by Elaine Fogel

Do You Make Your Donors Feel Special?

Guest post by Jeffrey Mendola

Man and woman shaking hands

Fundraisers love their donors.  We send them tax letters, fill their mailboxes with information we really want to share with them and then, we ask them to give again.

But, how do we know if we’re managing our donor relationships correctly? Most of us have excellent ways to steward our major donors.  Yet, it’s the smaller donors and, most importantly, our first-time donors that have the potential to help our organizations IF we can hang on to them.

According to best-selling author and nonprofit philanthropy expert, Gail Perry, less than a third of first-time donors will give a second gift and, only one in five will go on to make three gifts or more. What are we doing wrong?

Fundraising expert, Penelope Burk, suggests that at least 70% of donor attrition could be due to the way we say thank you and communicate with our donors.  Is it easier to keep a current donor or identify, educate, cultivate, solicit and obtain a gift from a new one?

Time for a confession.  When I worked for Mercy Flight, I used to send our IRS-compliant thank-you letter to all small-gift donors.  If the donation was over $250, I would augment the letter with a signed note from the CEO. For gifts over $500, I would include a color photo of one of our medical helicopters. It was all about the money, right?

Then I had an epiphany.  What’s more important: a single $500 gift or $100 a year for 10 years plus a bequest (willed donation)?  It certainly has to be easier to steward a $100 donor than to acquire a new $500 donor every year.

So, we created a grid that defines how we’ll make each segment of our donor population feel “special.”

Here are some ideas:

First-time donors receive a handwritten note – regardless of the amount – and a welcome “packet” or success story postcard a few weeks later.  Perhaps you can ask your volunteers to call and welcome them.

In the thank-you letter for second-year donors, say thanks for supporting you again this year.  If they’ve increased their donation, why not thank them for giving a “little extra” and indicate how it will help the mission.

Milestone donors receive a phone call from a board member or CEO inviting them for a special site visit dedicated to 5/10/15-year donors.  This needn’t be costly. Offer them coffee, tea, and homemade or purchased desserts as if you were having friends visit.

Of course, you can customize these ideas to fit your organization’s needs. Work collaboratively with your team to develop your own donor recognition strategy.

You will still want to lavish your major-gift donors with gratitude, engraved bricks, and phone calls from the CEO, but it’s equally as important to make all your donors feel “special” – no matter the size of their gifts.


Jeff Mendola


Jeffrey Mendola is the Director of Mission Advancement for New Directions Youth and Family Services. Jeff was recently recognized as a Rising Star in FundRaising Success’ 2013 Fundraising Professionals of the Year Awards. He is a board member and co-chair of the professional advancement committee for the WNY chapter of AFP.

To receive a copy of Jeff’s matrix, e-mail him at:

13 Responses to Do You Make Your Donors Feel Special?

  • When I first conducted research over a decade ago on the impact of thank you letters on donor loyalty and generosity, donors identified two prominent deficiencies — the time it took to receive acknowledgement letters after making gifts and the predictable nature of their content. I am happy to report that donors now say they receive far more thank you letters in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, they continue to be deflated by the content.

    • I remember that well, Paul, as I was working for a large nonprofit at the time. I also remember that tax receipts didn’t go out until tax season! So, donors could have to wait months for a proper thank you. Yikes.

      Please explain why you think the content now is flawed.
      Thanks for weighing in!

  • Good thinking! Repeat donations only cost a fraction of acquiring a new donor.

  • Instead of sending out a generic letter, customize your Thank You letter to the specific ask that was used to generate the gift. If a gift comes to you from an appeal you sent out, then make sure your Thank You letter refers back to the story or the text in the appeal. You may need to write several different letters that can be used for whatever you have going on. For instance, you may want to write one letter for a special event you are working on, another one for monthly givers, and another one for donors who respond to your newsletter. Relating the Thank You letter back to the ask is a way to let your donors know you are paying attention and that you are organized enough to use their money they way you said you would.

  • I’m a board member of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. Every couple months, I call donors to thank them for their gifts. I’m just as busy – maybe more busy (but please, this isn’t a competition!) – than any of your board members. I make time to call donors. Then I report back to staff.

  • Thanks Jay – now you’ve made me feel special.

  • Outstanding post! I wish every fundraiser could see . . .

  • Great ideas, Jeff, and thanks for your guest post!

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