Tell the Story of Your Fundraising Data with Donor Upgrades

What’s the problem with fundraising data? It’s boring! Let’s be honest. For most people, once you start trotting out numbers, averages, and rates of increase, most people’s eyes glaze over. 

Yes, your nonprofit’s finances are very important. And yes, we’re exaggerating a bit. But the fact remains, actually motivating people to sustain their passion for your organization’s missing is pretty hard to do when it comes time to look at the data. 

It’s time to change that. 

So, we’re starting an occasional blog series about how to tell stories about your data. Let’s make your data exciting and interesting. Let’s give it some visual flare. Let’s show what’s happening in a way that makes us feel like we’re going somewhere. Let’s use it to build momentum. 

To begin this industry-shattering effort, let’s look at the fundraising KPI known as donor upgrades.

What Are Donor Upgrades?

A donor upgrade happens whenever a donor gives more money than last year – enough to move up to a higher giving level. 

Donor upgrades indicate that donors are deepening their bond and alliance with your mission and your organization. It means they want to see great things happen through your work. That they believe in what you’re doing. And, they trust you to get it done on their behalf.

Thus, the donor upgrade key performance indicator (KPI) makes for great data storytelling.

How Donor Upgrades Get Calculated

To calculate donor upgrades, you have to first break down your donor data into five giving levels, which refer to the total amount given during one calendar year by each donor. The Fundraising Report Card can do this in seconds. It would take considerably longer (hours, days) to do it yourself. 

The five giving levels we use are as follows but you can adjust them to your liking in the app by going to ‘My Account’:

  • Under $100
  • $100 to $250
  • $250 to $1000
  • $1000 to $5000
  • Above $5000

If a donor gives $150 one year, but then gives $300 the next year, that donor has upgraded to the next giving level.

So to calculate the donor upgrade KPI, you begin with the total amount donated last year for each donor. Then, do the same thing for this year, and see which donors gave at a higher level this year compared to last year.

The Fundraising Report Card calculates this using donor ID numbers. It looks at the donation dates and adds up all the donations for each donor for that year. Then, it does the same thing for the next year. Any donors who moved up get counted as donor upgrades.

Understanding Donor Upgrade Data

Let’s be clear about a few things here. 

Recurring Donors Aren’t in the Lowest Level

First, most of your recurring donors will probably be in the second giving level or higher. Even giving just $10 per month will put you above the lowest level. 

That means the majority of donors in the lowest giving level probably only gave once that year.

Most Low-Level Donors Are Also One-Time Donors

This is borne out by the combined set of data from the Fundraising Report Card, on display on our Benchmarks page. There, you can see the average donation amount for donors who give less than $100 is about $27, and the lifetime value of these donors is under $50. 

So if their lifetime value isn’t even double the average one-time gift, most of these are one-time donors. The donor retention rate at this level is about 18%, further evidence that these are one-time donors.

Upgrading Donors Happens in Two Primary Ways

Donors move up giving levels, in general, either by starting to give monthly or more than once, or by increasing the sizes of their gifts. 

Once you see your upgrade data, you’ll have a good sense of how many donors are increasing their giving. Then, you’ll be ready to start telling the story of your donor upgrade data to anyone who needs to hear it.

Ways to Turn Donor Upgrade Data into Stories

Once the numbers have been calculated, the first thing you want to do is generate graphs. Data visualization is powerful and makes it easier for anyone to get a clear picture more quickly of what’s going on. Plus, visuals are more fun to look at, especially if you add some color flare.

You can create graphs showing year-to-year donor upgrades at Each giving level for the last few years. What do you see?

Use Data Visualization to Tell Stories

You might see no upgrades in some giving levels, and many upgrades in others. This will tell you which segments of your donors are actively engaged, and which ones may be neglected. That’s a story. 

You might see several donors upgrading from the $100 to $250 level to the $250 to $1000 level. That’s great! That means a healthy number of lower dollar donors like what they’re seeing from you, feel connected, heard, inspired, and motivated. 

What you’re doing for these donors is working. So, this is a good story with a happy ending.

But then, you might notice zero donor upgrades in the above $5000 giving level. That means you’re not doing a good job of finding new major donors. And if you lose any of the ones you have, that could spell big trouble for your organization. So that story is a disaster flick, but we don’t yet know the ending. Will you save the day by finding new major donors? Tune in next board meeting…

Break it down further

You can find other stories within your data by looking at donor upgrades in other ways.

For example, you could look at the number of upgrades from each level to the next, spread out over several years. You might see trends. Or, you might see up and down all over the place, with a lot of upgrades one year in this category, none the next, and a bunch in a different one. That’s a story with no coherent plot that needs a new director! Someone needs to develop a plan to engage donors at each giving level more effectively.

You could also study total upgrades. So, ignore each giving level for a moment, and tally up the total number of donors who moved up to any new level. Then, look at that over the years. Again, you might see consistent and steady donor upgrades, increases, declines, or no patterns at all. 

Do you see how you can use this approach to bring some life to your fundraising data?

Just with this one metric – donor upgrades – you can use data visualization of the five giving levels to tell a good story about what’s happening with your donor advancement efforts. 

You’ll see which areas have the greatest growth and which consistently have the least. Then, you’ll be able to work up a plan to address the areas where you’re lagging. 

Find Individual Donors

Last, you could even go back into your CRM and find the actual donors behind a few of the donor IDs who are upgrading. Find 1-3 donors who upgraded and go find one with a great donation story. 

For example, let’s say you discover a donor named Jacinda.

Jacinda used to be an occasional donor. For years, she would give now and then. Some years, under $100. Other years, from $100 to $250. And sometimes nothing. Then, she became a monthly donor, giving $20 per month. That put her squarely in the second giving level at $240 per year. 

But you notice she gave more than that almost from the start. Even with her monthly giving, she still responded to the occasional fundraising campaign, and her annual giving now consistently sits in the $250 to $1000 range. When you look closely, it’s trending upward. And last year, she attended your annual event, and her annual giving bumped up to the $1000 to $5000 level.

Develop a Donor Outreach Plan

Clearly, Jacinda is a passionate donor, and either her finances, life situation, passion for your organization, or all three, are increasing and deepening. She really cares about your mission.

Jacinda might be someone to start reaching out to as a major gifts prospect. It’s hard to say for sure until you talk to her, and MarketSmart – the company behind the Fundraising Report Card – has an entire software platform designed specifically to reach out to people like Jacinda, helping you search for and identify major gift prospects hiding among your mass donors.

Fundraising Data Storytelling – Start Here

Hopefully you can see the potential for this. 

You can use data visualization and the Fundraising Report Card’s near endless array of data categories and KPIs to unpack what’s really happening with your donors at different levels. 

Donor upgrades is just one of numerous fundraising metrics and KPIs you can analyze using the Fundraising Report Card.

See what else the Report Card can do

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