9 Powerful But Often Overlooked Ideas for More Effectively Thanking Major Donors

Are you falling behind on thanking your major donors? Are you neglecting it entirely? If so, unfortunately, you’re not alone. On the other hand, maybe you’re an outlier and are knocking gratitude out of the park with every major donor in your caseload. If so, keep it up. Thanking donors works, and too many nonprofits fall far short of what basic courtesy and effective fundraising demand.

How do we know thanking major donors doesn’t happen often enough?

Because the fundraisers and gift officers who do make this a priority can tell story after story of major donors who, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, are shocked, shocked to find themselves being thanked after years and sometimes decades of neglect.

Fundraising consultant Kevin Fitzpatrick posted about this on LinkedIn, sharing one story of a major donor with a net worth of over $10 million who hadn’t been contacted in nearly a year by an organization he had been donating to for a long time. He wanted to give again, and gave up waiting – so he called them to initiate his next gift.

Lucky for them.

Many other would-be repeat major donors give up and move on, figuring the organization doesn’t care, didn’t notice their last gift, or has plenty of other donors.

A commenter on Fitzpatrick’s post, fundraiser Lindsay Voltz, mentioned that many major donors used to get angry with her at first when she called to thank them, because they thought she was going to ask for more money. Some of them had been giving for more than ten years without a single thank you phone call.

Why Thanking Major Donors Matters

Thanking all donors is critical. Thanking major donors is absolutely essential. These people tend to provide over 80% – often over 90% – of a nonprofit’s budget. Thanking them ought to be nearly automatic. But too often, it doesn’t happen at all.

The longer a donor goes without being thanked, especially with repeated gifts, the more likely resentment will start to build up. And when it reaches a certain threshold, giving will cease, and the donor will remove you from their estate plan if your organization managed to make it that far.

And it’s not that people sit around demanding to be thanked. It’s just a simple courtesy. And especially when a major donor willingly hands over tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s just polite.

To not thank them sends the subtle message that your organization deserves their money, and that they should just keep giving because they have some wealth. Eventually, that leaves a sour taste.

Plus, thanking donors leads to more and bigger gifts. You can look up statistics on that if you feel like it.

But here’s a story to make the point:

Mark Stuart, president and CEO of the San Diego Foundation, recounted in another comment on Fitzpatrick’s post a time when he called a well-known philanthropist to thank him for giving $2500 to the zoo.

On the other end of the phone, he heard silence. The donor was stunned speechless for a moment. Finally, he managed to say that he couldn’t recall ever being called and thanked after giving a gift. Ever. He was so appreciative of it that he gave another gift of the same amount right after their call. That’s just one of countless examples where gratitude leads to additional gifts.

If you’re not calling to thank your major donors after they give a gift, you are likely missing out on additional and nearly effortless revenue.

Here are some gratitude strategies your organization can use to make sure every major donor gets thanked with an actual conversation, every time they give.

1. Set a Gratitude Policy – and Stick to It

This is step one, because it’s the easiest part of the process.

A gratitude policy has two variables – time and money – the two things no one has enough of. It can be expressed in a single sentence:

Within X hours of a gift of $Y or more, someone from the organization calls the donor to say thank you.

For the time variable, it’s best to try to make these calls within 24 hours of the gift. Factoring in weekends, you might be able to stretch it to 48 hours, or perhaps 24 hours on business days. For the money variable, that depends on what constitutes a major gift at your organization. It might be $1000. It might be $10,000. It might be something else.

But make the decision, and then implement the policy.

For all donors under this giving threshold, they still need to be thanked too, but not necessarily with a phone call. We’re talking about actual conversations – personal thank you calls – not just written thank you notes.

2. Thank Major Donors Through Multiple Channels

Making a thank you call takes only a couple minutes, but it’s powerful. Even more powerful is for the donor to be thanked more than once.

The phone call can happen within 24 hours of the gift. An email can go out even faster, and it doesn’t have to be from the same person. In fact, it’s better if it isn’t. More donors probably expect to be thanked with an email because it’s easier for the organization, but they will still appreciate it. But when the thank you call comes in later that day or the next day, they’ll be floored.

And to be clear, an email thank you note isn’t just the automated tax receipt. That’s not a thank you note. That’s a financial record. And some organizations don’t even send thank you emails. This is known as ‘low hanging fruit.’ There’s simply no excuse not to send thank you emails to every donor, not just major donors.

In addition to phone and email, you can also follow up after those with a sincere, personalized written thank you note that goes out in the mail. And because you thanked them by phone and email so quickly, it’s okay if the written one goes out a week or two later.

One method is good. More than one is even better.

3. Send Thank You Videos

Another alternative in addition to the other channels is to create thank you videos. These can be from board members, the executive director, the gift officer, or various other people. Yes, this is a bit more work up front. But if you only have a handful of big major donors every year, you can take a little time to produce these.

Maybe your thank you videos have a higher giving threshold than the phone calls, such as $50,000 or $100,000. They need to be personal – this is not a generic video that goes out to everyone. It should mention the actual gift each donor has given.

4. Train Your Board Members to Share the Load

Making thank you calls doesn’t take that much time, but even if you have something like a hundred of them per year, it starts to feel like a lot in addition to all your other tasks.

One commenter on Fitzpatrick’s post mentioned training their board to help spread out the job of making thank you calls. Once the board members know how to make these calls, all you have to do is send them an email with the gift information of a particular donor, and the board member will do the rest.

5. Re-imagine Your Fundraising Job as a Sales Position

If you’re struggling to see the importance of thanking your major donors with a phone call, one reason could be that you don’t realize your job is actually very similar to a sales position. Not every fundraiser likes to hear this, but it’s true.

You are selling the opportunity to do something deeply meaningful for a cause the donor cares about. That’s what they’re buying. They don’t get anything else for making a gift. Yes, there can be tax benefits, but no matter how you add it up, the donor is still ‘losing’ way more money than they might gain in benefits.

And sales people – the good ones – make a habit of thanking their best customers. Lots of salespeople send thank you gifts like fruit baskets, treats, and gift cards. Nonprofits probably shouldn’t do that because of the expense, but the point is – in any transaction where someone is spending a lot of money, gratitude is in order, and the best salespeople – and fundraisers – make it a priority.

6. Prioritize First-Time Major Donors

Ethan Smith, a prospect development manager who commented on Fitzpatrick’s post, tells a story of driving five hours to thank a new donor for a $1000 gift. The same donor had previously given $10,000 to another organization and received a generic acknowledgement – 30 days later.


This donor was so appreciative of Smith’s in-person efforts to thank him that he gave a $30,000 stock gift later that year. Much later, he left the organization $750,000 from his estate as a planned gift.

All that from one sincere thank you that cost the fundraiser some time.

As this story illustrates, first-time major donors can become second-time major donors. Or, they can disappear forever. You greatly increase the chances of better outcome by calling them to say thank you. So in all your gratitude efforts, make it a priority to call new major donors first.

7. Send Updates on What Their Money Is Accomplishing

Gratitude is ongoing. A few months after a major gift, send the donor an update on what their gift has made possible. If it was a gift to the general fund, this is a great opportunity to share several outcomes their gift influenced.

If it was a restricted gift, you can focus the update on wherever their gift went. See why offering restricted giving options is smart fundraising.

8. Use Zoom Instead of the Phone If They’re Open to It

Zoom isn’t for everyone. And it takes effort to schedule calls. The advantage of a phone call is you can just make the call, and since thank you calls are short, you don’t need to coordinate it with the donor.

But some donors like longer conversations, and when in-person isn’t possible, Zoom might be. This could be especially effective for the update call a few months after the gift was made.

9. Re-imagine How Your Fundraisers Use Their Time

If too many gift officers and fundraisers at your organization feel like they don’t have time for this, there are a number of problems to deal with. First is the mindset – gratitude is more important than many of the other tasks they’re performing. So a shift needs to happen.

But beyond that, sometimes there is a leadership shift that needs to happen too. Maybe the leadership is subjecting gift officers to too many meetings, or assigning them too many other tasks, so they feel strapped and behind all the time. It’s hard to make thank you calls when you feel hopelessly behind.

Or, maybe their caseloads are too big. Some organizations operate by Dunbar’s Number, and give each gift officer 150 major donors to manage. This is way too many to manage and steward well.

Leadership needs to understand how much time it takes to actually cultivate and steward major donors to stimulate repeat gifts. See how to determine a better caseload size.

See how MarketSmart automates the identification and qualification of major donors

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