Following Fundraising Fellows: Why donor retention should be top of your list

Following Fundraising Fellows: Why donor retention should be top of your list

By Sarah Miguel


You’ve won their support, but where do you go from here? Head of Business Development at People’s History Museum, Manchester, and Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Fellow 2019, Sarah Miguel shares lessons learned through cultivating a meaningful donor experience.

This is a story of failure, commitment, and generosity.

The first step on the donor ladder

Imagine this. You hear that an arts organisation is doing great work in making history relevant. Or more realistically perhaps, in an era of austerity, you hear the museum is in financial trouble. You attend an event, and some contacts in your network have pledged their high-level support. When asked for your help, you see how the mission resonates with your values, and you want to be a part of it. Generously, you make your commitment to give. You receive a thank you card in the post. Months later, you receive an invitation to their new exhibition preview.

One year later

A year passes, and you have been receiving an e-newsletter from time to time, so you understand good things are happening. Your next payment debits from your account, and if you’re lucky, you’ll receive a written thank you. You did spot the organisation mentioned in the newspaper, on Twitter and on the telly a few times.

Distance from the mission

Years pass, more e-newsletters and exhibition preview invitations land, but you are increasingly distant from their work. You no longer have a key point of contact, not that you’re aware of, and whilst it’s great to see the museum doing fantastic work with communities, you’ve not visited for years and you feel distanced from the work, distanced from that mission.

Your hard-earned pennies continue to debit, and before you know it, three years have passed since your initial commitment and you’re asked to renew your support…

Do you decide to continue supporting the museum?

People's History Museum, Manchester ©

The donor journey

Looking back, I imagine what the donor journey might have been like for those incredibly generous sponsors who came on board with the Join the Radicals scheme when People’s History Museum (PHM) successfully launched their first three tiered giving scheme in 2014. In pursuit of the organisation’s survival and growth, aligned philanthropists came forward in support of the mission, helping to keep the radical history of the people’s fight for democracy alive.


The museum has been busy delivering great work, grafting to survive, whilst consistently delivering exciting programmes which enable the museum to thrive. We have been successful at co-curating work with communities, whilst conserving the nationally significant collection and positioning ourselves as the go-to-place for democracy. We have diversified the income model and became an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) in 2018. PHM has doubled visitor numbers in less than a decade and through the Join the Radicals scheme has continued to successfully cultivate donors.

Feeling the stretch

The problem, however, was that three years following many of those initial pledges of generosity at the point of launching Join the Radicals, we had no oversight of the longer-term donor journey. Perhaps this is symbolic of a resource-stretched sector, thinking of immediate continuity rather than long term gains. Despite having many success stories when it comes to donor cultivation, I want to be transparent in admitting that we are still mastering the art (and science) of donor engagement. As fundraisers and cultural leaders, we all feel the stretch at times.

Harnessing support

Fear not, this is not a tragic tale of failure. PHM’s Join the Radicals scheme continues to resonate with our audiences, and has the potential to harness further support, and I am relieved to report that despite patchy donor communications, the majority of generous sponsors did renew their support for People’s History Museum. This is therefore the story of some incredibly generous and forgiving donors, and a supportive Board of Trustees who have been instrumental in nurturing relationships.

Join the Radicals wall @ The Left Bank cafe bar, People's History Museum ©

Key lessons to learn

There are lessons we as an organisation must learn when we reflect on the donor experience. In writing this blog, it is my hope that we can share this important learning to ensure that arts organisations:
  • Mitigate the risk of low donor retention by creating a culture which values the stewardship of long-term relationships with supporters
  • Dedicate adequate energy and resource to forward planning, understanding what the donor journey will look like, and how you can tailor communications. Get the sticky notes and markers out and map it out with your team.
  • Involve the whole of your organisation including the Board of Trustees, your senior management team, your programme team, your communications team and your visitor services team in the cultivation and stewardship for major donors. This is particularly useful when development resources are stretched.

Maintain and nurture

Donor relationships should be maintained and nurtured, not least because donor retention is vital for organisational resilience. We must invest in donor relationships for the doors they may open for us, in preparation for a future ask or because it is an opportunity for them to engage more closely with our work. Engaging with our passionate supporters is also enjoyable and inspiring, and personally one of the most fulfilling aspects of my work.

As cultural leaders and fundraisers, we use our expertise to foster relationships. We are cultural connectors, and we embed a culture of development and entrepreneurialism within our organisations. We identify leads, cultivate relationships, use storytelling to bring our charity’s work to life and we inspire philanthropy. Crucially, beyond the initial gift and ‘thank you’, we invest in stewarding our loyal supporters to help fuel the mission. Let that not be overlooked.

Sarah Miguel is Head of Business Development at People’s History Museum, Manchester

First published by Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy, August 2019

Part of a series following the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Fellowship Programme.

Find out more about Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy training

Find out more about the Fellowship programme.

Resource type: Guide/tools | Published: 2019