Even though most donors will never bring up the topic of recognition, you should assume they want it.
Take a moment to think about yourself. Think of times you have been a donor, a board member, a volunteer, or a staff member. Think of the times you have been recognized in any of these roles. What did the organization say or do to show you that they appreciate you? Did it work? Did it get the job done? How did it feel to you? Think of the very best example of a time you felt fully appreciated and recognized as a donor. What made it feel so right?
In fact, you may be surprised and embarrassed by how petty your responses seem. This is when the little things matter. Although each group may have genuinely tried their very best to recognize and appreciate you, they may have missed the mark.
In other words, it can be a little tricky.
If you do not feel you know your donors' recognition preferences, I recommend you have a few alternatives to suggest. Although they may decline everything you offer, they will still be flattered that you gave them the options—a listing in your annual report, a special plaque, or dedication of a new wing or garden.
Of course, for the mission-based donor, results are the best recognition. They want to know that their money was put to the best use in your programs and services. They want to hear the results of what their money allowed you to do—specific facts and stories of how they changed the lives of real people.
Do not underestimate the power of facts and statistics on donors. Share as much detail as you can. One young man I know sent me an accounting of exactly how each dollar I had sent him was used to fund programs in Vietnam. Granted, the program was small and he was in charge of spending all the money, so he had ready access to the facts. Nonetheless, it impressed me to see how much of the money went to which orphanages, how much to an Agent Orange program, and how much to the schools.
Not only did he provide the facts, but he took it a step further by including the emotional impact of those facts. He sent a personal letter describing his trip to Vietnam to visit each of the programs and present them with their funds. He enclosed a signed photo of three little girls in an orphanage.
That was all the recognition I needed. I will be a donor for life to this young man's organization. In a simple, low-budget way, he did a superb job of recognizing me by connecting me to the factual and emotional impact my gift had made.
He could have sent me all kinds of baubles and plaques, and although they might have looked nice when hung on my wall, I would have wondered why he spent money on all the trinkets rather than on the programs he was so dedicated to supporting.
Whether yours is a complex research program, a public policy group, or a local domestic violence shelter, there is an equally compelling way to recognize your donors with your version of the facts about what their money allowed you to do and the firsthand stories about the lives it changed. By honoring your donors in this way, you will make real and lasting friends. This deeper recognition will be what they are ultimately yearning for, and what will cause them to remain loyal to your organization for a lifetime.
Terry Axelrod is the founder and CEO of Raising More Money, a Seattle-based organization that has trained and coached more than 2,000 nonprofits to build sustainable funding from individual donors. For more information, go to www.raisingmoremoney.com.