Retaining Donors: Create a System for Expressing Gratitude

It’s well-known in the nonprofit world that the second gift, sometimes even referred to as “the golden gift,” is when donor retention rates start to rise. So why do donors continue to give to your nonprofit after their first gift? Or conversely, why do so many first-time donors not give again?

The answer could be as simple as not making a follow-up request in a timely manner. Or maybe some donors always intended to just give the one time. While reasons vary, one question nonprofits should always ask themselves after a donation is: Did we thank them?

A simple thank you can go a long way toward persuading donors to come back. After all, it’s discouraging to donate your hard-earned money to what you feel is a worthwhile cause and never hear anything back. Donors are left wondering how their gifts were used or if the nonprofit even received or needed them at all.

Avoid this scenario and avoid overcomplicating the thank-you process by creating systems for expressing gratitude. Using a system allows you to decide how you’ll thank donors upfront, rather than making a separate decision for every donation that comes to your organization.

How do systems of expressing gratitude work and why do they matter for retaining donors? Let’s find out.

Why does retaining donors matter?

If your nonprofit is continuously attracting new donors, does it really matter if you retain them after their initial gift? Yes! Attracting new donors costs time and resources even if you’re using low-cost or free nonprofit marketing tools. It’s far cheaper to pay that cost once and have a donor make multiple gifts than to pay it over and over again for each gift.

Retaining donors may be more cost-effective, but how cost-effective is it to thank every donor? Put plainly, if your organization relies in any part on donors, you should share your gratitude with them. You couldn’t do what you do without their support!

As basic as that is, some organizations still look at each gift and wonder if they should thank the donor. When creating a system of gratitude, it’s normal to have questions like:

  • Is this gift large enough to warrant a thank you?
  • Are we spending more mailing a thank-you note than we’re getting from the donation?
  • Who is the right person to thank?

Ask these questions when first crafting your system of gratitude, not every time a supporter donates. Establishing guidelines and following them removes the time and energy spent remaking these decisions, allowing you to appreciate donors faster.

Bonus: Send your thank-you messages in addition to donation receipts. Gift acknowledgments are important communication, but they should be separate from thank-you messages.

Components of a System of Gratitude

Systems of expressing gratitude are valuable, but what actually goes into them? Primarily, these systems have two components: donor appreciation tiers and donor appreciation methods.

Donor Appreciation Tiers

You should thank all of your donors. Whether they’re giving $100 or $10, they made an effort to support your nonprofit, and while small gifts may not change the trajectory of your mission, those donations were still likely meaningful for the people who made them.

That being said, some donors do require going the extra mile when it comes to showing your appreciation. How you divide donor tiers depends on which supporter groups you’re targeting and your nonprofit’s average donation amount. However, many nonprofits will find it worthwhile to create a system of expressing gratitude with tiers similar to these:

  • New donors. Your appreciation for new donors will greatly influence their first impression of your nonprofit. Make it a positive one by expressing gratitude with a prompt and engaging message. While you might vary your strategy based on how much a new donor gave, such as calling rather than emailing donors who give over $100, have special messages ready that thank donors, provide information about your nonprofit, and welcome them to your community.
  • Mid-level donors. Mid-level recurring donors provide reliable support month to month. For these donors, thank-you messages should be about maintaining and building the relationship to slowly get them to increase their support.
  • Major donors. Major donors need far more than a heartfelt email for them to continue giving to your nonprofit. When a major donor makes a contribution, be prepared to go all out. This might involve sending a letter, calling them on the phone, and arranging a time to meet to thank them in person.
  • Volunteers. Volunteers are not donors—though some of them can easily become donors with the right strategy—but they still deserve a thank you all the same. Fundraising Letter’s guide to volunteer appreciation points out that many donor retention strategies also apply to volunteer retention. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel for your volunteer appreciation strategy, so reuse your system for expressing gratitude to donors for your volunteers and make a few tweaks where necessary.

While sorting donors into tiers will help you approach supporters as groups, be conscious of individual preferences. For example, take donor communication preferences into account so you avoid texting thank-you messages to donors who only want to hear from you via email.

Donor Appreciation Methods

How will you express gratitude to the donors in each of the groups you just created? Donor appreciation methods vary widely, and here are five to consider in order of how strongly they are likely to come across:

  1. Automatic thank-you messages. Automatic thank-you emails require no input from your team after their initial setup. They are the fastest way to let donors know their gift was received and how much you appreciate it.
  2. eCards. Elevate your email thank you’s with eCards. eCards are essentially greeting cards sent through email, text, or social media, complete with fun visuals and a message from your nonprofit. The only major differences are they’re digital and much faster than snail mail. eCardWidget’s guide on how to thank donors shows off excellent examples of eCards:
  3. Phone calls. Have a quick one-on-one conversation by giving your donors a call. Prepare a script and be ready to answer common questions donors may have.

This image depicts four example thank-you eCards that nonprofits can send as part of their systems for expressing gratitude.

  1. Donor events. Invite your donors to get together to celebrate a successful campaign, year of fundraising, or anything else. These events can be virtual, small lunch get-togethers, or entire formal galas.
  2. Donor walls. Immortalize your donors’ contributions by constructing a donor wall that lists the names of your top funders. These monuments are traditionally physical structures, but interactive, digital donor walls have been gaining popularity.

While some of these methods may seem like a lot of work, think of expressing gratitude as just another step in your donor retention process. After all, following up is how you essentially close the loop on a donor journey and encourage them to work their way toward making a second gift.


Retaining donors is about building relationships with supporters so they continue to support you year-over-year. Make your marketing stand out by expressing genuine appreciation and avoid getting stuck in decision paralysis by implementing a system of gratitude.

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