Donor Stewardship and the Art of Thanking Donors

This month Ryan Michelle Wilcox, CRCF manager of donor services, offers advice to nonprofits looking to improve their donor stewardship programs.

I have been thinking a lot lately about gratitude and the Golden Rule. It feels good to thank people, and it feels really good to be thanked. If I do something nice for someone, when they thank me, sincerely, I am open to doing something nice for them again in the future. Applying “Do unto others as you would have done to you” to my nonprofit donor relations seems pretty fitting in that light.

With that in mind, I recently attended a seminar for nonprofit members to talk about donor stewardship and the art of thanking donors and came away with quite a few solid, easy-to-implement ideas.

Some great tips for your organization’s donor stewardship program include:

  1. Plan. You really should plan for your stewardship so you know the who, what, where, when, why and HOW to have a successful donor stewardship program. While each organization is different, planning for success is universal. Some questions to consider:
    1. What donor stewardship actions are you going to implement?
    2. Why are you choosing those specific actions? Make sure you can justify your choices.
    3. Who in your team (staff, volunteers, board members) is going to help you and with which actions?
    4. Will you set a giving level for different kinds of thanks?
    5. How often will you carry out these plans? Weekly, monthly, yearly? Will you have a matrix that spells it out? (Hint: you should!)
    6. How are you going to pay for it? How much staff time do you expect you will need?
  2. Thank! This is the best part of working in nonprofit, so let your donors know it. Trust me, as the team member who gets to enter donations and create all the thank you letters, I know this part of the process can be tedious. Please, do not make the mistake of treating your donor thanks like it is the final part of your “transaction” together when really it is the beginning. Getting more gifts from people who have already given to your cause is easier than finding new donors. Here are some great ways you can thank your donors in addition to the IRS-required tax receipt:
    1. Notecards
    2. Letters
    3. Videos
    4. Phone calls
  3. Thank some more! Before you ask for more, be sure you have thanked that donor properly – aim for a 3:1 ratio of thanks to asks. For instance, if you send a letter (with the tax receipt included) after a donor makes a gift, the next thanks may be a card, handwritten by a board member. After that, follow up with a phone call from another member of your stewardship team. Or, after the initial thank you letter, have a team member make a phone call, then have the caller follow up with a quick cell phone video thanking the donor again.

Other ideas for letting your donors know how much you appreciate them include:

  • Thank-a-thons. Gather your team of staff, board, volunteers and recipients of your organization’s work to make phone calls to donors thanking them for their support.
  • Put together a photo slideshow highlighting your organizations work made possible by donors – Flipagram is a free service (requires a smartphone), but there are others available as well to meet your organization’s needs. Once your video is ready, email it to your donors and share it on social media!
  • Real, printed and mailed, newsletters. Even though we are living in the digital age, sometimes there is no substitute for a tangible publication donors find in their mailbox. Since costs to design, print and mail can certainly be a factor, consider publishing on an annual basis. Bonus: After your initial mailing, add extra copies to new donors’ letters to bring them up-to-speed on your organization!
  • Get to know your major donors, and when they give to you, give them something in return. It could be something small, like a branded coffee mug, or something bigger, like a photo book printed from an online service. No matter what, make sure it is something that speaks to that donor and lets that person know you care.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of donor stewardship ideas, it is only a sampling of the many ways you can start showing your donors appreciation through more concerted efforts. For more tips I suggest you visit:

Fundraising Effectiveness Project

Donor Relations Guru

Association of Donor Relations Professionals

What do you think? I would love your feedback! Leave a comment below and let me know what you are doing to thank your donors.