Kurt Worrell, SVP Donor Engagement Team  ●  12/3/2020

8 Aspects of a Successful Sustainer Program

Sustaining donors represent a critical segment for any annual fund program.

Reminder: Sustaining donors are transformational donors who have committed to support your organization using any regular frequency (monthly, quarterly, or annually).

It’s easy to see why nonprofits love sustainer donors: They have great long-term value (LTV). In fact, data shows that sustainers have an LTV that is exponentially greater than that of a typical annual giving donor. Recurring donors have a significantly higher average annual cumulative giving rate, so this means more money is available now.


Sustainer donors also have very high retention rates, typically between 70 – 80%. For most nonprofits, retention averages just below 50% for annual donors. As the philanthropic industry battles shrinking donor files and increased acquisition costs, a sustaining program can go a long way toward improving retention.

Because sustainers commit to recurring giving, your organization can save money by excluding them from many annual giving campaigns. Typically, a communication cadence for sustainers includes only special case solicitations for additional gifts — like special giving days — but includes numerous touchpoints that share the impact of the donor’s gifts. Since these donors are ongoing investors in your mission, they want to understand how their commitment makes a real difference.

Sustainers are among the most loyal segments of your base, and, since loyalty is a strong factor in planned giving, a healthy sustainer donor program can also create a strong donor pipeline for legacy donors. This reinforces the need for continuous impact reporting, to find new opportunities to engage sustainers on a deeper level.


Ready to get started? Here are 8 aspects of successful sustainer programs:

  1. It all starts with the data. As you assess your readiness to build and maintain an effective sustainer program, it is important to determine data governance and documenting policy before you get started. How will you set attributes in your CRM to identify sustainers? Develop a rule set for activating, and, almost as important, deactivating a sustainer. Will you only accept credit/EFT/DAF transactions or will you consider a direct mail fulfillment stream? How will expiring credit cards be managed? What giving intervals do you want to consider for sustainer giving? Monthly is by far the most common, but it is worth considering a quarterly option to increase overall participation. What will be your acknowledgement and stewardship process for donors opting to become sustainers? Having a well designed plan and data flow is step one before launching any new fundraising program, and sustainers are no exception.
  2. Select the best channels for your sustainer campaigns. Although direct mail may be your primary channel for donor acquisition and cultivation, it is not necessarily the best option to acquire sustainers. Digital, telephone, face-to-face, and DRTV are often much more effective channels for acquiring sustaining donors. Our experience has shown an integrated multichannel approach yields the best results.
  3. To control costs and maximize success, choose your selects for campaigns wisely. Prioritize donors who exhibit some form of sustaining behavior, for instance donors who make 3 or more gifts per year. Also determine the best time in the donor life cycle to make a sustainer ask. For our health and hospital clients, we have found that for grateful patient/grateful family prospects, having a digital and telephone ask at the time of acquisition is extremely effective. Another effective time to make a sustainer ask is as you thank a donor for her second gift (assuming you have thanked her for her first gift!).
  4. Develop a compelling offer. Demonstrate to the donor how her commitment will provide a continuous and measurable impact on your mission. The offer should focus on why sustaining support is so important versus an urgent need.
  5. Be smart about your ask strategy for sustainer acquisition. Avoid the temptation to focus on getting the donor to increase her gift amount. Instead, focus on getting her to commit to increasing her gift frequency. Scale your ask strings appropriately to her capacity to give. The important KPIs for sustainer acquisition are conversion and response rates. Remember, the long-term value of a sustainer will far outweigh any small gains in cumulative annual giving.
  6. Be smarter about your strategy for sustainer cultivation. A donor welcome series is a great way to reinforce the donor’s choice to commit and make them feel like they are part of a special group. Since these donors won’t be getting the typical cultivation contacts, reporting impact is extremely important. And an ideal time to ask a sustainer donor to increase their gift amount is on the anniversary of their commitment. You can seek to increase frequency or gift amount as part of your ongoing strategy.
  7. Prioritize donor stewardship. Consider naming your sustaining program. Just be sure you are prepared to commit to including the sustainer giving society’s branding on all your future communications to these donors.

    Most of all, whether or not you have a named giving society, be sure to have a strategy to thank sustainer donors. At a minimum, you should thank sustainer donors quarterly with notes or telephone calls. Donors are personally nourished by the act of giving. Make sure your stewardship provides the fuel donors require.
  8. Be patient. A sustainer program is a long-term strategy that will yield a strong, committed donor base and a predictable revenue stream for your nonprofit organization.


If you would like more information on sustaining donor programs and how to put them to work for your nonprofit organization, check out a variety of Heroic Fundraising blog posts on this topic.


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