3 keys to building a successful sustainer program

At Masterworks, we’re big fans of sustainer programs.

Sustainers can stabilize your ministry’s cash flow and provide a hedge against external events, like an economic downturn.

But we acknowledge that younger donors and even Baby Boomers are less likely to make commitments than their parents. Given the right incentives, however, they’ll respond. You just have to focus on meeting their needs and presenting a compelling case to give regularly.

In reviewing one organization’s results recently, I noted that 2,400 donors gave about $100,000 annually, simply by agreeing to have their credit card charged monthly. We figured out that converting just 1% more of the current donor file would result in an additional $300,000 of annual income. But that 1% would need more incentive than those wonderful people who agreed to give monthly without any explanation of the benefits to the ministry or to them!

I believe we can accomplish that by following these 3 keys to a successful sustainer program:

  1. Test carefully and continuously to learn all you can
    Donor audiences, ministries and fundraising environments differ — sometimes dramatically. Use disciplined testing to confirm:

    • Who are your most likely sustainer prospects? You don’t want to inadvertently downgrade a donor’s giving.
    • When is the best time to acquire sustainers?
    • What strategies, offers, channels, creative approaches (copy, design, format) work best with your donors?
    • What are your supporters looking for in an expanded relationship that takes them from giving a single gift to giving monthly
  2. Highlight real, attractive benefits of your program
    Many organizations think they have a viable sustainer program simply because they can get donors to check off “make this gift monthly” on a reply card or online donation form. That’s certainly helpful. But the retention of these donors needs to be helped along with the promise and delivery of real benefits, including:

    • Hearing regularly how their faithful support is impacting lives
    • Having the ministry’s leaders share insider information with them
    • Receiving sincere, carefully timed affirmations of their loyal partnership in a way that makes them feel special

    We’ve found that one particularly effective way of encouraging sustainer engagement is through the report back — a clear explanation of positive ministry outcomes that the sustainer has personally supported. These communications must be highly focused on donors, and designed to leave them feeling appreciated, informed, refreshed and reengaged.

    But there are other potential benefits. In tests last year, we found that the benefit of “less mail” is one factor that drives more sustainer sign-ups. However, give this strategy careful consideration before you implement. Many ministries may not be able to deliver long-term on the promise of less mail.

    The test results were likely less about receiving less mail and more about meeting the donors’ perceived needs — giving them more control over what lands in their mail box. And you have to ask, Is it really a good idea to build a sustainer program around less donor communication rather than more?

  3. Track and measure performance
    It’s vital that you keep tabs on where your best sustainers come from, how well they perform on a quarterly and annual basis, and what motivates them to continue in their commitment and give above and beyond that commitment. These measurements can be tricky, and can’t be uncovered through basic campaign reports showing the usual details about response, average gift and income. Make sure you are tracking monthly fulfillment and comparing results for each sustainer acquisition source to maximize the growth of your sustainer program, prevent attrition and avoid missed donations.


To wrap up, if your organization doesn’t have a monthly sustainer program — or if it’s not all it could be — there’s no better time to launch, fine-tune or expand. For most ministries, this is a huge opportunity — an untapped goldmine of donor engagement and growing long-term value that you just can’t afford to ignore.

If you’d like to speak to me about developing or growing your organization’s sustainer program, you can reach me at AHunter@masterworks.agency.