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Donor Pipeline: How to Ensure You Get Long-Term, Committed Donors

Published: May 7, 2024

In the realm of nonprofit organizations, establishing a robust donor pipeline is critical to building the foundation for a sturdy, enduring revolution. A donor pipeline is far beyond securing one-time donations. It’s about cultivating meaningful relationships that fuel sustained support for your cause.

From identifying potential supporters to stewarding existing ones, we’ll walk you through the essential steps to construct a pipeline supporting your organization’s mission.

We explore strategies, tactics, and best practices for every stage of the donor pipeline. Whether you’re a seasoned fundraising professional or a newcomer to philanthropy, there’s something here for you. 

What is a donor pipeline?

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A donor pipeline is a strategic framework or process used by nonprofit organizations to identify, cultivate, and steward potential donors with the aim of converting them into loyal and engaged supporters. This ongoing and continuous process seeks to keep adding such donors to the organization. Hence – ‘pipeline’. 

In a survey of its customers, Gravytv found that 70% of respondents said the donor pipeline was among the organization’s top three priorities. 

Think of it as a series of interconnected stages or a ‘donor journey’ through which individuals progress as they move from being ‘prospective donors’ to ‘active contributors’. 

These stages typically include:

  • Identifying individuals or entities as prospective major donors
  • Building relationships and engaging them with the organization’s programs
  • Making specific requests for support – a donation of any kind
  • Keeping the donor engaged after that initial donation – providing updates, expressing gratitude, keeping in touch, etc. 

The donor pipeline concept emphasizes moving individuals through these stages to maximize their long-term support. By effectively managing the donor pipeline, nonprofits can sustainably grow their support base and achieve their fundraising goals.

How to build a major donor pipeline?

Donor Pipeline

Building a donor pipeline requires consistent effort to identify, cultivate, and steward individuals with the capacity and interest to make significant financial contributions to your organization. Here are some steps to guide you through the process:

  • Research and identify donor pipeline prospects
  • Qualify these leads
  • Nurture these relationships
  • Make the ask
  • Stewardship

Research and identify donor pipeline prospects 

Start by researching individuals with a history of philanthropy, particularly those who have supported similar causes or have connections to your organization’s mission. You must create donor personas to ensure you are targeting the right audience. 

Look for wealth indicators, such as real estate ownership, business affiliations, or philanthropic involvement. Later in the article, we will discuss how to identify such donors in detail. 

Qualify these leads

While you may have made a ‘longlist’ when identifying potential donors, at this stage, you make a ‘shortlist’ of the donors most likely to donate to your cause. 

This is especially true for individual donors. Organizations, trusts, and funds will have their donating criteria upfront. But you will have to heavily research individuals – who may donate on a case-to-case basis. 

Nurture these relationships

Develop personalized cultivation strategies for each prospect based on their interests, values, and philanthropic priorities. This could include inviting them to events, arranging one-on-one meetings with organizational leaders, or involving them in volunteer opportunities. 

Focus on building genuine relationships and demonstrating the impact of their potential support. Remember, these people are used to donations and long-term commitments. Some slick words won’t attract them, and you need to work to convince them of your cause. 

The first step is to email prospects before slowly advancing to regular phone calls, during which you speak meaningfully about your efforts.

Make the ask

When the timing is right, and the prospect has demonstrated a strong interest in your organization, make a clear and compelling ask for a major gift

Tailor your request to align with their interests and capacity, and be prepared to provide detailed information about how their contribution will make a difference.

This will have to be an entire presentation, coupled with possible visits to the place where the impact is being felt and interviews with their aid recipients. 


After securing a major gift, express gratitude and provide ongoing communication to nurture the donor relationship. 

Crafting the perfect donor stewardship plan might involve providing regular updates on the impact of their gift, inviting them to exclusive events or opportunities, and recognizing their generosity publicly or privately.

Ideas to make this happen include hosting donor appreciation events, sending personalized thank-you notes, or creating personalized impact reports to demonstrate the outcomes of their support.

The key here is to continuously assess and manage your major donor pipeline to ensure a steady flow of prospects moving through the cultivation process. 

Review your prospect pool regularly, track interactions and progress with each prospect, and adjust your strategies to optimize donor engagement and retention.

Read More: Five strategies for engaging your major donors 

Resources to build a strong donor pipeline

You can effectively attract, cultivate, and retain donors by leveraging these resources and adopting a proactive approach to donor pipeline development. You will need everything from effective software to metrics to networking. 

Here’s a list of questions you need to consider: 

  • Which is the right software & database for you?
  • What is donor stewardship?
  • How do you identify major donors in your donor database?
  • What is the donor pyramid & levels of engagement?
  • Donor database best practices

Buying the right software & database

Invest in fundraising software or customer relationship management (CRM) systems specifically designed for nonprofits. These tools can help you track donor interactions, manage relationships, segment your donor database, and streamline communication efforts.

You also need the metrics software provides to measure key performance indicators such as donor retention rates, gift conversion rates, and average gift size.

Also, utilize prospect research tools and databases to identify potential donors who are willing and able to support your organization. 

Some examples of such research tools include WealthEngine, DonorSearch, or iWave – all of which provide valuable insights into individuals’ wealth, philanthropic history, and giving patterns.

Be open-minded about the power of software. For example, you can develop scoring algorithms or segmentation models based on factors such as giving history, wealth indicators, engagement level, and demographic characteristics to prioritize prospects for major gift cultivation. This will help you sort your existing donors or future prospects. 

What is donor stewardship?

Donor stewardship is the process of building and maintaining strong relationships with donors to ensure their continued engagement, satisfaction, and support for your organization’s mission. It goes beyond simply thanking donors for their contributions; it involves ongoing communication, recognition, and personalized engagement efforts. 

For example, this includes involving donors in the organization’s activities and decision-making processes and offering opportunities for participation and input to foster a sense of ownership and belonging.

A breakdown of donor stewardship includes:

Acknowledgment: Expressing appreciation for donors‘ generosity through personalized thank-you messages, letters, calls, or acknowledgments in publications and communications. Timely expressions of gratitude can strengthen the donor’s connection to your organization and make them feel valued and appreciated.

The Sustainable Giving Report found that over 80% of donors would likely make a second gift after receiving a personalized acknowledgment.

Impact Reporting: Keeping the donors informed about the impact of their contributions by providing regular impact reports on how their support is making a difference. This includes success stories, testimonials, and quantifiable outcomes to demonstrate the tangible results of their investment in your organization’s mission.

Transparency: Fostering trust and confidence by being transparent about the organization’s finances, operations, and programmatic activities. This includes providing donors with access to exact dollar information about how their donations are being utilized – to prove that funds are allocated responsibly and in accordance with donor intent.

Segmentation: Segmenting the donor base and customizing outreach strategies based on factors like giving history, engagement level, and areas of interest to ensure donors feel understood.

Relationship Building: Cultivating ongoing relationships with donors beyond the initial gift transaction. This means investing time and effort in nurturing connections and building trust over time. Donors must be engaged in meaningful dialogue, collecting their feedback and concerns and demonstrating a genuine interest in their philanthropic journey and impact objectives.

How do you identify major donors in your donor database?

Identifying major donors within your donor pipeline involves analyzing various factors to assess donors’ capacity and inclination to contribute significantly. Here are some strategies to help you identify major donors:

Giving history: Review donors’ past giving patterns and contribution amounts to identify individuals who have made larger-than-average gifts or who have consistently supported organizations like yours at significant levels. 

Look for donors who have made major gifts in the past or who have demonstrated a pattern of increasing their giving over time.

Donor demographics: When assessing donors’ capacity to give, consider demographic factors such as age, occupation, education level, and geographic location. While not definitive indicators of wealth, certain demographic characteristics, such as older donors or individuals with professional or executive-level careers, may suggest a higher likelihood of major giving.

Engagement level: Evaluate donors’ level of engagement with your organization beyond financial contributions. Look for donors who attend events, volunteer their time, serve on committees or advisory boards, or otherwise demonstrate a strong interest in your mission and programs. These highly engaged donors may be more likely to consider making major gifts.

Donor surveys: Use donor surveys or conduct personal interviews to gather information about donors’ philanthropic motivations, interests, and capacity to give. Ask open-ended questions about their giving priorities, involvement with other organizations, and willingness to support your organization at a higher level.

What is the donor pyramid & levels of engagement?


The donor pyramid visually represents the various levels of donor engagement and giving within a nonprofit organization. It illustrates the hierarchical structure of donors based on their capacity and inclination to give, with the widest part representing the largest number of donors at lower giving levels and the narrowest part representing the smallest number of donors at higher giving levels.

These levels may vary depending on the organization’s fundraising goals, donor demographics, and the nature of its programs. Each level of the donor pyramid represents a different stage of donor engagement and giving, with opportunities for cultivation, stewardship, and solicitation at each level. 

Remember: You must dedicate resources to each level of this pyramid and aim to constantly increase the number of donors/prospects at each level. 

For example, one resource would constantly find and add prospects to their level, while another would aim to convert one-time donors into recurring ones constantly. 

Here are the levels typically found in a donor pyramid:

Minor prospects: Prospects may include individuals who have shown interest in the organization’s mission or programs but have not yet been cultivated as donors. 

The goal is to increase this database constantly. 

First-time minor donors: These are the ‘foot-in-the-door’ donors – those who have made one (relatively small) donation to some specific program or drive by the organization. 

The goal is to keep in regular touch with them and encourage them to make another donation or become regular donors. 

Regular donors: These donors (individuals and organizations) give regularly but perhaps have reached their ceiling of donations. Only a few can be moved into ‘major donors’. 

The goal is to keep in regular contact with them and make them feel valued by giving them general updates about the organization’s work. The main goal is to ensure the numbers never dip and as many as possible are convinced to become major donors.    

Major donor prospects: These are high-capacity prospects who have the potential to become major donors through targeted cultivation and solicitation efforts. They will need an in-depth donor cultivation plan

The goal is the same as minor prospects (increase the number), but the approach and search pool are vastly different. Major donor prospects may be identified through wealth screening, prospect research, or referrals from existing donors.

Major donors: Once prospects, these donors now make larger-than-average contributions to the organization, typically through one-time gifts or multi-year commitments. About 80% of your funds will come from these top 20-10% of your total donors. 

Often, you can bag these donors through a gala dinner or a fundraiser event. Such donors require significant personalized attention and tailor-made strategic outreach from your team before they commit. 

Like regular donors, the goal is to keep them well-informed about exactly how their money helped bring change and reach out regularly to convince them to become regular major donors. Unlike regular donors, there is a high number of major donors who can be converted into regular major donors with the right outreach. 

Regular major donors: These donors go beyond funding a single program or relief effort and instead fund your entire organization. 

For example, major donors pay to send a rescue team to a remote location after an earthquake. Regular major donors will fund the year-long training and requirements of multiple teams that can be sent out for any disaster at any time. 

While the goal is to ensure all your regular major donors stay, a lot of work and resources are required to make that happen. These donors will need a huge amount of cultivation and attention since they expect updates about every aspect of your organization, invitations and personal handling at all events, and personal phone calls from the leadership to explain actions taken. 

A primary goal is identifying and cultivating donors who can be elevated to leadership positions. These donors will be a small minority of the regular major donors. 

Leadership/Top-level: These donors make exceptionally large or transformative gifts to the organization, often serving as catalysts for significant growth or impact. Such donors may include individuals, families, foundations, or corporations that provide substantial support for capital campaigns, endowment funds, or special initiatives.

They can decide the direction and scope of the organization and dictate how and where funds are spent. 

Planned Giving Donors: These donors have made provisions in their estate plans or financial arrangements to leave a legacy gift to the organization upon their passing. Planned giving donors may include individuals who have included the organization in their wills, trusts, retirement accounts, or life insurance policies. These are rare but can make an enormous difference when they happen – since they give you assets forever. 

Donor database best practices

Donor data provides valuable insights into your supporters’ motivations and preferences. By analyzing their giving history and engagement patterns, you can better understand what drives their philanthropy, allowing you to tailor your outreach efforts and cultivate deeper connections.

Donor data collection lets you identify key characteristics and demographics of your existing supporters, which can help you identify similar potential prospects. 

To ensure that the database you’ve built helps improve the efficiency of your outreach and fundraising efforts, you need to maintain it well. The following donor database best practices help you with that. 

  • Choosing the right software: You need a CRM solution to manage your database efficiently. Factors to consider include whether the CRM can handle event management and outreach, whether it can integrate with third-party software like a mass-texting tool, and whether the costs are within your budget. 

For more insights on choosing the right CRM and options: Best CRMs for nonprofits based on features.

  • Data entry guidelines: The database needs to be consistent. You should avoid common mistakes like how to abbreviate street names, date formats, Mr/Mrs, format for inputting phone numbers, etc. Make the documentation available so people can refer to it whenever needed, and have regular training sessions. 
  • Regular data backups: Backing up your donor database is important for obvious reasons; you don’t want to lose your data in case of a software crash or any other reason. Testing your data is equally important. You want to ensure that the backup data is easily recoverable and usable. Generally, you should also store one backup of the database offsite. 

Data security and backups are often overlooked. A survey by Apricorn Security showed that 33% of organizations they worked with experienced data loss due to employee mistakes or other factors. Only 25% of those surveyed used the industry’s best standards for their backups. 

  • Segment your donors: It is good practice to tag different types of donors and group them separately. This grouping makes your donor database more systematic and your outreach efforts more efficient since you can tailor your reach to each kind of donor. 
  • Data clean-ups: This means removing no longer valid emails or numbers, updating the database with new data as times change (like adding Twitter accounts), and removing duplicates. You can either carry out database clean-ups alone or hire a third-party auditor. 

NCOA updates: Around 40 million Americans move house every year, which means you’re likely to have many bad mailing addresses yearly. You can avoid this by running an annual NCOA (National Change of Address) update.  

The NCOA is a secure database of approximately 160 million change-of-addresses going back 48 months. The database enables organizations to update mailing lists with new addresses from individuals, families, and businesses that have moved. 

A more complete list of donor best practices is available here. 

Donor pipeline engagement strategies

Donor engagement stands as the cornerstone of successful fundraising efforts for nonprofits. It’s not just about securing donations; it’s about fostering meaningful connections that inspire continued support and advocacy for your cause. 

Donors often want to contribute but may not know how. By incorporating clear and compelling CTAs in your communications, you guide them on the next steps they can take to support your organization. 

CTAs can include subscribing to newsletters, following social media accounts, volunteering, participating in events, or engaging in peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns. 

Once you ask, remember to send reminders. Send personalized SMS campaigns to current and lapsed donors, providing updates, reminders, and opportunities for engagement

Reach out via newsletters especially. Segment your donor list and personalize your newsletter content to match their preferences and interests. 

As Campaign Monitor discovered – “Emails with personalized subject lines are 26% more likely to be opened. Emails sent from segmented lists see a 760% increase in email revenue from segmented campaigns.”

Include campaign updates, success stories, upcoming events, and other relevant information to keep donors engaged and connected to your cause.

Calls make the biggest difference at a distance. A calling campaign offers a unique opportunity to express gratitude and deepen relationships with major donors. Take the time to thank donors for their contributions, inquire about their motivations, and listen to their feedback. 

In the real world, nothing beats face-to-face interactions for donor relations. Host fundraising events, donor appreciation gatherings, or exclusive networking opportunities to engage donors and express appreciation for their support. 

Events provide a platform for storytelling, relationship-building, and community engagement, fostering a sense of belonging and commitment among donors.

Remember – everything you do is for commitment. So, as long as you are committed to finding them, you will get the donor pipeline you need to keep you going. 

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