Appreciation Leads to Retention:
7 Creative Ways to Express Gratitude to Donors

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

By Avrum Lapin

Expressing gratitude for a gift is not simply just a tax requirement, it is wonderful opportunity to engage donors and stakeholders and to build relationships. Saying “thank you” and sincerely showing appreciation is essential to the stewardship process. There is a good chance that most organizations have a standard thank you note that is generated upon recipient of a gift that acknowledges the donation, and is used for tax purposes. While these letters are necessary, they do not fulfill the imperative. Donors want to see that their gift, especially a major gift, is valued, and that the nonprofit is demonstrating that their dollars are truly making an impact.

The 2018 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report reveals that the donor-retention rate stayed level in 2017 at 45.5%. This means that nonprofit organizations continually need to replace donors who do not continue or renew their support from one year to the next. This donor replacement costs time, resources, and money, and creates a seemingly endless cycle of searching for new people to keep the organization operating.

Showing appreciation, and demonstrating achievements and their impact, are important to creating and reinforcing strong relationships between donors and the nonprofits they support. GIVING USA 2018 reported nonprofits that invest in donor communications experience a higher yield from donor asks. It is only logical that the more connected donors feel to a nonprofit, the more likely they are to support it. And, a central component to any communications strategy is properly thanking the donor for their gift.

Beyond the form thank you tax letter, there are many creative and simple methods to use to acknowledge and engage donors and show appreciation. Most do not involve a huge financial investment or a marketing expert. Here are a few of them:

  • Welcome package: Once an initial gift is made, instead of simply sending a tax letter as a receipt, some nonprofits send a welcome package to donors. This is an effective way to educate your supporters about your mission and the impact that their gift will have. A welcome package will include a thank you letter, but may also include photographs, testimonials, and even a small gift for a donation at a leadership level.
  • Phone Call: In the age of digital communications, a personal phone call can go a long way. Connecting a person to an organization is crucial to building lasting relationships. A personal call provides authenticity and helps to establish a sense of trust. It is also a means to discover even more about the donor’s interest and capacity. By setting aside one hour each week for phone calls, staff can increase donor retention and engagement.
  • Handwritten Thank You Note: Seeing a handwritten note in the pile of bills and junk mail is a welcome surprise these days. Donors, especially those above a determined dollar threshold, are much more likely to open a handwritten note than a form letter or email. The fact that a staff or board member took the time to express their gratitude with a personal note will resonate with donors.
  • Personal Visit: A cup of coffee with a major donor to say thank you is a clear statement that the donor is valued and their contribution is important. This visit can serve to show exactly where funds are being allocated and the impact that they have on the lives of people and their community. This is not a time for additional asks, but rather a chance to get better acquainted with the donor, and for the donor to connect more deeply with the organization’s staff, programs and purpose.
  • Birthday/Anniversary Cards: Honoring a major donor’s birthday or life moment by sending a greeting by email, or even a card, is a step further in donor engagement. Keeping track of birthdays and special dates shows a commitment to donors and to a true spirit of partnership. These can be sent to major donors and are a simple and cost effective way to make a big difference.
  • Social Media Shout Out: A quick and easy way to thank donors is by recognizing them on social media. Donors will feel special and valued when they are given an acknowledgement on Twitter or Facebook. For special gifts, or to feature a person or program, nonprofits can highlight a particular donor on social media, with their permission. This can be a monthly spotlight and focus on the impact that each gift will have. The added benefit is that aside from making donors feel special, it will encourage others to give and follow their lead.
  • Donor Events: One annual event designed as an expression of gratitude to major donors is a welcome respite from the endless barrage of invitations tied to solicitations. Chatting in a relaxed environment is a way for donors to get to know leaders and staff as well as others who support the organization. And arranging for a leader or funder to host it, so it does not add cost to the organization, adds to the warmth and personal feeling.

Of course not every method of thanking donors is appropriate for everyone. Sending handwritten thank you notes to each person who gives a small gift is not cost efficient nor a good use of time. It is important to create a tiered system that will quickly categorize donors and allow for follow up that is appropriate to their donation, level of involvement or capacity. Creating a matrix allows staff members to have consistent communication with donors.

The goal of these expressions of gratitude is to create a culture of honoring donors and focus on engagement between the donor and the nonprofit. A good development strategy will include ways to thank donors in an authentic way that will open the door for future gifts. Donors who feel appreciated are likely to return.

Avrum Lapin is President at The Lapin Group, LLC, based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a full-service fundraising and management consulting firm for leading nonprofits. The Lapin Group inspires and leads US-based and international nonprofits seeking fund, organizational, leadership, and business development solutions, offering contemporary and leading-edge approaches and strategies. A Board member of the Giving Institute and a member of the Editorial Review Board of Giving USA, Avrum is a frequent contributor to and speaker in the US and in Israel on opportunities and challenges in today’s nonprofit marketplace.
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