5 creative ways to thanks donors that surprise and delight (without tchotchkes)

Last updated
Apr 26, 2024
Innovative strategies for nonprofit organizations can enhance donor retention and appreciation. Instead of relying on generic gifts, these fresh ideas focus on personalized engagement and meaningful connections to foster long-term relationships.

Donor retention is a major focus – and can be a sticking point – for many nonprofit organizations. Unlike corporations, there isn’t a way to “get more customers” by offering a quick sale or discount. And a generic “thank you” message or confirmation email feels a little flat.

Donor retention for nonprofits is at an all-time low. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) reported that in 2023 the struggle to retain donors was widespread and resulted in the lowest recorded donor retention rate at 42.6% (the lowest since 2012). So how can we thank donors for giving to your cause in a way that feels on-brand and stands out from the noise? 

A hidden opportunity within donor appreciation

For better or worse, the current bar for thanking donors is extremely low. Most nonprofit organizations send a donation confirmation email with a tax-deductible receipt, possibly followed up with a handwritten thank you note – that is, if they have a good CRM in place to track donor communication. 

But just like gaining a new customer opens the door for additional sales in for-profit companies, thanking nonprofit donors is about much more than simply being polite – it’s about recognizing an opportunity to grow your support network. Instead of using this moment to encourage more donations, we need to thank donors at a deeper level and nurture their interest in your cause – beyond the donation alone. By giving to your organization they’re identifying part of themselves in your mission – and that’s a big deal. 

Two types of donors, two types of messaging

Before we get into ways you can surprise and delight your donors, it’s important to note that there are many categories of donors, namely: major donors and individual donors. Think of individual donors as individual customers. In other words, the approach should be business-to-customer, or one-to-many. 

Although there isn’t a clear threshold for the donation amount that signifies a “major” donor, most nonprofits would agree a gift of $10,000+ puts them in this category.

There have been many studies on major donors, and there are different ways you can identify the donor you’re communicating with. Major donors require more 1:1 care, communication, and involvement at the nonprofit – therefore, they require a more personalized approach and expressive appreciation. 

We've said it before and we'll say it again: these principles apply equally to customers as they do to donors. Imagine you had a customer that has spent $1000 or more with your brand – how would you treat them?

Generic gifts send the wrong message

If donors care so much about your mission, sometimes getting a generic pen or bag can feel like a tacky gift compared to the distinct joy they feel when supporting your mission. The goal of providing a donor gift that surprises and delights is to show supporters that you see THEM and their unique needs. 

Creating a meaningful connection with your donors goes beyond the occasional giveaway of trinkets and tchotchkes. It's about making them feel valued, understood, and part of the bigger mission. Plus, in an era of sustainability, tchotchkes are getting increased flack for their wastefulness.

A group does the ice bucket challenge. Remember when doing the video was enough reward in itself to give?

5 creative ways to surprise and delight your donors

Although there are thousands of ways your nonprofit can show appreciation to donors, here are five creative ways to stand out and leave an impression at scale. The key to successfully thanking your donors is consistently following up and knowing each of your donors at an individual level, even if they’re not major donors. 

Before we can create a new workflow, let technology do the heavy lifting for you. Double-check that your online donation tool is connecting to your CRM and that data is flowing from one platform to the other. There are some amazing nonprofit tools available to track and nurture prospects, but it will take a little bit of effort to set up if you’re starting at zero. If tech isn’t your strong suit, consider investing in a nonprofit fundraising consultant to help you think through this process and set up your systems. 

And of course, use Paylode to provide consistent perks to your donors before and after the donation.

Now let’s get brainstorming!

Here are some creative ideas to get started:

  1. Personalized impact video. Sending a confirmation email or thank you note is the bare minimum you can do to thank donors, and it will still stand out! Take your appreciation one step further by sending a personalized thank you video from your founder to the donor. Use a tool like ThankView.com to record quick videos for your donors, and batch recordings together once a day. Maybe your team switches off so each of you takes a day of the week to record and reply to donors. 
  2. Exclusive events and updates. Everyone loves to feel like an insider. Host quarterly webinars or workshops just for your donors, even if they're recorded. Teach them new things about your mission, introduce them to some of your constituents or staff, or share progress reports on your work in the field. By getting the news first from your executive director, they’ll feel important to your mission, and it’s an effective way to keep them updated all year long.
  3. Local treats or photos. Does your organization serve a specific community or region? If there’s a specific gift that’s only found in that area (like a local perk) or something your constituents make and sell for the nonprofit – send one to your donors so they can feel that hand-made connection. If no unique treats come to mind, then hire a photographer for the day to capture some high-quality photos that donors can post on their desk or tack on their refrigerators. Avoid putting your logo everywhere, but make sure there’s a story of success on the back side so they put a face to the mission.
  4. Time for “just because” gifts. One of the best ways to surprise and delight donors is to give them a gift that aligns with their celebration days, not yours. Avoid gifting around the holidays, and instead use your CRM to take note of important dates in each donor’s life – birthdays, anniversaries, milestones, life events – that are important to them. They’ll be wowed that you remember and feel appreciated beyond their donation.
  5. Matching gift. Matching donations are popular for national giving holidays like Giving Tuesday or end-of-year campaigns, but consider working with a local corporation to set up a matching gift all year round for new donors. If you can partner with a notable value-aligned business, it adds credibility to your organization and will delight donors that their donation will go even further with a partner. 

Setting a new standard for donor appreciation

There are countless ways you can surprise and delight donors, but this list is a solid start to help your nonprofit see and appreciate your donors at scale. Nonprofits have a long way to go to make donors feel seen and valued, but by building in a pre-planned workflow they’ll be better positioned to retain more supporters. 

Remember, it’s most important to speak to the donor’s connection to your mission and not necessarily the size of their donation. Use these ideas to think creatively about how your nonprofit’s team can implement these strategies in your donor engagement efforts. The key is to use technology to your advantage for the technical side, then infuse a heartfelt, personalized touch – and of course, these can be done without relying on material items. 

Have another unique idea that wasn’t shared here? Comment with your own experiences or tips for engaging donors in meaningful ways.

About the author
Lauren Atherton
Lauren is a branding expert with over a decade of experience in advertising, internal creative teams, and tech startups for some of America’s most beloved brands. She now leads HeartSpark Design – a remote branding studio that works with small nonprofits to build brands that win major grants, secure game-changing partnerships, and far exceed their fundraising goals.
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