When’s the last time you received a great thank you?
I once volunteered to help raise some extra funds for our nonprofit. The event lasted an entire Saturday after an already busy week. On Monday, I walked into my office to see a handwritten thank you note from our CEO on my desk. This experience demonstrated just one of many donor recognition examples. It didn’t just acknowledge my time, it made me feel great!
I’d argue that nothing beats a genuine donor thank you. Yet, as fundraisers, we all too often forget to spend the time to make our thank yous count.
Yes, nonprofit employees are extremely busy. We’re balancing a huge workload and limited resources. Oftentimes, it’s hard to find the time to give donors a genuine thank you. There’s just too much to do in a day.
However, if anything, a donor thank you should be at the top of your to-do list because a gesture of gratitude goes a long way in proving to your donor how important they are to your nonprofit.
Recognizing and thanking donors is a hallmark of an excellent retention strategy. It helps strengthen the relationship you have with your donors and their commitment to your cause. When donors are thanked within 48 hours of making a gift, they’re 4x more likely to donate again.
If you’ve struggled with finding a creative way to thank your donors, you’re not alone. It’s quite easy to get stuck in the same processes year after year. So, here’s some donor recognition examples as fuel to help you find a good way to thank your donors.
1) Handwritten Note
Top of our list in terms of donor recognition examples is sitting down to write a donor thank you letter. It may seem old-fashioned, but it’s definitely a meaningful gesture that is bound to show your donor their worth. Compared to email and direct mail, which often gets discarded, handwritten notes have a 99% open rate. Yes, you read that right. Not only will something handwritten make you stand out, I guarantee that your donor will appreciate the time you took to write them a thoughtful note.
If you’re going the route of a handwritten note, avoid overly generic or formal language. Make your thank yous personal and conversational. Use your donor’s preferred name, include the impact of their gift (i.e. “Thanks to your generous donation of $100, we were able to provide 1:1 tutoring for 10 students for a month”), and acknowledge any specific initiative or project the gift was used to support.
“Would you rather get a note from a telemarketer or an old friend? If it’s the latter, then fashion your thank you notes as if you are sending a thank you to an old friend. Put some thought into it. And make sure it is signed by a recognizable figure within the organization. Hand-written is always a nice touch.” – Andy Cawston., CEO and Chairman, International Alliance of Guardian Angels NZ Charitable Trust
2) Donor Appreciation Wall
Also on our list of donor recognition examples is honoring your donors in a public way, such as a donor appreciation wall. With our brains wired to respond to our own names, seeing our names publicly can bring about a sense of pride. To visually showcase your donors publicly, look no further than a donor appreciation wall.
As a fundraiser, you’re probably familiar with donor appreciation walls. If you’ve ever taken a tour of a museum, university, or nonprofit space, donor appreciation walls are generally situated in a central location and traditionally consist of small plaques featuring the names of donors and sponsors.
These days, with the many variations to a traditional donor appreciation wall, you can inject creativity into these displays and make it a work of art. Consider playing around with colors, textures, materials, and themes for an awesome donor appreciation wall.
Depending on your budget, you may consider a digital donor wall. Not only are they more cost-efficient but if you anticipate making lots of changes, they’re flexible and easy to update. Unlike a traditional donor wall, you also have the option to change up the style or make it immersive!
“Appreciation and recognition compliment each other well – and don’t cost a lot. Maybe you have a building or a scholarship fund that could use a name.” – Dan Lucarelli and Andy Cawston, CEO and Chairman, International Alliance of Guardian Angels NZ Charitable Trust
3) Social Media Highlight
Make a habit of thanking donors across your social media channels. You can highlight individual donors, groups of donors, or simply post a general thanks if you don’t want to name anyone specifically. In addition to traditional thank you posts, you can mix it up with popular social features such as Facebook stories or Instagram reels for higher visibility.
Before you feature your donors on social media, be sure to get their consent first. When it comes to the content of your post, we recommend asking your donor for a photo and quote that you can publish.
4) Annual (Gratitude) Report
Many nonprofits and charities compile an annual document that reports budgeting, services, and impact. One way to thank your donors is by listing them in this widely-distributed report. There are different ways to do this – some organizations might choose to list their donors alphabetically, others might want to group donors based on donation ranges and list them alphabetically based on the amount contributed.
Pro Tip: Some organizations such as Pride Foundation and Planned Parenthood of Mar Monte have gone above and beyond by reframing their annual report to be an annual gratitude report. Unlike an annual report which generally contains activities that happened during the year and hard stats, a gratitude report shares wins for the year, relays appreciation, and sets the groundwork for what’s coming down the pike. When done correctly, it makes for an excellent donor retention tool.
5) Donor Impact
In terms of donor recognition examples, this may not always be top of mind but when it comes to nonprofit donations, a key question that donors always ask is “How will my gift be used?”. To address this question, send your donors an email or letter outlining when, how, and who the donation impacted. Make sure to include a sincere thank you, client stories, photos, or colorful infographics in your communication. By appealing to emotion and logic, and being able to explain where donations went, you’ll increase your chances of them supporting your cause in the future.
“Make sure the donor knows how his/her donation was used. Donors like to know that the money they give actually supports programming, and not organizational excess. Give number breakdowns where applicable, be specific, give examples, or tell stories. The thank you note should be as thorough as the initial plea for support.” – Brendan Curley, Business Development/Technical Sales
6) Immediate Email Confirmation
Immediately after receiving a donation, be sure to send an email confirmation that includes a donor “thank you”. Email confirmations aren’t only for tax purposes, it creates space for you to build a relationship and engage with your donor in the future.
In addition to what you’d typically include in a donor acknowledgement email (i.e. your organization’s full legal name, EIN, the date the gift was received, etc.), remember to address the donor by their name (i.e. “Dear Bob”) rather than use a generic salutation (“Dear Friend”). Begin the body of the email with a warm “thank you” and include the amount donated along with the name of the campaign that the donation was earmarked for, if applicable.
If this is someone who has donated or volunteered with your organization in the past, make sure you acknowledge their history with your org (i.e. “We’re grateful for your past support”). To truly highlight impact, include a picture and a short impact story about how a specific person benefited from their donation.
These days, modern fundraising software (like CauseVox) sends an automatic thank you once a donation is processed. To save time, have templated forms ready for segments of donors so you can easily plug and play.
7) Video Thank You
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth at least a million. A heartfelt thank you video featuring your CEO or service recipients is a unique, personal way of expressing gratitude. There’s power in visual storytelling and crafting a thank you video can relay your appreciation in ways that written words can’t.
Video thank yous don’t have to be super fancy. You can make a solid video with a smartphone, decent lighting, and by speaking directly to the camera. When you’re recording your video, we recommend keeping your thank you video short, sweet, and to the point.
If you’re creating personalized videos, be sure to address your donor by name so they know that the video was created with them in mind. If you have a large donor base, making individual videos for every donor isn’t very practical and will likely be cumbersome. If you find yourself deciding whether or not to make a special thank you video for every donor, consider making a general thank you video for all and reserving personalized videos for your major donors or those who’ve donated past a certain threshold.
“Video is a great medium for expressing your gratitude. Maybe you can include clips of your non-profit work in the video.” – Brian Barela, Director of Social Media-Campus Crusade for Christ
8) Personal Visit
If you have the time, try personally visiting your donors. Schedule a time to grab coffee or lunch outside of an office setting. This a great opportunity to not only thank them and share what the impact of their donation was, but also to further engage them (i.e. ask for their feedback), or introduce them to other key personnel in your organization.
Because time or resources may not allow for this on an annual basis, you may want to segment your donor population each year. Try visits to major donors one year, recurring donors the next, etc.
9) Tier-System of Recognition
Give your donors the gift of new connections by setting up donation tiers and assigning titles to donors at different levels. Think of these tiers as a social status, of sorts. For example, if your organization is focused on the environment, you may want to set up donation tiers where $20= Friend of the Forest, $50= Tree Hugger, etc.
Then, try planning recognition events or exclusive volunteer opportunities for donors at a certain level. In a way, you’ll be bringing your most passionate, philanthropic donors together to forge new relationships. It’s a great and unique way to thank them for their support. If you’re looking at donor gifts, segmenting can also help you choose different gifts for different donor tiers.
Honor major donors, capital campaign sponsors, and other donors that stand out with a personalized commemorative plaque. If you have an event coming up, you can use this opportunity (and the captive audience) to present it to your donor in-person. Otherwise, you can always mail their plaque to them along with a sincere thank you card.
11) Donor Appreciation Party
Make it a reason to celebrate and host an annual donor appreciation party. It doesn’t have to be big or fancy. Consider a simple barbecue, wine tasting event, or happy hour. To keep your event budget-friendly, link up with local businesses or major donors and see if they would be willing to sponsor.
12) Thank-a-Thon (Follow-Up Phone Call)
Ask volunteers (board members, for example) to make a handful of phone calls to donors to say “thanks.” This is a great way to express gratitude and engage your volunteers at the same time.
While 10-20 phone calls is a reasonable amount for the average person, your volunteers may feel overwhelmed if they’re handed a list of 50 people. Consider drafting a short call script for your volunteers to refer to. In the script, be sure to mention the donor’s name and the amount they contributed. When done correctly, a 3-minute phone call can increase first-time donor retention by 30%.
Pro Tip: If you know your donors’ communication preferences, a text or email might be a more organic way to connect. It’s a small and simple gesture that’ll go a long way in building a lasting relationship.
13) Behind-the-Scenes Look
Allow donors to get to know your organization on a more personal, intimate level by offering a behind-the-scenes look at your nonprofit operations with a tour, lunch and learn program, etc.
With site visits, it’s the perfect opportunity to showcase the impact of your donor’s gift because they get to see your programs (and their dollars) in action. It’s a great way to thank your donors, help them learn more about your org, and introduce them to the clients you serve, along with new initiatives you think they might be interested in.
“Invite them to a membership dinner, or a classroom, or a board meeting.” – Andy Cawston, CEO and Chairman, International Alliance of Guardian Angels NZ Charitable Trust
14) Discount Or Perks
A good way to show donor appreciation is to ask local businesses such as stores or restaurants for a discount that can be given to donors. Once you’ve nailed down the details, mail the coupon or voucher to your donors with a simple note expressing your thanks for their continued support (i.e. “Please enjoy a 20% off your next entree, courtesy of [restaurant]!”)
It’s a win-win-win for the business, your nonprofit, and your donor!
15) Service Recipients
Ask those receiving the services of your nonprofit to help with donor thank yous by making homemade cards. You can also see if your clients would be interested in being featured in a “thank you” video or share their story through a letter. When the “thank you” comes from your donors’ beneficiaries, it’s just so much more meaningful.
“If it’s children, let them express how your service helps them through writing or artwork”. – Lindy Davis, Director of Splash into Learning, Director of Children’s Ministries
16) Song And Dance
Have fun with your thank you! If you’re on Instagram or TikTok, you’re already familiar with how popular short-form videos are along with the dance and song trends that are making their rounds. Break out the musical instruments or the dance moves and write a song to thank your donors. Get everyone involved and record your staff, volunteers, or service recipients singing and dancing to it.
If you’re uploading it to social media, be sure to tag your content (i.e. #donorappreciation, #thankyou, etc). It’s cute and fun and you never know, you might even go viral!
17) Opportunities For Engagement
Include opportunities for engagement within your thank you. By inviting your donors to get more involved in other non-financial ways, it shows that the relationship with your donor is more than just a transactional one. For example, you can ask your donors whether they’d be interested in volunteering or advocating for your cause at a later date.
“Your main goal in all of your thank you notes should be to keep your donors engaged and interested in donating again.” –Courtney Drake, Updates and Data Entry at DMI
18) Milestones (Weddings, Engagements, Births)
Read the newspaper and play close attention on social media for birthdays, weddings, engagements, births, etc. Send cards or make a phone call during these milestones. That way, your donor will know that they’re on the top of your mind.
19) Donor Anniversary
Let your donor know that you’re aware of how long they’ve been a part of your organization’s support system by acknowledging their anniversary. To do this, you’re going to need a few pieces of information – your donor’s name, their contact info, and the date of their first gift. If you have their mailing address, consider sending them a physical card as a way to celebrate their commitment to your organization. Otherwise, an email or a phone call work too!
20) Donor Spotlight
Highlight a donor on your website or with your newsletter. Include why they are such an important part of your organization.
A sincere, unique thank you can help establish a strong bond between you and your donors. While it’s common practice to send a donor thank you after receiving a donation, don’t let this be the only time you reach out to your donors.
Try contacting them at various times throughout the year, such as Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, mid-summer, or on a day of significance for your organization. Your donors will appreciate the thought!
21) Donor Appreciation Gifts
As a token of your appreciation, consider sending your donors a small gift along with a personalized thank you card. Some ideas that work include framed photos, custom printed coffee mugs, totes, books, or educational materials.
When you give branded merchandise with your org’s logo on it, it promotes brand awareness and visibility. Not only are you thanking your donor but you’re also spreading the word about your cause without any additional effort. Every time your donor uses the branded mug or tote you gave them, not only are they thinking of you but they’re helping promote you!
Pro Tip: Virtual gifts like an e-gift card accompanied by a short, heartfelt message also lets donors know you care. They’re a convenient alternative to physical gifts because you won’t have to worry about shipping them.
Best Practices for Donor Recognition
1. Change messaging for new donors vs. recurring donors
If you send a recurring donor an email with generic messaging asking whether they would consider opting into recurring gifts, it shows that you’re not really paying
attention to how they give. Instead, segment the two audiences and have your communications with recurring donors be about updates to your work or appreciating them for giving on a consistent basis.
2. Donor recognition should be in proportion to the generosity
The size of the gift should reflect how a donor is recognized. For example, if a donor donated via a text-to-give platform, a thank you text would be appropriate. If it’s a recurring donor, consider featuring them in your organization’s newsletter or in a social media highlight. For a major donor, consider a personalized gift or video.
3. Tie their donation into the impact it will create for your organization
Be specific with how your donor’s gift impacts your work. This isn’t a new concept but tying dollars back to tangible outcomes (“Your gift of $50 provides a week’s worth of groceries for Lisa and her two kids”) illustrates the true impact of your donor’s dollars at work.
4. Get permission before thanking donors publicly
Before you thank your donors publicly, be sure to get their permission first. Let them know that you’d love to feature them publicly. You can use this time to ask for their social media handles, a photo, or a sweet quote.
The Bottom Line
Thanking your donors should always be a priority, not an afterthought. Donors are the lifeblood of your organization and regularly expressing your appreciation and showing how their contributions impact your work increases the chances that they’ll want to support your organization again.
This post was originally published in October 2011 and has been updated in November 2022 for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.