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January 14, 2018

An Introduction to Sustainer Donors

The right offer to the right donor at the right time. It’s a fundamental fundraising tune.

But when you believe individual donors are different — how can the same fundraising offer be right for them all?

At TrueSense Marketing, we prioritize our fundraising strategy for sustainer donors. We define these transformational donors as those who have committed to support an organization at any frequency and through any method. Many in the industry narrow this important group to monthly donors who automatically give via credit card or EFT.

We know all the benefits sustainer donors provide to a nonprofit. It’s a dreamy list so long we could wrap ourselves up in it and be toasty all winter.

But what is the top benefit to the donor?


A sustainer offer appeals to those who value convenience, and who also feel comfortable with automated charges to their account or credit card.

That’s a great donor! They’re now giving by default. If they don’t want to give, they have to take some kind of action to make that change. Some might say they’re high value and low maintenance.

The only problem is — in relation to the whole, big donor world out there — it’s a tiny, elite community. Still, you should most definitely have a sustainer donor strategy in place. Although the donors who sign up will be some of the most loyal supporters you have,  there just won’t be enough of them to completely sustain you.

Is there a variation of traditional monthly-donor strategy that would broaden the appeal? Something that could move all the rest of your donors sitting in active and lapsed categories to sustain their giving? Our experience proves ... YES!

The most important part of sustained giving is that it is continued giving.


If you dictate the frequency and automation of sustained giving, it’s at the expense of what could be a great increase in the continued department. A sustainer donor is a donor who commits to a giving plan. Period.

“Monthly” and “automated” are criteria that have unnecessarily restricted it.


Most donors won’t commit to 12 gifts a year. But if you can secure their commitment to continue giving at some other frequency, you’ve still won their retention!

Many charities rely on their direct-mail donor files for a significant portion of their annual giving budget. Yet just a tiny percentage of those donors give by credit card/EFT. It’s not their “thing.” If we’re recruiting monthly, automated sustainers from this same donor pool, what makes us think we would get much acceptance? Many donors have concerns about payment security. But there’s another, incredibly important reason.

A sustainer donor we interviewed last month told us, “I don’t like automated giving … it feels too passive.” She said that when she writes her checks and puts her donations in the mail, she is consciously engaging with the charity and feels the satisfaction of knowing she is making a difference. It’s something that a line item on a credit card statement doesn’t provide!


Expanding your sustainer strategy works because it gives donors choices and honors donor preferences. Their donor cultivation journey should be designed to:

  1. Recognize their special contribution to the cause.
  2. Affirm the outcomes they make possible.
  3. Generate maximum gift fulfillment.

For many of our clients that means an annual calendar of mailed reminders (at the interval the donors requested); quarterly newsletters; a statement of giving/preferences update; appreciation call; and one annual keystone appeal. The donors are coded as sustainers and flagged with a frequency code. They’re excluded from all appeals other than their plan through simple “omit” logic — to honor their sustainer agreement.

We know that longevity is the bridge that carries donors from being transactional to becoming transformational. To maximize transformational major and planned giving, we have to maximize long-term donor retention. The more donors on the bridge, the more donors who step over. Do you want your sustainer strategy to result in a footbridge-worth of donor traffic or one of “Golden Gate” proportions?


This is the first post in a six-part series about sustainers — donors who have committed to support your organization at any interval through any channel. Subscribe to Heroic Fundraising to have fresh fundraising insights delivered to your inbox monthly.

Other Series Posts

Tag(s): Sustainer

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