Growing and retaining donors: How to use marketing automation at non-profits & charities

Michael Sharkey on 13th of Nov 2017
Charity Marketing

Charity Marketing

At Autopilot we’re fortunate to work with a number of organizations and charities that are giving back to local communities and pushing social change for good. These include non-profits like The Equality Campaign, Sydney Children’s Hospital, Greenpeace, Lifeline, The Royal Flying Doctors, and The Salvation Army.

From our experience working with these great organizations we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t when using marketing automation to help manage the donor lifecycle.

In the interest of sharing that knowledge to help more organizations, here are four ways to use marketing automation in your non-profit or charity:

1. Welcome new donors

Many organizations spend a great amount of time and money finding new donors by engaging people on the street, at special events, and fundraisers. The focal point is always to drive new donors to sign up, but we rarely consider what the experience is like for the donor after they’ve started giving. By welcoming each new donor and sharing what impact their donations are having, you can not only keep them engaged but reduce the risk over time of them canceling or stopping recurring donations.

welcome new donors

How it works

Every time you sign up a new donor instead of doing nothing, send them on a welcome journey. The goal is to slowly drip them content over the course of 12 months about:

  • What you are doing with their donation; and
  • Why it matters.

It may seem like a big task, but starting simple with one email a month about how their funds are typically used can make a huge difference and can be completed in just a few days.

In this example we’re sending them an email, displaying a thank you message on our website and a confirmation SMS when they become a donor. After 7 days we send them their first story about what we’re doing with their donation and continue to send a message every month over the lifecycle of their commitment.

Here is an example of the first welcome email:

welcome email

It’s best if this message is personal, contextual and to the point with a single call to action. In this case, my fictitious charity Save a Pup encourages new donors to read more about how their donations will be put to work.

Note how we’ve focused on one simple message they can take away, “My donation is saving 5 pups in need.” Having a single focal point like this can remind the donor why they’ve made the right decision and gives them a clear message to tell to their friends and family.

We are also reinforcing this message with SMS, it serves as a confirmation message but also a chance to remind them why they made the right decision.


Next time they visit our website they will also see a personal thank you. We’re using an on-site message to thank them personally and start a conversation about why they were inspired to donate.


The journey continues every month sharing stories and reminding them of the single purpose of their donation: saving at least 5 pups per month. By welcoming new donors and telling them stories you will reduce donor cancellations, increase referrals, and ultimately create a better donor experience.

2. Increase donations with a goal

Recurring and loyal donors are the backbone of allowing your organization to do the great work it does. But over time constantly having to add new donors to replace donors who cancel costs significant time and money. Very rarely do we consider that our existing donors (just like existing customers of a business) can help us grow our donation amounts much faster than solely focusing on new donors.

Take for example our fictitious charity, Save a Pup. By hiring a full-time doctor our organization can help neuter more dogs which will allow them to find homes sooner. Instead of relying on increasing the pool with new donors, we could challenge our existing donors to give a little more to help us achieve our goal.


How it works

Start by segmenting your donors into those that are most likely to help you with your goal. In the example journey above we’ve isolated our most loyal donors. These might be donors who are highly engaged with your content and tend to visit your website or read your emails most often. This example uses both SMS and email to get their attention. Using multiple channels helps get the message out and creates a sense of urgency. In your messages, describe a clear goal you’re trying to achieve and how their small donation increase will immediately contribute towards helping that goal.

email example

In the example above we’ve focused on the goal of helping hire a full-time doctor to be able to neuter more dogs and find them homes faster. We’re asking for a small increase in their donation amount per month to make this goal a reality and we’re giving them a simple way to opt in to the new donation amount—clicking “Yes, I can help!”. After they click the link we can automatically increase their donation amount and send them a thank you email.

We’re using a similar technique with SMS as well. Asking them to reply “yes” if they agree to the increase and clearly stating our goal. If they do reply “yes” we can also automate the increase in the donation amount and then send them a thank you.

send sms

If they haven’t responded to increase their donation after a week, we send them a reminder email. This simple journey can help your non-profit organization dramatically increase donations in a short period of time.

3. Nurture subscribers or event attendees into donors

The majority of organizations hold numerous fundraisers every year and typically have a number of subscribers to either their blog or social media accounts. But rarely are these lists of people considered as potential recurring donors and rarely are they ever contacted apart from that once a year event invite or a brief social media update. By taking this ever growing list of people and nurturing them with content about your organization, you can automate a constant stream of new donors.


How it works

Every time you have a new subscriber they’re added to a list. You can start simple or get a little more complex by adding people to different lists based on the topics they’ve shown interest in. In our example, let’s imagine the topic is animal welfare.


The List Trigger begins the journey with a series of emails that send content related to animal welfare and specifically how our fictitious organization Save a Pup is helping in these areas. These emails are blog article teasers with a clear call to action to “read more”.

Every time a person clicks the link in the email we increase a score called “Donor Score” by 1 point. When the score reaches higher than 10 points we can infer they are sufficiently interested in “Save a Pup” and are more likely to become a donor.

next trigger

This triggers a segment which is constantly looking for people with a donor score of higher than 10. Once someone matches, an email asking them to become a donor is sent automatically.

4. Convert new donors from bus ads and billboards

What do bus ads and billboards have to do with marketing automation? A lot! Take this billboard for our fictitious Save a Pup charity:


Typically when we think of marketing automation we think of automating emails, but using SMS we can start a conversation from almost anywhere on a channel that everyone has access to in their pocket.


How it works

When someone passes the billboard and texts “donate” a new journey is started. This sends a message asking for the person’s name to start a personalized conversation.

sms shape

The reply is saved into the First Name field in our marketing database and we can now use it in our next message where we ask for their email address.

sms shape

This works the exact same way and saves their email to the email field. Now we can SMS and email a person we know on a first name basis! It’s time to confirm they want to donate and we can do this through SMS confirmation as well.

sms confirm

The person can then reply “yes” to confirm a recurring donation or reply “more” to be sent an email with other donation options. We can even automate the donation amount into our CRM and follow up with billing instructions via email.

This same technique can be used when members of your team speak at events, on bus signs, and on other advertising or promotional material. To be extra clever, try adding people who don’t end up donating but do respond to your nurture automation!

Which of these journeys will you create? How do you grow and retain donors with marketing automation? Let us know in the comments.

marketing automation templates

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