Donor recognition should be more than you think it is

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

It’s not about the gift; it’s about the impact of their cumulative contribution.

I’ve been pondering supporter recognition recently, and wondering whether we do this nearly enough, never mind well enough. And by recognition, I’m not talking thanking, which can be pretty transactional, in response to a gift (and about which I’ve written before – Why Asking and Thanking Donors is All Wrong).

And I’m not talking about the sort of recognition that we do in relation to significant donations: honour-roll boards of major donors in reception areas, naming opportunities, of rooms, projects, entire buildings or institutions. Or something as simple as a plaque on the back of a seat, recognising people’s part in a theatre’s refurbishment.

No, here I’m talking about marking moments in someone’s on-going support, an acknowledgement of their cumulative contribution; or marking a moment in their life, that at the same time lets them know you are thinking about them. Which can’t be bad, can it? (There’s a great example of this from Greenpeace USA, here.)

Anniversary recognition is the sort of thing that comes up in brainstorms from time to time – sending supporters anniversary cards. But it rarely seems to happen, and the idea isn’t much more than an anniversary thank-you card. On the evidence of one, in three decades of being a donor, I don’t recall getting any, though as a fundraising director, I’ve made sure we’ve sent some out.

A couple of things have got me thinking about this. Firstly, having just said I didn’t recall getting any, I’ve actually been on the receiving end of a couple of recognition initiatives recently and seen the potential in a couple more.

UK Blood Donor Service
A few years ago I started giving blood again. I’d been a donor as a student, but had to stop because of the amount of travel I was doing (or more accurately, the places work was taking me). A couple of months ago I got a little package in the post for making my tenth donation, with a certificate, a little lapel pin, a new gold donor card. Which together with the texts I get telling me when and where my blood is being used, adds up to quite a powerful and encouraging acknowledgement.

Change.org annual feedback email
And at the start of the year, probably like many of you, I got a round-up email from Change.org, telling me about all the campaigns I’d signed up to support and what progress had been made (or not, in the case of some). I’ll be honest, I didn’t remember half of them, and I can’t think of any of them now – such is the fleeting nature of click-tivism. And yet I remember getting my personalised report, and I remember how it made me feel. I was a bit surprised how many petitions I’d engaged in, when I imagined I just deleted them in the rush to manage email overload. And more importantly, I was surprised too at the warm feeling I had getting that email. I’m a fundraiser, I know that was the point of it, but it was reassuring to know it worked!

The second thing that got me thinking was simply our current fundraising environment. There really couldn’t be a better time to look at something we should all have been doing better all along. The crisis in fundraising in the UK over the last couple of years has highlighted the pressing need to do so much better at engaging supporters. And part of that has to be doing so much better at communicating impact, the difference made, a sense of progress. Cause after cause, people report not really seeing things getting better, and that’s probably because we’re not telling them enough.

I remember a senior FR director telling me a few years ago he had 200,000 donors who had done absolutely nothing for the charity since signing up to regular payment of £2 per month. He wasn’t belittling their regular gift, more reflecting on the conundrum of investing in supporter care.  If they carry on giving regardless of getting communications, and don’t respond further, how do you justify spending money on supporter communication in a culture focused on return on investment and costs?

The truth is, often we don’t. Instead we worry about reminding them they are giving at all, for fear that if they remember, they’ll stop! We see their passivity as an asset. That really doesn’t say much about our self-confidence in inspiring and engaging people with positive news, does it? “Sleeper’” donors, committed or not, get taken out of mailing or newsletter programmes to save money. They drop off our radar, taken for granted, and we become invisible to them.

And here are the other couple of examples that got me thinking.

Mines Advisory Group ‘thankathon’
As a trustee for Mines Advisory Group, I recently helped with a “thankathon,” when staff and trustees took to the phones for a day to call donors. My call list included supporters who had been giving various amounts for many years – some just £10 a month – and it took me aback to see that some of them, giving for 15-20 years, had given a few thousand pounds in that time. We were calling just to thank them for their support, but I couldn’t help but mention the huge amounts their gifts had added up to. A couple of people were genuinely moved to hear that. No one baulked at it, or suggested they regretted it. Not on the phone, anyway! So are these cumulative or anniversary milestone-specific moments to do more with acknowledging what a donor’s giving has achieved?

Oxfam supporter app
Oxfam’s award-winning supporter app gives you access to regular update videos and content. But it also connects to its database and, once registered, you can see your entire giving history, and change your gift level and communication preferences. I found out that I’d made my first donation to Oxfam in 1987 – 30 years ago – and yes, that my monthly gifts over the years added up to rather a lot. Does Oxfam know? It hasn’t ever said so. I know what they’ll be worrying about. Will I gulp at the amount I’ve given over all those years, and stop? Or not? In my case, I was rather embarrassed to see I hadn’t increased my monthly gift in 20 years. I’ve been one of those sleeper donors! I’ll have to put that right … Obviously, Oxfam will be watching to see what people do, and that will guide them on how proactive to be in recognising milestones.

I am certain that people worry where their money is going when they don’t hear enough about the difference or progress being made with it.  We need to use every opportunity to tell that story, and not just focus on the immediate recognition of a donation.

What’s your experience? Are you already doing more on recognition, or do you see it as a nice-to-have, or a waste of money? Whether you do it or don’t, how have you made that decision, and what have you learnt? If you’ve got experience to share, please do.

PS. The UK fundraising and research think tank nfpSynergy also just released a free report on thanking with some great examples of how to do it well.

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Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


Richard Turner · June 20, 2017 at 15:33

We did a thankathon using staff and volunteers for a week 3 years ago at SolarAid when we reached a million solar lights sold in Africa. Each call to a donor we could say thank you for helping us reach this extraordinary milestone. I will never forget speaking to one donor who on hearing what I said asked me to “please repeat what you just said word for word”. So I did only to find she had put me on the speaker phone for her whole family to listen to! Years on and I met donors who said “your’e the guys who called me up to say “thanks a million”. ROI no idea but I am convinced it had an impact. We even did a neat thank you video which I still love watching See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rjZGcEnMDU

    Matthew Sherrington · June 26, 2017 at 10:18

    Thanks Richard. I love this example, sharing a mission milestone with supporters and ensuring they know their part in achieving it. Making progress, which after all, is what they’re going to care about most.

Mary · June 22, 2017 at 17:07

This is really insightful! It’s a fact that everyone likes to feel good when they donate their time and/or money to a cause they care about, and taking a few small steps to show your appreciation can go such a long way, and keep them on as long-time supporters. It’s well worth the effort! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Philippe de Rougemont · February 5, 2019 at 09:16

“What’s your experience? Are you already doing more on recognition, or do you see it as a nice-to-have, or a waste of money?” My experience is that I’ve known this all along but haven’t practised it as much as I want to and fell like now. Thanks a lot for your inspired and inspiring posts there !

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Donor recognition should be highly personalized. The Watermelon Game combines the joys of food, fun, and friendly competition, making it a cherished and flavorful summer tradition for countless people.

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