If you have served as a leader in the educational arena for any amount of time, you have probably found yourself dreaming about what you would do if a donor gave you a million dollars. In fact, you may have dreamed big enough that a million dollars would be only a small first step in funding the vision you have for your school. Your dreams are big, and it will take intentional focus and significant funding to realize your goal, but you may not have considered how you would go about thanking a donor for such a life-altering gift.

Whether your school is just stepping into the world of fund-raising, has been there for years, or is jumping back into the fray, appreciation for your donors is one of the most powerful resources in your development toolbox. Expressing gratitude for those who live out and uphold the mission of your school is critical to building a culture of generosity and a viable financial future.

Why “Thank You” Is Key

Saying “thank you” is a vital part of letting givers know that their donation made a difference, but appreciation is more than the scribbled note at the bottom of a tax receipt. It is an intentional process of communication and inclusion that requires time, the sharing of information, and opportunities for dialogue. This process invites donors into a strategic partnership where they add value through participation and insight, not just their financial contribution. Donors are valuable partners in realizing the vision you have for your school. They are far more than banking machines that release the desired amount of funds upon request. Donors are advocates for your school’s success.

Inspiring donors to give an initial gift to a noble cause is a strategic balance of education, inspiration, and invitation. With this first gift, a donor is signaling an affinity with the mission of your school and your vision for a preferred future. Yet the test of a strong development plan is not just the first gift that a donor gives (which by the way, is rarely their largest gift to an organization); rather, it is the continued cultivation of relationship with that same donor and the donor’s subsequent gifts that are at the heart of donor development. The first gift that a donor makes to your school is an opportunity for you to continue the conversation and engage that donor at a deeper level. Expressing appreciation for a donor’s contribution is a natural first step to developing an ongoing relationship, yet far too many nonprofit organizations miss this opportunity in their pursuit of the next donor.

Since 2006, the Association of Fundraising Professionals had been publishing an annual review of donor retention in the nonprofit sector. This review, known as the Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report (Levis, Miller, and Williams 2017), analyzes the giving patterns of new donors to the causes of participating nonprofit organizations. Reviewing the data of those 10,829 nonprofit organizations surveyed in the 2017 report, the lack of donor retention was found to be significantly hindering growth in giving. According to the cumulative 2017 findings, “Every 100 donors gained in 2016 was offset by 99 lost donors” (1) and financially, “Every $100 gained in 2016 was offset by $95 in losses through gift attrition” (2). While incremental increase in giving is a strategic goal for donor development, these findings demonstrate that there is significant work in developing long-lasting donor relationships still needed. In fact, more than fifty percent of new donors surveyed failed to make a second gift to their organization. The authors explain, “Usually it costs less to retain and motivate an existing donor than to attract a new one, and so taking positive steps to reduce gift and donor losses is often the best strategy to increase net fundraising gains at the least cost” (20).

Five Practical Donor Relationship Strategies

Here are five practical strategies your school can implement for building donor relationships through gratitude:

  1. “Thank Before You Bank”: Intentional donor appreciation can be a catalyst for improving donor loyalty and staying power, but it requires a thoughtful plan of action. One way that you can begin to express timely appreciation to donors is by implementing the simple rule of “Thank Before You Bank.” This means that as soon as you receive a gift from a donor and before you deposit it in your organization’s bank account, you will: (1) make a personal phone call to the donor; (2) type a short but genuinely appreciative email; or (3) write a thank-you note expressing your gratitude. Practicing appreciation is more than just good manners; it is also a good investment and critical to building ongoing relationships with donors.
  2. Capital Campaigns: Far too often, donors are left to wonder if their gift made a difference. This is especially true if a school stops communicating with donors following a capital campaign. Once the funds are raised and the construction work begins, it is all too easy to lose sight of the follow-up communication work yet to be done. The unintended consequence is that those faithful donors, who have given to support your school, are abruptly out of the loop, not communicated with, and left to feel quite unappreciated. The discontent created among donors when they are undervalued will undoubtedly hinder progress when the school needs future financial resources. In fact, this particular scenario is consistently the most mentioned point of contention during a feasibility study. Donors want to be appreciated and valued for their sacrifice, no matter the amount of their gift. As a proactive measure, a capital campaign should be viewed in two equal—though sometimes overlapping—parts. The first is the cultivation of the gift, but the second requires an equal portion of time be spent thanking the donor for the investment, sharing progress reports about how funds are being used, and emphasizing how the gifts are making a difference in the lives of others.
  3. Say It Seven Times: In the case of large gifts, similar to the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article, appreciation should be expressed at least seven times and in multiple ways. This can be through a combination of donor recognition, naming opportunities, special invitations, private meetings with leaders, volunteer leadership opportunities, phone calls, thank-you notes, special gifts or awards, birthday and anniversary cards, personal emails, prayers cards, etc.
  4. Gratitude Campaigns: If your school has gone too long without expressing appreciation for your donors, it may be time to implement a gratitude campaign. A gratitude campaign can last anywhere from four to 12 months, but focuses specifically on engaging donors without asking for additional funding. One way to jumpstart this process is by stringing a series of connections points, or touches, together. A preferred method is to use a special reception event followed by a triple-touch process. For example, begin with a small, group appreciation event that allows donors access to school leaders and board members. Create opportunities for both the scripted sharing of information with appropriate levels of gratefulness and unscripted dialogue with leaders. Next, follow the event by calling attendees to thank them again for being an important part of the legacy of your school. Make sure that you express the value of the person, not just their financial contribution. Their involvement makes a difference, and their advocacy makes your school stronger. Let them know.
  5. Praying for Your Donors: One of the benefits of being involved in a faith-based organization is that prayer is an acceptable and encouraged form of communication and connection. Ask your donors how you can be praying for them and, if they are agreeable, pray with them on the phone. Following the phone conversation, do two things immediately. First, write a thank-you note to send the following week, and second, fill out a “We Prayed for You Today” postcard to be prayed over and mailed three weeks later. Let the donor know that you are continuing to pray for him or her, but remember to honor the confidentiality of the prayer request. This series of simple exercises will help you to connect purposefully with your donors at least four times within one month. Building relationships that begin with gratitude and develop into long-term commitments is the key to sustainable giving.


How Well You Say “Thank You”

The secret to thanking donors appropriately for life-altering gifts, however, rests in knowing your donors and understanding what will be most meaningful to them. A donor’s motivation for giving is personal, so regardless of how gratitude is expressed, it should also be individualized. How well you say “thank you” will determine the scope, sustainability, and vibrancy of your school’s mission and future financial resources.


Levis, B, B. Miller, and C. Williams. “2017 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report.” Fundraising Effectiveness Project, April 14, 2017. Association of Fundraising Professionals. Accessed September 11, 2017. http://afpfep.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/FEP2017Report4212017.pdf

About the Author

Teri O’Connor is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) who works with faith-based nonprofits to help them build meaningful and long-lasting donor relationships. Over the past 25 years, she has worked on projects ranging from $1 million to $1 billion to further the missions and ministries of her clients. She holds an MA in communication and leadership from Gonzaga University, a BS degree in business administration from Barclay College, and BA degrees in music and Bible from Vennard College. She can be reached via email at terioconnor@live.com.

One Comment

Erik Ritschard

Great to see your name in the by-line, Teri, and thank you for the excellent reminders!


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