5 min read

First-time donors are eager to give again, but nonprofits are dropping the ball.

It's been said before, but I'll say it again: your new donors deserve your full attention. Last week, I covered just how important your first impression on donors is, and how AmPhil partnered with NextAfter to analyze how nonprofits treat new donors. In February 2022, we “became the new donor” by giving to 147 nonprofits, both by mail and online, then recorded the nonprofits’ communications with us over the subsequent 90 days.

The results were illuminating. We got real-time data on how and when nonprofits interact with new donors. What’s more, we used that data to assess whether nonprofits are wasting an invaluable opportunity.

It’s not hyperbolic to say that the 90 days after a donor gives for the first time are the most important in your relationship with them—by a long shot. In fact, a third of second-time gifts are made in those first 90 days.

So, let’s dive into the conclusions we derived from studying those three critical months, and some takeaways on how nonprofits treat new donors—and how they can treat them better.



I’ll kick things off with what’s perhaps the study’s most startling finding: a whole bunch of organizations dropped the ball before the game even started.

Key finding #1: 17 of those 147 organizations wouldn’t let us donate.

I said that we donated to 147 organizations, but that’s not quite true. We tried to donate to 147, but only 130 organizations actually got the cash.

The other 17 missed out, whether because of broken payment forms, error messages, processing errors, or even no donation page option. Most puzzling of all were the organizations to whom we mailed checks—and who simply never cashed them.

So, if you act on just one tip from this article, let it be this: from time to time, try out being a new donor and ensure that you’re able to make a donation to yourself.


We received two types of communications from the organizations we donated to: cultivations and appeals. These types of communication differ, both in style and in donation potential. Cultivations are informational, telling a new donor about your organization and its work; appeals are designed to spur a financial transaction. When it comes to using them, nonprofits treat postal and online donors very differently. Which brings us to:

Key finding #2: Organizations have very different approaches to welcoming online and offline donors.

This doesn’t just apply to mode and frequency of communication. Online donors receive cultivation messages and solicitations in nearly equal numbers, at a ratio of 1:1.05. Postal donors, on the other hand, receive nearly twice as many cultivations as solicitations, at a ratio of 1:0.57. Let’s take a look at each type of message.

Most appeals fall into one of three categories: event invitations, product/merchandise appeals, and donation appeals. Unsurprisingly, nearly 80% of appeals fall into that latter category.

In our study results, the number of email appeals trended up over time. Week one, our donor personas received 27 email appeals; by week 13, that number was up to 85. 32% of the donation appeals used a matching offer to try to win a second gift, and 17% asked for a recurring donation. These numbers were radically different for our online and offline personas. Our online persona was four times more likely to be asked to make a match, and six times more likely to be asked to make a recurring gift.

Cultivation messages tend to make fewer direct requests of a donor than appeals, with 69% of the ones we received being strictly informational. The vast majority of the cultivation messages we received were newsletters (one organization sent 86 newsletters over those 90 days!). That said, 31% did request direct action of the donor, whether in the form of a petition, a survey or quiz, or a free course.

Now, I can’t stress this enough:

Key finding #3: Most cultivation communication is informational in nature. This is a HUGE missed opportunity for second gifts.

You might shy away from asking for a second donation. It might seem needy or presumptuous to ask a new donor to give again.

It’s not! This person finds your mission compelling enough to inspire them to give—and that interest isn’t going to evaporate. If you communicate smartly, you’ll keep your donor thinking about you. By making an ask, you can turn those thoughts into generosity.

To back that up with numbers: one email welcome series experiment showed that sharing more email offers like e-books that led to an instant donation page led to a 920% increase in donations compared to the control.


The fact that the first 90 days are the best time to elicit a second gift makes this distressing:

Key finding #4: The postal donor received no communication at all from 45% of organizations.

This neglect feels almost criminal. Almost half of organizations aren’t just failing to ask; they’re failing even to thank.


Which leads us to a crucial element of welcoming new donors: the thank you note. It seems so easy, such an obvious step, something that can be dashed off in just a couple of minutes. And it’s something that donors love. So please don’t cover your eyes when I tell you that:

Key finding #5: Only 4 (out of 130) organizations thanked postal donors. FOUR.

Whether by mail or email, send the note. Tell your donors how big an impact their donation is having. Hearing that, donors are far more likely to give again.


Speaking of impact: you should emphasize, emphasize, emphasize, that you provide value that a donor won’t find anywhere else. You’re not some cookie-cutter organization, easily replaced. By partnering with you, a donor brings unparalleled value to the world.

Key finding #6: Too many organizations don’t make an effort to stand out from the crowd, and thus don’t inspire loyalty.


Another fact that organizations we donated to failed to heed is that donors—like the rest of us—are easily distracted. It’s crucial not to divert the donor from the call to action. When you ask a donor to give, don’t add other requests. Your objective in an appeal is to solicit a donation, so don’t distract the donor by asking them to follow your social media accounts. 

Key finding #7: 45% of appeals asked donors to follow them on social media in the same communication.

Don’t ask a donor to follow your Instagram account. Ask them to give.



The results of the study illustrated the areas in which organizations are optimizing their communication strategies—and where they aren’t.

  • 97% of the emails we received used an HTML template rather than plain text, despite the fact that plain-text emails perform better with donors.
  • Videos are more well-received in cultivations than in appeals, which fit with the fact that cultivations we received used videos at nearly five times the rate of appeals.
  • Studies show that emails from individuals have an open rate 27% higher than emails from organizations. Fewer than half the emails we received were from individuals.


This may feel like an inundation of information, but the study’s results point to a few key recommendations on how to treat your new donors right: Thank your donors. Ask for a second gift. Emphasize the value you (and you alone) bring. Don’t distract givers. And, above all else, make sure that people are able to give.

Stay tuned: my colleague Rachael Waechter will be here next week to fill you in on how to welcome major donors in particular. That’s an art that’s worth mastering.


1 thought on “The first 90 days make or break donor relationships”

  1. Jim Hurley says:

    I am working within my church (Catholic) to improve engagement. Engagement among parishioners & leadership as well as between Church and immediate community. Cultivating engagement, in my view, is analogous to asking for a donation of time and attention. I would say that your analysis has a parallel in Welcoming people to a Parish. Sadly, Catholic engagement communications are equally abysmal in this regard. The good news is that personalized communications and cultivation are a matter of strategic planning and operational commitment rather than provedence. Thanks for getting some actual data! I’ll be sure to pass it on!

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