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Top 11 Ways to Say ‘Thank You!’ to Donors

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The single most important thing (SMIT) you need to know is this: You’ve got to make donor retention a priority (really!) if you want to survive and thrive in today’s competitive nonprofit marketplace. Period. No arguments or excuses. Securing donors only to lose them is just silly business.

Which is why today we begin with part 1 of a 3-part series – The Whole Donor Love and Loyalty Shebang – on the best ways to show donor love and create donor loyalty.

Part 1: Say Thank You

Part 2: Show Impact

Part 3: Help, Don’t Sell

It’s not hard, it’s just work.

Work you want to do intelligently, according to a plan. Not catch-as-catch-can. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Or not.

And right now most nonprofits are going the “or not” route. Research shows the average nonprofit in the U.S. loses 77% of donors after the first gift!!!!! Overall donor retention is only 45%. By the time you’ve added a new donor a majority of your previous donors are out the door.

Allow that to sink in a moment.

Do you know where you’re going? Do you even know what your donor retention rate is? If you do, there’s hope for you to improve it. Read on. If you don’t, you won’t even know there’s something that needs fixing!  Whichever situation you’re in, I’ll bet you can do much better.

Donor retention should not be approached as a wandering endeavor, but as a purposeful journey. You’ve got to fix the leaky bucket.

Where to start?

You can begin to fix things with the power of just two words:


The ‘holy trinity’ of successful donor retention.

When Penelope Burk’s groundbreaking Donor-Centered Fundraising research came out, I was bowled over by the primary finding that if nonprofits did just three things donors would likely give again. Or give more. What was this holy trinity? I call them the “3 ‘P’s”:

The more you can incorporate this trinity into your ongoing donor acknowledgement, recognition and communications program, the greater success you will have in retaining and upgrading donors.

Fundamentally, they’re all about demonstrating gratitude. So today we’re going to talk about the power of ‘thank you.’

Not a receipt. But something that demonstrates a grateful feeling acknowledging the donor did you a favor. They did something really good. They are a good person!

Developing a robust gratitude program is the most important thing you can do to retain and upgrade donors.

So don’t say “thank you” once, then ignore a donor until your next appeal. You need to plan communications that engage donors without an ask, express gratitude, and show how they made a difference.

The benefits of gratitude are enormous. It makes you happy. It makes others happy. It makes others like you. It also makes you healthier… boosts your career… strengthens ‘feel good’ emotions… boosts optimism… reduces materialism… increases spiritualism… and enhances self-esteem. It does all these things for both the gratitude giver and the gratitude recipient. When it comes to building love and loyalty, a properly executed gratitude program has no downside. It will help you:

  • Establish your humanity. As long as you’re not robotic and show some natural human emotion about the impact your donor has made. Be polite, appreciative, grateful, and glowing.
  • Show you can be trusted. Trust is the foundation of any lasting relationship. Donors need to know you follow through. “Thank you” shows you got the gift, and will put it to work as intended. It’s a simple, and vital, thing.  
  • Give your donor meaning. Sadly, giving isn’t always its own reward. People need validation. Pats on the back. Reinforcement they did a good deed. Otherwise, they won’t get the sought-after endorphin rush that brings a warm glow – one where they see themselves reflected in the mirror as the ‘good person’ they hope to be.

Top 11 Ways to Say ‘Thank You!’

1. Donor Recognition Wall

Create a long-lasting testament to your appreciation with a donor recognition wall. If you’re thinking of a conventional brass plaque, think again. Modern donor recognition walls (including digital and virtual walls) create a permanent experience that honors your donors while telling the story of your mission. It can even come in the form of digital and virtual walls! This is a perfect way to acknowledge loyal supporters in a way that truly expresses the impact and longevity of their support. Plus, a beautifully designed wall will add a branded touch to a high-traffic area of your facility.

TIP: Don’t limit yourself to a traditional or one-size-fits-all approach. Seek a provider that brings a collaborative mindset to the table and focuses on your needs to create a more meaningful final design. Learn more about today’s forward-thinking donor recognition experiences.

2. Mail

The gold standard, and what people expect, is a prompt and personal mailed thank you letter. Not a canned receipt. Something you took time with, and stopped for a minute to think about your particular donor’s individual contribution.  After all, they took time to earn the money they gave to you; it’s the least you can do to return the favor. Next time you think of the old adage “time is money,” think about spending some time to craft a thank you that will be appreciated. That’s how you’ll get more money in the future.

TIP: Add a personal handwritten note. This immediately elevates the thank you from “canned” to special.

3. Email

This is what you send, immediately, when donors give online.  But don’t use the canned acknowledgement provided by your CRM or email provider.  Donors can tell when something is automated, and they perceive it as “I guess they don’t really care about me.”

TIP:  Attach a brief video or a photo that shows how their gift will be used, and let them know they’ll receive their ‘official’ thank you later in the mail. Don’t treat online donors as second class citizens.  If offline donors get a personal note, welcome package and maybe a token gift, make sure your online donors get the same relationship-building touches. Yes, it’s easier and less expensive to forego the mailed letter in the short run. In the long run, you’ll likely retain more donors if you send both types of acknowledgements. If you’re doubtful, test this.

4. Phone Call

This is your secret weapon, perhaps the most under-utilized ways of thanking donors, and probably the method that has the most lasting impact. If you do it, you’ll really stand out. In a good way.

Sending a thank you letter for a gift may sound easier than making a call, but for many donors it may be well worth it to pick up the phone to say thank you — in addition to sending a letter before or after.

If you’re a doubter, allow me to clue you in to a famous experiment by Penelope Burk, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising. In a test with board members calling to thank donors within 48 hours, those called gave an average of 39% more than those not called – and they gave 42% more even after 14 months! Calls, it seems, have a real lasting value. This research has been recently confirmed, and it’s definitely something I’d recommend you test for yourself.

TIP: Learn: (1) Who to call; (2) Who should make the call; (3) When to call; (4) How to call; (5) What to say, and (6) Next steps by heading over to Clairification and grabbing my free “Donor Thank You Calls E-Book + Script.”

TIP: Make sure you ask donors for their phone numbers on your response devices and donation pages! Bloomerang conducted an experiment to see how 50 randomly selected nonprofits in the Indianapolis-metro area responded to their first-time $5 gifts. Not a single nonprofit of 50 called to thank the new Bloomerang donors. In fact, only 38% asked for a phone number! If you want to be able to communicate easily with your donors, figure out some strategies to ask for phone numbers.

5. Video

It used to be expensive to create a video. No more. Today anyone with a smart phone can create a perfectly serviceable thank you video – one that is warm and genuine. It can be as simple as you pushing “record” and talking into the phone camera.  

TIP: Take photos of staff or program recipients holding thank you signs; then use a simple app to edit them into a quick slideshow. You can even add music. Just make sure your thank you video is brief (probably under 30 seconds).

6. Donation Thank You Landing Page

Your thank-you landing page is a valuable, too-often overlooked piece of real estate. Most organizations simply put cursory thank you language there, and may even use canned language from their email service or CRM provider. This is like having a piece of Monopoly property, but never building a house or hotel on it. It’s fine, but won’t help you win the game.

TIP: Include a compelling image or brief video that tells a story demonstrating the impact of your donor’s gift. Like any other thank you, this landing page should be considered an opportunity to predispose your donor to make a next gift. But don’t sell; show and tell.

7. Social media

This is a great way to keep gratitude flowing throughout the year, and it’s relatively inexpensive. Simply send high fives to your donors using the channels they most frequent (which, of course, you can ascertain by asking them using a survey or response device).

TIP: Sprinkle “because of you” throughout your messaging. Include a link to a video that makes your donor feel good about those being helped – because of their support.

8. Text

Some donors, especially younger ones, communicate primarily through text. These folks may actually prefer a text thank you over an emailed one (which it may take them a week to open).  

TIP: Consider your audience in crafting your thank you strategy. Texting may be a viable primary or secondary strategy, especially if you’ll otherwise have difficulty getting out a thank you within 48 hours.

9. E-newsletter or blog

A newsletter is a terrible thing to waste, especially as it provides an easy, regular opportunity to make your donors feel good. Don’t miss an opportunity to sprinkle one or more thank you’s and pats on the back to your donors every time you send one out. Donors are the heart of your mission and make your work possible. Give credit where it’s due. Every time.

TIP: In addition to thanking donors in general, consider thanking specific donors. Praise grows in a public setting, and this can be a nice relationship-building touch for those to whom you’re particularly grateful. And don’t just thank major donors this way. Try thanking the kid who saved up all their pennies or held a bake sale. This can get an entire family to hang in with you for the long-term, plus it also inspires copycats.

10. Annual report

An annual report is a terrible thing to waste. Even if you don’t include a donor honor roll because you’ve decided it’s too resource-intensive, you can still acknowledge you’d have nothing to report on without donor support.

TIP: Thank donors in the letter from the E.D. or board president, rather than simply talking about how “we did this” and “our organization accomplished that.” Make it about the donors. Also sprinkle thank you’s throughout the body of your report copy. When you report on a program, conclude with “this was only possible with the support of our corporate partners, foundation friends and individual supporters.”

11. Event program

An event program is a terrible thing to waste, especially since you’ve gathered a crowd in person! Don’t just include donor names in the printed program; recognize donors from the podium or stage!

TIP: Consider adding special recognition touches (e.g., distribute logo pins; hold a donor thank you reception or after-party, offer free or discounted parking, welcome donors with pinned carnations or glasses of bubbly; invite students to come and sing a special song in tribute to donors, etc.).

Now you’re ready to rock gratitude!  

As you develop your annual strategic donor acknowledgment plan, adopt a gratitude or philanthropy culture that seeks every opportunity to say thank you. This establishes trust and invites folks to continue on the journey with you.

In Part 2 we’ll begin to look at ways to powerfully demonstrate your donor’s impact throughout their philanthropic journey.

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  • Marilyn

    So.... what if you support a missionary for a long time and rarely if never get a thank you note or an acknowledgment. These are people very close to us. Should I bring it up? It seems that would probably awkward. They should know better this is happening with two families that we support
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