6 Things to Consider When Thanking Your Donors This Giving Season
This weekend in New York City, shop windows glittered all decked for the holidays, Jack Frost was nipping at my nose, and it was clear: the Giving Season has arrived! For those of us in fundraising, hopefully, we are further along with our annual appeals than we are with our plans for gifting and gathering (or is it just me?).
As we press through year-end asks, we are also thinking about the equally important side of Giving Season: showing gratitude to our donors, board members, and volunteers for their generosity this year.
Sending “thank you” flowers or mailing out tote bags are fine ways to show gratitude to supporters. But what if you want to make more of an impression and show some creativity, without breaking the bank or sending the wrong signal? And, just as important, what do you want to avoid?
To answer these questions, besides excavating my own experiences on nonprofit development teams over the years, I turned to my colleagues to share their own donor appreciation stories. While I gathered some good tips and words of advice, I also heard cringe-worthy tales of donor appreciation gone awry.
In reflecting on my teammates’ experiences, below are some lessons and best practices for how to show donors your gratitude. I hope our tips — and foibles — impart some wisdom to inform your own decisions (or at least a moment of holiday cheer!).
Review Donor Preferences, Always.
Mailing board members and major donors the annual report along with a personalized cover letter is usually a nice way to show appreciation. However, once, after mailing a long-time donor a full-color printed 9×11, he called, enraged that we had again failed to note that he is trying to live a carbon-zero lifestyle, and threatened to cancel his gift.
Be sure to record — and review — notes on donor preferences in your database before running your mailing list, crafting personalized donor outreach, or giving a gesture of donor appreciation (and if you ever needed a reason to insist everyone enter their notes, here you go!).
Pay Attention to the Small Things.
As a project-end appreciation gift, an organization mailed their board members large, framed photos of them all gathered at a retreat, with a handwritten note at the bottom from the founder. As a gesture, it was on-point, but the delivery was not, and some received pictures with broken glass in the frame.
A broken or defective thank-you gift may not have a major negative impact; everyone understands that mistakes happen. Nonetheless, it cannot help but send the wrong message about the organization’s competence. In this case, while we may not have any control over how things were shipped, it would have been worth it to find out how to pack the items optimally (and nicely) to minimize any potential mishaps along its way to the donor. Small things, like presentation and delivery, really do matter, and are a reflection of the organization.
Don’t Be a Hero.
Do donors need another tote bag? Do you have time to figure that out this year? Honestly, sometimes a pen, a sticker, a postcard, or yes, even a tote bag is the right call — they’re classics for a reason. The point about swag isn’t always originality, but more so to show your donor their support is recognized with a token of your appreciation, no matter how small. Bonus points for practicality; if the donor actually uses their gift, even better!
One bit of advice: try to choose items that have a minimal impact on the environment.
Do Not Send Cash – Not Even 5 Cents!
Though it may blur the line between donor appreciation and prospect cultivation gone awry (at least for me), any time I receive direct mail with a nickel shining through the envelope window I write “Refused: Return to Sender” in red across the front and throw it back in the mailbox. Is this solicitation approach trying to make me feel guilty, as if I have to donate since they sent me money? Is the logic such that if they “pre-thank” future donors with a cash incentive, they will be more likely to donate? This tactic comes off as calculated and inappropriate and is a sure-fire way to turn donors away from supporting your organization.
Sending notepads is fine. World maps are great. But please keep the change.
Keep Smiling; Because Sometimes, You’re Gonna Step in It.
Live events — whether in person or online — can be a great way to show donor appreciation. They require a lot of planning and time, but donors can have memorable, positive experiences at events that galvanize their support for the cause.
However, social gatherings give chance for the unexpected to happen, which requires a certain ability to keep dancing even when things go sideways. One colleague shared a story of when a guest at an event noticed the organization was featuring a product made by someone he claimed — loudly — had stolen intellectual property from him. His outrage hijacked the mood of the evening as he shared a furious story of theft from his company to start their own competitor. The development lead, quick on their feet, was able to let the angry guest have a little airtime until finding a pivot point and stepping into the discussion to lighten the tone.
Be mindful of the fact that unforeseen and unexpected things can and will happen in social situations. Be prepared to handle things on the fly — with plenty of colleagues present and ready to help in a jam — and make sure to keep smiling!
Always Make it Personal.
It is always the right move, and perhaps is the most important, albeit obvious, tip: make your gratitude personal! I once sent a board member a neat little succulent terrarium as a thank-you for co-hosting an event. While this was not the leafy plant we’d usually send, I knew they were frequent travelers, so I considered this factor when choosing their gift. They liked it so much they personally sent me a photo of the succulent on their windowsill and mentioned it to me later as well.
To me, this is an example of donor appreciation that really worked: it made them feel appreciated, understood, and delighted!
However you thank your donors this year, I hope you will consider the above lessons learned from my colleagues throughout the years. Consider the ‘don’ts’ just as much as the ‘dos’ when it comes to donor appreciation. Be mindful of your donors’ preferences, interests, and needs. Be thoughtful, honest, and understanding. And most of all, show your genuine gratitude! Happy Giving Season.
About the author
Amy Shaw brings 20 years of professional development and fundraising experience to her role as a Director at Orr Group. Previously, Amy served as Director of Development at Innovations for Poverty Action and has led fundraising and communications for international development, scientific research, health, and poverty alleviation causes. Her expertise includes building development departments, refining donor databases, coaching frontline fundraisers, and improving board engagement. Amy has also created donor communication strategies, produced marketing collateral, and developed multi-channel campaigns.