Donors give to your organization because they believe you are making a difference in a cause they care about. They value your work and want to support you in changing the world. Their gifts are investments in the work they expect you to accomplish.
So it follows that results are the best way to show your recognition and appreciation for your donors. Most donors don't need plaques or trinkets, which often cause donors to question your spending priorities.
Donors want to see what their gifts allowed you to accomplish -- specific facts and stories of how they changed the lives of real people. This is how they will know their money was put to the best use in your programs and services.
They want to hear about the women they helped shelter from domestic violence, the lonely senior citizens whose lives are brightened by your daily visits, or the inner-city children who were inspired by their first encounter with organic gardening at your community farm. Tell your supporters, in person if you can, or through newsletters, e-mail, and phone calls, how someone's life was changed by the programs they made possible.
In addition to stories, do not underestimate the power of facts and statistics on donors. Share as much detail as you can about the progress you have made, the number of people you have expanded to reach, and the effectiveness of your work. Explain the statistics that show the impact your orchestra program has on the math scores of the children you serve, the track record of your life skills program, the number of affordable houses you have built for struggling families, or the percentage of the troubled teens who go on to graduate from college after participating in your mentoring program.
Instead of fancy baubles or plaques, find inexpensive and personal ways to thank your donors and connect them to your mission. Have the students from one of your classrooms hand deliver a scroll of paper with their handprints and thank- you messages; stop by with a rescued dog and pictures of the abused animals the donor helped rescue; or send a simple personal letter from a staff member or volunteer with a signed photo of the grateful recipients of your organization's services.
Whether yours is a complex research program, a public policy group, or a local health services clinic, there is a compelling way to recognize your donors with the facts about what their money allowed you to do and the firsthand stories about the lives it changed. By recognizing and honoring your donors this way, you will make lasting friends. This deeper recognition of the difference they make is the thanks they really want, and it will cause them to remain loyal to your organization for a lifetime and to keep asking, "How else can I help you?"
Terry Axelrod is the author of The Joy of Fundraising: How to Stop Suffering and Start Enjoying Asking for Money for Your Favorite Cause. It can be ordered from the publisher.