Donor Recognition: 7 Best Practices & Ideas for Nonprofits

These donor recognition best practices and ideas will help you lay a powerful foundation for ongoing support.

We all remember these dreaded words from our parents after childhood birthdays: “Don’t forget to write your thank-you notes!”

As grueling as the handwritten thank-you note process was when we were little, we can all recognize that expressing gratitude for a gift is the polite thing to do.

In the world of nonprofits, expressing gratitude for your donors’ gifts is not only polite, but essential to your success. Recognizing your donors is a critical piece of the donor retention puzzle, and donor retention helps secure long-term support for your mission.

After marketing your campaigns and events like a pro and driving your fundraisers to success, the last thing you’d want to do is let important follow-up work (and donors’ long-term support) fall by the wayside. Showing gratitude for your donors in the form of donor recognition safeguards their support of your organization and makes them much easier recruits for your future work.

Having a concrete strategy in place for how you thank your donors and an arsenal of recognition ideas will go a long way to strengthen support for your mission over time. Here you’ll find a list of best practices when it comes to donor recognition and some awesome donor recognition ideas—so you can not only secure donations, but keep your donors coming back again and again. Let’s get started.

Donor Recognition Best Practices

1. Make it prompt.

No one wants to generously give to an organization only to feel like they tossed their money out into the abyss. Prompt recognition of your donors’ contributions is vital to making sure they feel noticed and appreciated for their support.

The first contact—and first essential aspect of recognition—after a donation should be in the form of a confirmation or receipt. For online donations, an instantaneous receipt delivered via email is a must. The receipt should contain information about the donation, a quick thank-you, and the donation amount.

Make sure you mention the specific context of the donation, like the name of the virtual fundraiser or event the donor attended. For instance, if your donor attended a virtual auction and won an item, specifically mention the event and the item that they bid on to let them know you’re paying attention to each and every donation you receive.

Setting up automated receipts and thank-you emails could be a huge time-saver for your nonprofit and help prevent donor recognition from falling through the cracks. Still, don’t forget about snail mail—a direct-mail follow up can add a nice touch and show donors that you value every donation you receive. If you want some more tips on using direct mail to communicate with your donors, GivingMail’s direct mail guide is a great resource.

Acknowledgment letters can be combined with your receipt delivery or sent out on their own, but either way, they should also go out within a reasonable time frame. “Reasonable” will vary depending on your organization, but the same day for emails and within five business days for direct mail is a good rule of thumb. The donor wants to feel like you value their gift, and a prompt thank-you gives the impression of gratitude much more than a letter weeks later.

2. Make it personal.

We’ve all heard what a difference a handwritten note can make, but that’s not the only way to personalize your donor recognition efforts.

If you send out automated emails, make sure they include your donors’ names. “Dear friend” and “Dear supporter” aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy. You could also consider segmenting your donor base by age, gender, or location to further customize your letters and make your letters even more effective.

Consider the signature of the letter or email as well. Whose thanks would mean the most to the donor? A generic signature from your organization rather than one from a specific person won’t carry as much weight. Instead, sign the letter from a real person at your organization whose job is relevant to the donation, whether it’s your fundraising lead, major gifts officer, or other trusted staff member.

The more your donor feels like your communications are to them specifically from you specifically, the stronger a bond you’ll forge between them and your organization.

Including a video with your thank-you message could be another effective way to humanize your communication with your donors. The video could be a recorded thank-you from a member of your team, a constituent of your mission, or a combination of both. You should also weave in some information about what your donor’s gift amount allowed you to accomplish. More on this best practice next!

3. Make it powerful.

No matter what form your donor recognition takes, it’s essential to communicate the impact of your donors’ gifts.

You can achieve this in a variety of ways, but you should always try to be as specific as possible about the good things their donation enabled you to do. Being specific about the impact of the gift gives the donor something concrete to feel good about and reinforces their connection to your cause.

For example, maybe a donor’s $50 donation provided school supplies for three students for a whole semester of school. One way to make this statement more powerful could be naming the students (with permission, of course) or sending pictures of them along with your letter of gratitude. Specificity will make your cause more salient to the donor and will make them feel good, which means they’ll be more likely to contribute to your mission on an ongoing basis.

Your thank-you message is probably not the place to ask for another gift from your donor, at least not yet. Imagine if you sent a thank-you note for a gift that said “Thanks for my pink shoes! I love them. Can I have another pair?”

As well-intentioned as a request for more support is, and as important as your mission is, asking for another donation in the middle of your letter of appreciation can come across as ungrateful. Instead, encourage your donor to engage with your nonprofit in a new way, like by signing up for your email newsletters. Otherwise, keep the focus on your donor and the impact of their good deed!

Our Top Donor Recognition Ideas

Once you have the best practices down, it’s time to get creative. There are all sorts of ways to recognize your donors beyond traditional thank-you letters (though those are an excellent first step). First, consider the scale and nature of your nonprofit. Different organizations naturally have different resources and capabilities when it comes to donor recognition.

Large, national organizations conducting major undertakings like capital campaigns might have the ability to erect permanent donor recognition installations on a grand scale, while smaller-scale nonprofits and campaigns might opt for a smaller plaque or thoughtful gifts.

The scale of the donation should also be considered. Establishing giving levels will ensure that smaller tiers of donations made to a crowdfunding campaign and large endowments for a building expansion are proportionately recognized. We’ll cover both ends of the spectrum with these fun donor recognition ideas:

  1. Donor recognition walls. A donor recognition wall is a meaningful option that allows you to permanently mark your appreciation for your donors. Because they can accommodate a lot of names, donor walls are usually associated with large capital campaigns. With this option, there is plenty of room for customization—Eleven Fifty Seven’s donor wall ideas are sure to inspire you.
  2. Donor recognition plaques. If a large-scale donor wall isn’t feasible but you still want to recognize your major donors in a meaningful way, custom plaques are another solid choice. Donor plaques often appear outside the doors of a new building expansion or on landscape features like benches, but get creative to find the perfect fit for your own unique community of donors and campaigns.
  3. Branded freebies. Plaques aren’t realistic for every smaller-tier donation your nonprofit receives, but branded freebies could be. Consider sending out pens, T-shirts, mugs, and other customized swag with your organization’s name and/or logo as a token of your appreciation. This option has the added benefit of doing a little marketing work for you!
  4. Events. Nothing makes people feel special like an invitation to a party. To make your donors feel extra appreciated, invite them to an exclusive supporters-only occasion or find ways to recognize them at events that are open to the public. Making them a part of your community and your cause helps to ensure they’ll keep supporting your mission well into the future. Even casual virtual gatherings and happy hours are a meaningful (and cost-effective) way to show your appreciation.

When it comes time to recognize your donors in concrete ways, these are all good choices. Select the option that best fits your organization and the level of the donation, and
remember to always be prompt, personal, and powerful in all of your communications with your generous supporters.

Nurturing your relationships with your current donors through effective, appropriate, and genuine recognition is not just “the polite thing to do,” but a smart long-term strategy for securing enduring support for your nonprofit. We hope you’ll take these tips and ideas and apply them to your organization. Best of luck!