Tales from the Individual Donor Benchmark Project

To build a successful fundraising program, nonprofits need to set goals, track outcomes, and learn from past performance. Collecting and analyzing this data in a vacuum only gives part of the picture—nonprofits also need to be able to compare themselves to others, as well as to the larger sector.

That’s why we created the Individual Donor Benchmark Project, a deep dive into the data of small but mighty organizations. There is no other benchmarking resource for smaller organizations with individual donor fundraising programs. And as we looked carefully at the individual donor data of nonprofits with budgets under $2 million, we found some informative and surprising results.

The Individual Donor Benchmark Report is intended to be a resource for nonprofits to see how you stack up. Where is your fundraising doing well? What parts of your fundraising program might need a little more attention? What experiments could you try?

This project is now in its third year of collecting national data, and we’ve been excited to see some numbers stay steady. Between 2013 and 2014, we tripled the number of survey participants, but several key statistics stayed the same. We suspect these data points are the “universal truths” of individual donor fundraising.

Our universal truths include:

  • The average small and mighty nonprofit raises 36 percent of their overall income from individual donors. This number may change based on your business model and mix of supporters, but the average nonprofit gets just over one third of their income from individuals.
  • Donors are giving about $435 on average. We looked at all individual donor gifts to the organization (big and small, online and offline, recurring and one-time) and found that gifts stayed around the $400 mark. If your average gift is less than $400, you likely have an opportunity to build more major donor support. If your average gift is significantly more than $400, you may need to build more donors at the bottom of your pyramid.
  • Small and mighty nonprofits are raising 17% of their individual donor income online. We expect to see that number creep up, but it’s been steady for the past two years.
  • Organizations raise about half of their income from donors giving $1,000 or more.
  • On average, about four out of 10 board members are active in individual donor fundraising—making introductions, attending donor meetings, and other activities. Not every board member can (or should) be actively involved in individual donor fundraising. Focusing on your most enthusiastic board members will produce the best return on investment when thinking about individual donor cultivation and solicitation.

This year’s project also identified a number of other useful data points for small and mighty nonprofits including:

  • The average online donation is $210. This is about half of the overall average gift ($435), so organizations transitioning to more online campaigns will need to recruit even more donors to raise the same amount of money.
  • On average, organizations that have a recurring donor program with automatic monthly or quarterly gifts raise about $23,000 from 50 donors. The average recurring donor gives $520 over the course of the year, which makes this type of donor solicitation more lucrative for organizations than other methods.
  • Finding the perfect donor database continues to be a challenge for small and mighty nonprofits. The highest rated database options are Little Green Light, DonorPerfect, Salesforce, and NationBuilder. (Note: Little Green Light is a project sponsor, but rankings are dependent on user-reported data.)
  • The average organization meets with 17 donors face-to-face throughout the year—approximately 9 percent of their donor base. There’s a great opportunity to meet with donors and potential donors to make the case for support of your organization.

While the data itself are useful, there is also a big question hanging over the entire project: what makes an individual donor fundraising program successful?

We put that question to the project’s resident data expert. Was there anything in the data that could predict success? We hypothesized that maybe board involvement or tenure of the fundraising would lead to more success.

After examining all of the possible data interactions, the results came back: having a fundraising plan is the single best predictor of fundraising success.

If you have a plan, other investments in your fundraising program—more staff, higher paid staff, and more donor meetings—lead to bigger impact. If you don’t have a fundraising plan, they don’t matter.

Let’s take a closer look:

  • If you have a fundraising plan, your investment in staff will pay off in more individual donor dollars. In fact, for every $1 of increased salary, you can expect to raise an additional $4.25. It’s unlikely that you would pay a development staffer $1 more a year, but if you invested in a development staffer worth $10,000 more, you could expect to raise $42,500 more per year.
  • If you have a fundraising plan, devoting more staff time to individual donors will lead to more donations. For every one full-time person working on individual donor fundraising, you can expect to raise $280,000. This holds true at any level: if you have someone working 25% of their time on individual donor fundraising, you can expect them to raise $70,000.
  • If you have a fundraising plan, meetings with donors will result in increased donations. For every donor meeting you hold, your overall individual donor revenue goes up by $5,000. That’s not to say that every donor you meet will give you $5,000 (wouldn’t that be great?), but your total revenue will go up by $5,000.

The important thing is that these statistics are only true if you have a fundraising plan. If you don’t, the data shows no relationship between investing more in individual donor fundraising and seeing greater results.

What’s next?

Now that you’ve got the data, it’s time to strengthen your fundraising program!

Use this data to identify where your organization might focus fundraising energy and increase outcomes. Look for places that your organization’s results are below the average and get empowered to enhance your efforts. You may find, for example, that your organization has a small recurring donor program that could blossom with a little more attention.

Last, but certainly not least, if you don’t have a fundraising plan, create one today. Even a simple outline detailing your individual donor strategies and goals over the next few months will help you achieve better results.

Heather Yandow
Heather Yandow brings more than a decade of experience as an outreach coordinator, coalition leader, project manager, and fundraiser to Third Space Studio and our clients. Heather’s nonprofit experience includes being a staff member, volunteer, and Board member. Her most recent staff position was as the director of development and communications for the NC Conservation Network. Heather has served on the Board of Directors of the beehive collective (a giving circle in Raleigh), Democracy NC, and ncyt: NC’s Network of Young Nonprofit Professionals. Heather earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Mathematics from UNC, and holds a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Duke University.