Big hug or lame handshake–which are you dishing up for donors?

Bear HugLast week, I teamed up with Peter Drury to present a session at the NDOA Spring Conference. It was called “Hook, Hug, Repeat: how to attract new donors and keep current ones super happy”.

Our basic premise was this: if you make donors feel awesome (i.e. you make them feel hug-erific), not only will you up your retention rate, you’ll attract new donors.

Because let’s be honest: not many organizations give a good hug. They give the equivalent of a lame, limp handshake. Makes you shiver just thinking about it, doesn’t it? A few examples of lameness:

  • When you only send an auto-generated, standard tax receipt to a donor? Lame.
  • When the only communication a donor receives is an ask for more money? Lame.
  • When someone gives at an event and you don’t communicate with them again until the following year when you ask them to attend again? Lame.

And don’t give me the old, “But we don’t have enough money to shower donors with love.” This is about having what Peter calls a ‘culture of gratitude’, not about spending oodles of money. It’s a way of being that informs your way of doing. For instance:

  • There’s no law that says your tax receipt has to be boring. Kiss boring bye bye and instead make the donor feel like their gift was a great, big, huge deal. Because it was.
  • Have staff–or board–call donors to simply say, Thank You. No ask. Not even to ring you back, if you end up leaving a voicemail (which you likely will). Just thank you. You did something amazing by supporting this organization and I want to say thank you. You rock. 
  • Make sure your table captains are armed with note cards so they can jot off a handwritten note of gratitude right after the event. A handwritten note goes a long, long, long way to  making a donor feel loved.

Brene Brown says the trick to happiness is to “tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” Tell your donors how much you appreciate them with your whole heart. Bet some pretty great things happen. Bet they stick with you longer, engage more deeply and can’t stop talking about how fabulous it is to be part of your organization. And guess what? When that happens, hooking new donors becomes way easier.

Focus on your hugs and the hooks will follow.

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  1. This is such great advice! I’ve been the recipient of Peter Drury’s organization, “Splash’s” benevolent thank you efforts this year. Who knew you could make a donor receipt attractive? Who knew a board member would call and thank me for a modest starter gift made via GiveBIG? This advice really works – I feel proud of all the nonprofits I support and a new fondness for Splash!

    • Erica Mills says:

      Yep, Splash does donor gratitude right. Just got a wonderful thank you from the teacher I supported via Donors Choose. They also rock in the gratitude department. Thanks, Debra!

    • Aw, shucks! Thank you, Debra! We do believe that a gold standard of gratitude is at the heart of our priorities. We aren’t there yet, by a long shot, but I love hearing from you that early indicators are positive! Three cheers to all y’all who are building cultures of sincere, fun, and authentic gratitude!

  2. We just finished an all-staff training on Harassment in the Workplace and our consultant was quite specific about refraining from hugging in any context with staff, donors or constituents. I think you may want to revisit this recommendation. Thanks.

    • Erica Mills says:

      Thanks for bringing this up, Stephen. The hugging is a metaphor, as is the limp handshake. We’re not suggesting you actually hug your donors. To your point, that would cross boundaries best un-crossed. Rather, we’re encouraging organizations to create an environment that is so welcoming that donors feel deeply appreciated. Again, thanks for contributing to the discussion!


  1. […] record alert: we’re only retaining 3 out of 10 donors. I feel like there’s a connection between this stat and the charts/graphs in the Giving USA […]

  2. […] Our advice on how to exchange the lame handshakes for big hugs. […]

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