Expressing regular and authentic gratitude to the donors, volunteers (including board members), and others who support your organization’s mission is one of the most important things you can do.
Thanking donors meaningfully has multiple benefits. It helps move your development program from one that is transactional—where each “ask” and response is a separate event—to one that is relationship-based, where communication occurs in the context of a shared commitment to advance the mission of the organization. The way donors are thanked can also have a significant impact on the likelihood that they will give again.
During this season of gratitude and giving, it’s worth putting some thought into how your nonprofit is thanking donors (and others) in meaningful, sustained, and distinctive ways.
Be Authentic and Personal
Donors are ordinary people who care about the mission of your nonprofit. They may be wealthy, they may be impoverished, or they may be somewhere in between. What they all have in common is their desire to make a difference by investing in your nonprofit’s work. This simple truth may seem ridiculously obvious, but it can be easy to lose track of in the drive to “scale up” or automate.
Saying “thank you for your generosity—here’s how your gift made a difference,” immediately after a gift is made and then multiple times over the year, helps donors feel noticed, appreciated, and connected to your work.
The more personalized you can make your thanks, the better. If you acknowledge donors by email, try to make the emails sound personal and warm, and include a few sentences about how the contribution makes a difference; don’t send impersonal receipts, even for recurring monthly donations. If you mail acknowledgment letters, hand-write personal notes on them. Better still, ask board members to send hand-written notecards a week or two after the formal gift acknowledgment.
Best of all, staff and/or board members can call certain donors on the phone just to say “thank you.” Depending on how many donors it has, your nonprofit may not be able to manage this kind of personal attention with all donors. However, you can pick some subset of your donors and give them special attention. Perhaps you can send notes to the the top ten percent of donors and call the top one percent, or the most loyal donors (those who give every year), or those who are alumni or families of clients. Making “thank you” phone calls is a great role for board members—and it gives them a way to engage in fundraising without having to ask for money. The pros at LAPA Fundraising recommend kicking off your entire year-end fund drive by holding a “Thank-a-thon” (or a Text-a-thon) a few days before Thanksgiving.
Make a Stewardship Plan
Before starting any new course of donor stewardship, think about both what actions you’ll take and how you’ll keep track of them. Consider segmenting your donor list by gift amount, volunteer status, loyalty, or any other indicator of how important these donors are to your nonprofit. Take stock of the resources you have available to deal with the volume of each segment. Then, for each segment, consider how many “touches” you want to provide over a year and how to make each one special. Which segment of donors will get regular reports via your newsletter? Who will be acknowledged in your Annual Report? What if the donor makes a second gift—should that trigger a handwritten note or a phone call? Is there a category of donor you want to invite to a special event? Flag the segments using your donor tracking system—and whether you want to record each “touch” in the system to help with future stewardship as well as analysis of results.
Here’s the fun part: dreaming up simple, creative ways to say “thank you” that resonate with your mission.
Does your nonprofit serve children? Have them write and illustrate individual thank-you cards. Or, they can spell out the words “THANK YOU” in hand-made posters, as in the photo at the top of this page. Use the photo to print notecards. Or, frame 8x10 prints for a few select donors—with personal messages of gratitude written across the bottom.
Does your nonprofit serve students or people with disabilities, or help people find employment? Ask if they’d be willing to write a card with a simple message of thanks and share about the difference your organization—and each donor—has made in their lives.
Do you have an artist within your nonprofit’s community? A “thank you” painting, mosaic, or quilt can be photographed to create notecards, posters, or framed photos. The original artwork can then be auctioned off or sold at a fundraising event.
Videos can be very powerful. Keep them simple and short. One nonprofit school had teenagers record the annual holiday concert every year. The email message to parents, alumni, and donors with the video of the concert’s best song was the school’s most-opened email every year. An Easter Seals affiliate made this powerful, 34-second video to thank state legislators for providing funding for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Making a video like this takes professional chops, but if your nonprofit has the budget or the talent within the community, it’s a simple concept that can be adapted.
Of course, using children’s stories and images, or even asking adults to share their stories, can raise both legal and ethical concerns. (Hence the cropping of the people’s faces from the top photo.) Many people bristle if they’re viewed as accepting charity; even if they’re willing to share their stories, care should be taken not to present beneficiaries as victims or the nonprofit as the “hero” of the story. As when using stories in fundraising appeals, be aware of the issues raised and sensitive to the dignity of your nonprofit’s beneficiaries. More resources are available at Ethical Storytelling.
Notice that in that Easter Seals video, the nonprofit tagged legislative groups in the Facebook post. Because they were tagged, those groups shared the video even further. You can also tag people in photos as long as they’ve “Liked” your page. You might want to check that your nonprofit’s Facebook page is set up to allow people to tag themselves in photos and videos, increasing the likelihood that “thank you” posts with images are seen.
Thank You Events
Finally, some nonprofits have special “thank you” events just to celebrate and acknowledge donors. Events can absorb a lot of staff and volunteer time and energy, so consider carefully if this is right for your organization. If your donors are local, and you have your own space or an easily accessible venue (like a friendly local restaurant), an event like this can be a great way to solidify authentic relationships among your staff, board members, volunteers, and donors. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate production: consider an ice cream social in the summertime, a before-dinner wine and cheese reception, or an afternoon event with coffee and a healthy snack or two. While you probably don’t want to ask for contributions at the thank-you event, do keep the focus on your nonprofit’s mission. You can do this by pausing the festivities to share stories of how donors’ support made a difference, have a board member share their appreciation for your donors’ generosity, or take guests on a tour of your facilities.
Learn more about the legal and technical aspects of saying “thank you” to donors on our Gift Acknowledgments page.
This post is reprinted from the National Council of Nonprofits blog.