story is the most important piece.
  • How your organization makes a difference. Visitors love statistics.
  • Why they should trust your organization.
  • Why they should donate. Explain how you will use their funding to do great things.
Your homepage should have the “cliff-notes” of each of these points. You can go into detail on other pages of the website. Aim for clear, detailed bullet points when informing others about the organization. This method is more attractive than large paragraphs of text and easier for visitors to read.
Use pictures and videos that illustrate the impact you have made or hope to make. This could be what makes or breaks your ability to persuade the visitor you are the best nonprofit to make the kind of impact that could make a real, lasting difference.

Your Nonprofit Blog

If you don't have a blog you’re in the minority and you’re missing the mark. Chances are other nonprofits in your space are blogging about the things that matter to your target audience.

Take this seriously. A blog should generate helpful content, and feature stories that will captivate your viewers. Powerful titles and images can be used to draw in followers. Don’t be afraid to use blogs to promote your organization’s work. If your blog is successful, individuals and other nonprofits will begin to take notice. The ideal written post should be between 1200 to 1500 words. Blogs of this size have proven to be the highest performers.

Your Nonprofit Email

Email is perfect for communicating details about your nonprofit. You can share things like progress reports, interviews, organizational changes, or interesting news. A monthly nonprofit newsletter will compile this data in a concise format for the donor to read.

Additionally, email can be used for personalized donation updates, advertising a new way to give, or informing them about an upcoming fundraiser held in their area. While email is a great means of communication, be sure not to overwhelm your supporters. One to two emails a month is sufficient – just make sure it’s packed with useful and interesting information.

Build your nonprofit email list with prominently featured opt-ins on your home page and most viewed pages that offer an incentive to sign up.

Direct Nonprofit Mail

Direct mail is best used like email – so which should you use? A combination of the two can ensure better coverage, but the majority of communication should come from one or the other. Making this decision depends entirely on who you’re sending to. If your organization receives support and benefits from an older demographic, direct mail might be the best choice. Direct mail can be expensive. You may have printing costs coupled with postage and that can add up fast. Typically, email is the most efficient, inexpensive option.

Events and Fundraisers

Again, demographics play a major role in planning an event or a fundraiser. If you’re looking into sponsoring or hosting an event, either locally or nationally, ask yourself, who would be interested. For example, hosting a booth at a local festival is great for drawing in families. A 5k run would likely attract a younger group, 39 and under. An annual dinner with a keynote speaker can attract just about anyone.

If you decide to sponsor an event, look for one related to your cause. Your nonprofit should express creativity and include your logo, designated colors and taglines in any materials you distribute. 
We provide a full-featured event management system fully integrated with all the 30+ Argenta modules. It's easy to create free or paid events with custom public ticket sales and sign-up forms. Personalize forms with custom images and descriptions. Keep and track guest attendance and guest groups. Best of all is our Stripe processing integration making guest registration simple.
If an online auction is something you would like to try, the Argenta Auction module has everything you'll need. Included with your subscription, our auction module provides custom public forms, unlimited item uploads and Stripe processing integration.

Make sure whatever you do it’s engaging, impactful, and memorable.

Your Social Media Landscape

Last but certainly not least is your social media landscape. Social media should be the key to all of your communication efforts. It’s the foundation of your marketing strategy because it can be used in tandem with all the other elements. It’s also your front-line communication tool you’ll use to keep in touch with your community.
You must develop strategies to capture the attention of would-be supporters. This is where your non-profit can really stand out from the rest. Remember, earlier in this overview we discussed including content that grabs someone’s attention and compels them to take action. This is where that will really come into play.

Choosing Your Social Networks

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have billions of active users, yes billions. That’s a lot of potential new donors. In the past few years many more social networks have come on the scene. It’s important to choose the right platforms for you. This means you must, once again, have a solid understanding of who your target audience is and enough information about each network to determine if you should be there. Here is a brief summary of some of the world’s largest social media networks.

Facebook has become the standard in social media. As of 2017, there are currently 2.07 billion active users on the platform. It’s used by all ages, ethnicities, genders, and regions of the world. Basically, consider Facebook your social media “bare minimum” – the only network that can serve every non-profit well.

Twitter has a diverse demographic as well, with 330 million active users. However, the majority lean toward the millennial generation and younger. Additionally, Twitter has a large representation of minorities. If your organization would be well suited toward one of these groups, start thinking about crafting your nonprofit’s messages in 240 characters or less.

Instagram is a popular, yet somewhat different form of social media. Instead of focusing on text, the central message is all about pictures. In recent years, the platform has actually passed Twitter in active users with 800 million, yet the two are interestingly connected. According to Pew Research, 65% of Twitter users are also on Instagram. This is understandable after recognizing the platforms demographics have similar concentrations: younger generations and minorities. If you are considering a Twitter account for your organization, think about Instagram as well. However, generating posts on Instagram is a little trickier, you have to have a large collection of photos relating to your efforts. You’ll have to carefully evaluate your organization and determine how to visually capture your progress or personality. Some causes may not be as well suited for this platform, as they are for Twitter.

LinkedIn is all about professional networking. If you are interested in making connections within the nonprofit community, this platform would be a good start. Think of the kind of content professionals would be interested in and post there every now and then. Like Google+, users spend a minimal amount of time on Linked In, but at a minimum, you should have a basic presence and post something a few times a month.

Developing Your Social Media Marketing Strategy

You may want to put your social media strategy in writing. Having a plan in front of you highlights what you need to add and helps you figure out what resources are needed.
This article on Nonprofit Tech for Good provides a comprehensive guide along with templates you can download to help you get the job done. Don’t miss it…
Branding Strategy
Before you do anything else, create a visually compelling avatar. An avatar is like a logo and serves as your visual representation online. Don’t just crop your logo, however. Take the time to create an icon that visually aligns with your brand. Your avatar should be square, simple and light on text. Different social networks may have different size requirements, but they are typically very similar.

Next, you’ll want to create a cover photo. Most social networks include one because it’s a way to make a strong first impression. Like your avatar it should visually align with your logo and your overall brand. It should include your website URL, and possibly a quick summary of who you are. Some nonprofits choose one very impactful photo, and that can work too, but you have to choose one that basically communicates everything about you in one image. Each social network has different size requirements, but the dimensions are very easy to find, just Google Cover Photo Size for “social network name” and you’ll find it straight away.

Nonprofit Content Marketing Strategy

No matter which social media network you choose, you need to create a content strategy. Remember, you should try to put a focus on storytelling that highlights your message and your mission.
Kivi Leroux Miller, Nonprofit Consultant and President of Nonprofit Marketing Guide, suggests two questions to guide your content creation: “What problems do people have in their own lives when trying to live out the values they share with your organization? What tips or tools can you give them that make their lives easier as they try to be a better environmentalist, animal lover, parent, etc.?”

From pictures and graphics to short videos and text, your organization should share a variety of posts across its networks. Visual content can often reach emotional triggers in a way that words alone cannot.

Share all of your content. Whenever you post a new blog, take a great photo or shoot a video, share it on all your social media accounts. Make sure you engage the post yourself and ask everyone on your staff to engage with it as well.

Specific Strategies for Facebook and Twitter

Your Facebook Strategy

Video ads are all the rage now in Facebook marketing. They grab attention and promote your message quickly and effectively. Eighty-five percent of users watch video with the sound turned off, so captions are a must. The most important point to remember about Facebook videos is that the video needs to grab attention and communicate your entire message within the first few seconds. Attention spans are short – give users a reason to keep watching, and if they choose to move on, at least let them know who you are. While videos shouldn’t be the only strategy you apply, look into how your organization can use promotional videos to drive traffic to your website and/or your blog.

Here are some of our favorite resources for Facebook Marketing to get you started.

Your Twitter Marketing Strategy

You may think it’s challenging to grow a following with 240 characters per post – but it’s actually the opposite. Twitter is the perfect platform to interact with those interested in your cause.

Aside from relevant, helpful content, the use of hashtags is the most important concept to understand and employ when using Twitter. Hashtags are the central connection for communities or like-minded groups of people. Find out which hashtags would be most beneficial to use for your non-profit, and begin interacting with others.

Many times, companies or organizations will send out questions on specific hashtags and anyone who follows along continues the discussion. This is called a “Twitter chat”. Try to reply to others and make connections. If you already have a significant following, you might decide to start your own hashtag and present your own questions for discussion.
Furthermore, follow or create a list of the people/organizations you interact with and keep up with them. Retweet, favorite, or reply to their content and keep the relationship going. This is one of the best ways to make a lasting impression with others on Twitter. Just one word of warning: make sure your “following” count does not greatly exceed your “follower” count. It’s expected when you’re first getting started, but after a while, it’s looked down upon. This is where lists come in handy. The accounts added on your lists are not reflected on your “following” count, so you can keep an eye on a large group of people, without looking like a spammer.
Here are some of our favorite resources for Twitter Marketing to get you started.

Social Media Do’s and Don’ts

DO Keep a social media content calendar. Here’s a great resource to get you started…

Plan ahead. Sit down and schedule your social media posts all at one time. This will save you lots of time and help you stay on top of things. Facebook’s post scheduling is integrated into your organization’s page, but Twitter requires the use of a third-party tool like Tweet Deck: or Buffer: Buffer is a fabulous tool because it allows you to post to all of your social media accounts at the same time.

DON'T Be a pest. While you want your followers to donate to your cause, constantly promoting and urging them to hand over money can come off demeaning, and in turn, could hurt your organization’s image. One way to avoid this problem is to adopt the “80/20 rule”.

80% of the content you post should be interesting and engaging, with no ask. 20% can be focused on promoting your organization and asking for support. After building a relationship with your organization, followers will be more inclined to further your cause. In short, be helpful, not opportunistic.

DON'T Start trouble. This should not be a problem for most nonprofits, but if your cause relates to a “hot-button” topic, like political advocacy, abortion, or immigration, how you communicate will be even more important. Occasionally, your organization may encounter individuals who want to combat or slander your cause. If this happens you only have two choices: ignore or defend.
In most cases, ignoring these types of comments is the best choice. Many times, people just want to feel like they’ve been heard. It’s just their opinion, you don’t owe them a reply, and most people who support your cause will not be swayed by their view.

However, if things are escalating, you have a few options. Facebook allows you to delete comments and even block the user from posting again. You should definitely use this option if someone is just being hateful, or inappropriate. If someone is trying to slander your organization with false claims, this is when you might decide to respond. Just remember to be professional and stick with the facts. Don’t be accusatory or use a negative tone. Take the high road and just be diplomatic.
DO Be patient. Growing a following can take some time, therefore it’s important to stay in the game. Analyze the data you have, experiment with posting times, styles, etc. and see what works best for your accounts. Trial and error coupled with passion and persistence is key. If you hang in there, you’ll get the word out.

Keep Your Donors

Don’t Waste Your Time Doing Mundane Tasks

Nonprofit engagement is all about building relationships with your constituents. Donors, volunteers, members, clients and even your staff require constant attention and cultivating lasting relationships should be your primary focus.

This is why we built Argenta 
Three of our founders currently serve as volunteers and/or board members for a nonprofit and one of our founders runs their own. We were well acquainted with all the time and effort spent on operations alone. Day to day, repetitive tasks, sucking away hours of time we could spend doing what really matters. We also knew how expensive good nonprofit management software could be. So, we built our own, and we made it great! Over time we added just about everything needed to run a nonprofit, from donation, volunteer, member management to a full financial system, staff and human resources, time sheets, training modules, project and task management tools, and on and on. We use it, so it had to be the best.

If you don’t have a CRM software tool that automates all the little things you are wasting time doing every day, give Argenta a try. It’s free to try, no credit card required. We’ll even help you import your data and customize it for you. If you don’t like it, now or ever, we want you to be happy, so we’ll give you all your data wrapped up and ready to move.

Constantly Communicate Your Successes with Your Supporters

Now that you have a great nonprofit software automation tool to help you with the things you have to do, you can concentrate on your mission and communicating to your supporters how you’ve made a difference in the lives of others. After all isn’t that what this is all about?

People are purpose-driven. In order for them to keep supporting you, your donors need to know they’re truly making a difference – so show them. The more details, the better.
  • Again, focus on storytelling that highlights your message and your mission.
  • Take lots of photos, and video using emotion to convey results.
  • Send a personalized “thank you” email or letter. Explain how their donation is helping the lives of others. Include a photo of the projects they made possible.
  • Give them New Ways to Help Out. Keep coming with ideas, programs and initiatives to solve the problems your nonprofit cares most about. Enlist your donors help.
  • Give your donors goals they can reach. Like the case of the organization that started a fundraiser to pay for the construction of 100 clean water wells in an impoverished nation. When the goal was reached, it gave donors a sense of accomplishment.

Enlist Your Donors to Become Your Evangelists

One popular and easy way to do this is to create a social media based campaign. Many organizations encourage their donors to use a specific hashtag when referring to them. Others have created a day where they call on their supporters to spread awareness and engage on social media. This approach may not bring in large sums of money, but it will make your supporters feel like they can do even more to help you, and ultimately to make a difference.

Build Meaningful Relationships

Get to know your donors as individuals, with real hopes, fears, passions and abilities. Remember, everyone you come in contact with can teach you something. Building relationships with your supporters and others in the nonprofit space is really the most important part of this journey. Nonprofits exist to make the lives of others just a little bit better. We hope this guide will help you accomplish that goal so you do more of what really matters.