Dear Donor, thank you for your recent gift to…

Saying thank you may be the most important and most forgotten step in the fundraising process. A simple thank you is treated like an afterthought on the hamster wheel of charitable gift solicitation. 

It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Is it any wonder that, according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, only 22.4% of donors gave another gift in 2021 after giving in 2020?  

Hmmm… do you think anyone said thank you? Probably not. This is why it’s essential to learn how to effectively recognize your donors and to provide donor recognition training for all of your team members, too. Nonprofit.Courses’ guide to nonprofit professional development can help you learn about the different resources you can employ for these purposes. 

For now, let’s begin with the basics!

It all starts with a receipt. It’s what the government revenue authorities need to justify any special tax treatment, such as the U.S. tax deduction. In the U.S., a receipt under $250 is optional, but it is best practice to supply everyone at all donor levels a receipt for their gift. Today, most of your receipts can be handled electronically, and even automatically, in response to an online gift. Still, there’s nothing like a real piece of paper to show you really received the contribution. Besides, you can add another pledge card in the envelope for a not-so-subtle hint to give again.

After a receipt, you might think that there’s no limit to the recognition you can give for any gift amount. Not so fast. In the U.S. at least, that Debbie-downer of federal agencies, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), has some rules for charitable contributions. Basically, if the value of the “token,” whether that’s the much-sought-after public broadcasting logo tote bag or a hearty meal at the Mead for Men’s Health Festival, is above the IRS threshold, then it’s considered a purchase and not a gift, and you need to modify the receipt. That’s why some nonprofits add the phrase “no goods or services were provided in exchange for this gift” to their receipts when, of course, no goods or services were provided! The IRS is glad to have you provide recognition of “nominal” value. If in doubt, seek real professional advice from your nonprofit-aware attorney or accountant, and don’t take the word of some guy whose article you read on the Internet (like me).

So, with all of that in mind, let’s look at nine recognition ideas. 

1. Publish a Donor List 

Donor lists are an oldy-but-goody form of donor recognition. The traditional donor list can be a stand-alone document, or incorporated into another publication, such as an annual report, newsletter, or magazine. Today, many are either added to an organization’s or institution’s website, or included in electronic communication, such as a regularly-emailed program update. You may even consider a donor wall a kind of donor list, albeit in a permanent or semi-permanent form. Whatever the format, most differentiate donors by gift level or type of donation, or both. 

Today, with the sensitivity around privacy, it’s best to get permission to include someone in a public list of donors. This is especially true for electronic forms where a list can be easily “scraped” (copied either by hand or automatically) by others for purposes outside of your control.

Besides including someone who didn’t want their name public, donor lists come with risks, such as misspelling names, including donors in the wrong categories, or leaving out names that should be recognized. Just go into the project knowing that it will be tedious, and allow plenty of time for double and triple checking. After it’s published, be ready for the phone call about the inevitable mistake after all of your checking — take it from someone who’s been there!  

A supplement to donor lists are mentions of specific donations or donors in these same publications, or on your social media feeds. Highlighting a donor and what their gift does for your organization helps motivate other donors, and reinforces the importance of giving to the person, business, organization, or foundation that’s featured. 

2. Write One-to-One Notes 

With “mass customization” an industry term, not an ironic observation, it’s especially meaningful for donors to get personal communication from a real person in recognition of a charitable gift. The key to this form of meaningful donor recognition is to use the format that the donor will appreciate the most. For a lot of people, there’s nothing like receiving a paper-based postal service-delivered note, card, or letter. It’s even better if it’s handwritten or if typed, and signed in ink with a handwritten note at the bottom. 

If your donor prefers electronic communication, then make sure you select the conduit with which they are most likely to see your message. That could mean you need to learn how to thank donors on Facebook, use email to do so, or the like. 

Not sure what to say? Check out Fundraising Letters’ donor thank-you letters templates to generate some ideas.

If you’re overwhelmed by the number of handwritten thank-you notes you need to write, or if your handwriting is seriously awful, then employ a service like Thankster to make your computer keyboard-written note into a very nice, faux-handwritten card delivered by mail.

This is a good time to talk about video thank-you messages. In the not-so-distant past, these were gee-whiz novelties. Now there are programs such as Thankview that provide a platform for recording and sending a video of appreciation to any donor on the internet. You can also DIY it pretty easily using a cell phone or programs such as Loom or Screencast-O-Matic.

3. Pick Up the Phone  

Back when AT&T was the one and only phone company, they ran their “reach out and touch someone” advertising campaign to extol emotional connections made with a simple telephone call to anywhere around the country or even the world. The message is no less true today. Hearing a voice at the other end of a telephone connection evokes an entirely different set of emotions than a character-based message, whether on paper or electrons. And now, you can add the Jetson-esque video connection, too.

You have a remarkable number of options for this. 

We’ll start with the robocall. Yes, that misused (and often hated) communication system can be a superpower for good. A robocall thank-you program is effective when you get an overwhelming number of donors over a short period of time, such as in emergency relief situations. A simple recorded “thank you” from your nonprofit’s leader or a well-known representative can be a great way to express your appreciation for their gift. You can also use it to update donors on how their money is being used.

Next, consider a “thank-a-thon.” Thank-a-thons work in much the same way as their cousin, the phone-a-thon. Get a bunch of volunteers in a room with lists of donors, and start making calls, not to ask, but to thank. It’s a great way to make the donors and the callers feel good about your work.

Then there’s what you probably thought of when you read “phone call” — having someone simply pick up the phone and say, “thank you” as part of a  non-scripted, one-to-one, personal telephone conversation. These are very powerful ways to recognize your donors’ generosity, especially if it comes from someone they know and respect. 

4. Arrange One-to-One Personal Interactions

There are endless varieties to this powerful “thank-you” method, from simple visits to the donor’s home or workplace to discussions over meals or coffee. Besides the personal interaction, what can make these really special are who visits and what they say. 

Similar to personal notes and phone calls, who says thank you sends a message. Let’s dig into the importance of the messenger next.

5. Choose the Right Messenger 

Whether by letter, phone/video, or in person, who says thank you counts a lot. Don’t worry about whether the person has status in your organizational structure. Instead, consider the person’s status relative to the donor. This may be from one of your fundraising staff members, volunteers, the program director who will use the donated money, your executive director, a board member or the board chairperson, or even an outside person who endorses your nonprofit and “wows” the donor. And don’t forget mission recipients, too (whether you call them clients, patients, students, guests, etc.) Hearing from someone who directly benefits from your program can be the most inspiring recognition of all. (It is important to keep in mind any time you use current or former mission recipients that they are fully aware and comfortable with their role in the thank-you process. You may consider compensating them, and when using minors, that you are transparent with their guardians and get their permission.)

6. Set Up Multi-Person Interactions

Some donors are all about seeing and being seen. Don’t judge them for that. It’s what motivated them to support your cause. Expressing your appreciation to these donors may include invitations to specific events or being honored at an event. It could also include an “insider tour” of what their money will do for your mission recipients. 

Some nonprofits organize “royalty days” for a donor, where they get a deep insider tour, with one-to-one meetings with individual or groups of mission recipients, opportunities to tell the story of why they give, and connections with your organization’s leaders. Getting this memorialized on video as a memento of their visit, along with some of your organization’s swag, is a great gift to top off the visit. Given the time and expense involved, this strategy would be perfect for your very top contributors.

7. Offer Naming Opportunities 

Sometimes nothing says thank you better than putting someone’s (or some organization’s) name on a facility, program, scholarship, or endowment. It’s a permanent (more or less) reminder to everyone who interacts with your nonprofit that this person, business, organization, or foundation is a benefactor. When influential people show support for your nonprofit, it makes others consider you worthy of their own philanthropy. It also helps a lot of donors feel good about themselves and your work, and lets them show off their generosity to the community and friends. Named endowments and programs are also great ways to keep in touch with donors for future gifts as you regularly update them on “their” program and the results of their generosity. 

8. Personalize Each Thank-You 

In any of the above strategies, the more you can do to personalize your thank you, the better for the donor and your nonprofit. Personalization is more than having a donor’s name engraved or stamped on something. You should use what you know about your donors — whether from your database or in-person conversations — to guide your personalization. 

For the most significant gifts, it can mean a special trophy-esque statue or other product that they can display in their home or office. Using your mission resources could be appropriate and fun. For example, a singing telegram or special quartet performance from students of a music school would be memorable. Even a simple certificate — always framed, never just a piece of paper — goes a long way in cementing your relationship with a donor.

9. Say It, Then Say It Again 

Ever hear someone say that you can’t thank someone enough? They’re right! Whatever you do, thanking is never a once-and-done activity. Have you heard of multi-channel fundraising, when you ask in many formats? Thanking is the same. It takes multiple formats to get the message across — that you appreciate their philanthropy and want (and need) them to continue for the good of those you both serve.

So, let’s end by saying “thank you,” for getting this far, and for all you do for the people you serve. Remember, charitable gifts are voluntary. That means they’re never required and can stop at any time. Thanking a donor is a way of cementing and maintaining a relationship with them.


Matt Hugg

Matt Hugg

Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses (, an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, and volunteers, with thousands of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work.