Fundraising Tips

8 Tips to Build a Sustainer Program–For a Steady Stream of Gift Revenue

Donors who make recurring gifts as part of a sustainer program give 42% MORE annually compared to one-time donors.

That means a sustainer program will bring in more money. AND, your donors’ lifetime value increases when you convert them from one-time givers to recurring donors.


A sustainer is a donor who chooses to give to your cause using an automated recurring payment through their bank account or credit card (most of the time monthly). 


For Your Donors

  • Convenience.  Thanks to services like Netflix, people are now used to using their bank account or credit card online and they expect automatic withdrawals.
  • Ability to give more. Donors see that they can fit giving into their monthly budgets and allow them to see that being more generous is possible. 

For Your Nonprofit

  • A predictable stream of support.  Sustainers commit to regular payments for a known period of time.
  • More loyal donors.  Over 80% of sustainer donors keep giving after one year and 95% after five years.1
  • More donorsA smart sustainer program will help you reach new segments (like Millennials) and convert donors who may not give otherwise–because if they feel like they can’t give enough to make a difference, they may not give at all.
  • More engaged donors. Recurring donors are usually your most engaged supporters. They volunteer, advocate and fundraise on your behalf.
  • Higher lifetime value. According to fundraising expert Dr. Adrian Sargeant, a 10% improvement in your donor retention rate can = 200% in donor lifetime value.
  • Greater efficiency.  You can exclude your sustainers from your regular appeals, since they’re already giving.  Of course, your sustainer program should stay in touch with those donors to keep them engaged (see below!)

    1Why Recurring Giving Matters, Network for Good

Eight Tips for Building a Successful Sustainer Program

1. Control campaign costs by focusing on prospects with sustainer potential.

Your best sustainer prospects are already giving you small gifts (less than $100) consistently (e.g., 3 gifts a year).  Also, if they’re giving those small gifts by credit card.  


A quick and general way to see potential sustainers is to do an RFM (Recency, Frequency, Money) analysis of your donor base, paying close attention to frequent (multiple gifts) donors. 

DonorSearch includes RFM ranking in every screening fileso you can quickly focus on the donors in your list who has sustainer giving potential.

2. Have a plan for your sustainer data.

Set policies and procedures for tracking and managing your sustainer giving.  Consider the what and how of the following when coming up:

  • Attribute codes (in your CRM) identifying sustainers
  • Rules for activating/deactivating a sustainer
  • Acceptable forms of payment (i.e., credit card, EFT/DAF, etc.)
  • Process for expiring credit cards
  • Payment schedules – Just monthly?  Or quarterly?
  • How will youthank and steward donors who decide to be sustainers?

DonorSearch now delivers custom Sustainer Scores

Want to learn more about DonorSearch Sustainer Scores? Click Get a Demo below.


3. Select the communication channels for your sustainer campaigns.

An integrated multichannel approach yields the best results.


Email, phone, face-to-face, and DRTV are often much more effective channels for acquiring sustaining donors.

4. Make a compelling offer in your solicitations.

Show your donors that their commitments will make a continuous and measurable impact on your mission. Your offer should focus on why sustaining support is so important versus an urgent need.

5. Be smart about your ask strategy.

Consider the following best practices:

  • Focus on getting your donors to commit to increasing their gift frequency. 
  • Align your ask amounts to the donor’s capacity to give.
  • Monitor the response rates of your sustainers (how many of the donors you asked converted to a sustainer gift).  The long-term value of a sustainer will far outweigh any small gains in single annual gifts.


DonorSearch delivers gift capacity ratings together with affinity ratings with each donor base screening.

6. Have a specific cultivation strategy for sustained.

Remember, since you won’t be sending your sustainers repeated asks/appeals, you need to communicate the impact of their support.

Consider these options:

  • Send a series of ‘donor welcome’ messages.  Start with a thank you note and then messages that express gratitude and talk about what you’re doing.

  • Send an “anniversary of your gift” card/note, along with a compelling reason why they should continue with their recurring gift.  It’s an ideal time to ask your sustainer donor to increase their gift amount.

  • Plan a time when you’ll ask your sustainer to increase the frequency or amount of their gift–Do this AFTER you’ve been regularly in touch with other messaging.

7. Prioritize donor stewardship.

Plan to stay in touch, always showing gratitude and impact. You don’t want your donors to think they only see you when you have your hand out.

Consider these options:

  • Name your sustainer program.  It’ll be a special “society” that such loyal supporters get to belong to. When you create a sustainer “society”, be prepared to:
    • Include the sustainer giving society’s branding on all communications with the group.
    • Offer “exclusive” benefits – this could simply be an “honor roll of sustainer donors” on your website, a car decal, or other small branded swag.

  • Have a gratitude strategy.  Donors are personally nourished by the act of giving.  Make sure your stewardship provides the fuel they desire by thanking them regularly.  At a minimum, you should thank sustainer donors quarterly with notes or telephone calls.

8. Be patient.

 A sustainer program is a long-term–but worth it–strategy.  It will give your cause a strong, committed donor base and a predictable revenue stream.

Your sustainer donors will have a transformational effect on your fundraising.  They’re just waiting for you to ask.

Additional Resources

When You’re Inspired, Your Donors Give More

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3 Major Healthcare Fundraising Trends You Need to Know 

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Why an RFM Score Matters for Successful Donor Prospecting

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