Key Attributes of a Successful Sustainer Donor Processing and Management Program

Sustainer programs as a component of nonprofit fundraising programs continue to grow. Sustainer programs are just what you’d think from the name. They are gift programs that allow donors to give on an automatic, recurring schedule for a set period of time or until they decide to opt out. Donors appreciate them because they can sign up once and know their donation will be made at the level and frequency they prefer. Nonprofits value them because they offer a dependable revenue stream and reduce the marketing and processing costs that go along with asking for single gifts over and over again. Sustainer donors tend to identify most strongly with the nonprofit mission and become lifetime supporters.

“The sustainer segment represents a donor base that truly gets our mission. The lifetime value of these donors is critical to Feeding America’s success and we take every effort to ensure they understand their importance to us.” John Vega 
VP of Philanthropy Operations,
Feeding America

Sustainer programs offer a win/win for both donors and nonprofits, but in order to maximize the benefits, it’s important to establish an effective processing and management system for receiving and managing sustainer gifts.

Important Aspects of an Effective Sustainer Program

  • Multiple-channel sign ups – Whether online, through direct mail response, inbound telephone calls or outbound telemarking efforts, make sure donors have many ways learn about and connect to sustainer programs.
  • Seamless and secure data processing – As with all the data you handle, ensure that donor information is protected and flows smoothly into the management system.
  • Fast identification and resolution of exceptions – Validate inputs through pre-process review, discovering and rerouting any issues that require attention for repair or recovery (declined credit cards, expired bank accounts, etc.).
  • Flexibility – Offer multiple payment options and gift updates (directly or through nonprofit contact centers) including changes in the amount and frequency, as well as temporary suspensions.
  • Availability of program reports and donor history – Provide nonprofits with visibility into a rich trove of information on overall program performance and detailed information on individual sustainer donor activity.
  •  Comprehensive donor acknowledgment and reporting – Communicate regularly with donors, thanking them for signing up as new recurring donors, or confirming changes they have indicated.
  • Timely acknowledgements from multiple channels – Use outbound phone calls to thank donors (this is especially effective) or send acknowledgements by mail or e-mail.

Promoting sustainer programs

Nonprofits can increase the number of donors who choose to participate in sustainer programs. Don’t miss an opportunity to tell your donors about this option. No document should go out without the option to sign up for a sustainer program. Every response device should include the sustainer option. Make sure you clearly explain what is involved with the sustainer program, because sometimes there’s a lack of clarity about them and donors can become confused.

Also, it’s a good idea to educate everyone on your team, including outside vendors, about the benefits of sustainer programs. The more staff understand and appreciate the value and benefit of sustainer programs, the more they will serve as ambassadors and champions, increasing participation.


Sustainer donor programs are becoming more popular. Sustainer donors have a greater lifetime revenue per donor and a higher retention rate than other donors. When analyzing giving patterns, sustainer donors are consistently worth between two to four times as much as single gift donors over five years.*

Organizations are learning that sustainer programs are one of the most effective means for retaining and upgrading lower-dollar donors. Also, because of their deeper commitment to the nonprofit they support, sustainer donors are also more likely than average donors to commit to estate gifts.

While handling the processing and management of sustainer programs is not unique to Merkle Response Management Group, no other company offers the integrated and robust solution that we do. With the proper sustainer gift processing and management solution in place, nonprofits can focus on the communication that will help retain current donors and the marketing that will grow the sustainer file and its value to the organization. Do you have special insights on your sustainer program to share?

*Nicola Bach, Blackbaud Conference for Nonprofits, 2013