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Nonprofit Strategies

How to plan a fun donor appreciation event on a limited budget

Here’s a simple guide to putting together an affordable yet special donor appreciation event that will help your community feel valued.

Rachel Mills
June 8, 2021

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When it comes to donor retention, two little words go a long way. A simple "thank you" shows your supporters they made an impact, and you recognize (and appreciate!) their contribution.

Research shows that first-time donors who receive a thank you message within 48 hours following a contribution are four times more likely to give again. You can send a quick thank you using automated messages, but sometimes it's nice to take your gratitude to the next level.

A donor appreciation event is a fun way to celebrate your supporters for their generosity.

Small and major donors alike gather to see how their funds were used, meet your staff members and volunteers face-to-face, and enjoy an evening out. Below, we explain why donor appreciation matters, and how to plan a donor appreciation event for your budget.

Why does donor appreciation matter?

Seth Meyers No GIF By Late Night With Seth Meyers

Imagine the last time you showed generosity. You watched your neighbor's dog while they took a much-needed weekend away. You purchased a gift for a friend's engagement party. You volunteered as a chaperone at the 8th grade class trip.

And when all was said and done, you received… radio silence.

When people give out of the good of their hearts, they don't expect anything in return — except a little acknowledgment.

Forgoing the simple "thank you" makes people feel undervalued, unappreciated, and unnoticed.

While you can mend the situation with a friend or neighbor, you typically don't get a second chance with donors.

If you forgo a thank you to new donors, chances are they won't come back. Thanking donors should be a standard practice within your donor engagement strategy. Send a quick thank you note immediately following a donation, then organize a donor appreciation event once per year.

How to organize a donor appreciation event in 6 easy steps

You don't need to throw a ball gown, black-tie gala to thank your donors. Below, we give you a basic outline on how to prepare a donor appreciation event that fits every budget.

1. Start with the basics ☝️

To kick off your planning, you need the basic logistics:

  • Who: Who will you invite? Will all donors be invited, or just those who contributed major gifts? Will you include all employees, contractors, or volunteers?
  • What: What type of event will you host? Will it be in-person, or will you stick to a virtual event or webinar due to the coronavirus pandemic?
  • When: When will your event take place? If donors travel long distances, you will want to schedule it as far in advance as possible (4-6 months, minimum).
  • Where: Where can you hold your event? If you're a school or religious group, you could reserve your multipurpose room or another gathering area. If you're a nonprofit organization, you can host it at your office or rent a space (budget permitting).
  • How: How will you get the word out and collect RSVPs? Will you mail invitations with a custom thank you letter, email a virtual invitation, or give each donor a phone call? (To easily get in touch with donors, use a donor management system to store all contact information.)

2. Set your budget 💰

Now that you have the basic details ironed out, it's time to set a budget. Any event will come with a cost attached. With that being said, you can come up with creative ways to save funds, including:

  • Invitations: Evites — like those from Greenvelope or Paperless Post — are far more affordable (and environmentally friendly) than paper invitations. If you need other marketing materials, consider using pre-made templates from Canva rather than hiring a designer.
  • Venue: A rented space will eat up the bulk of your cost. Find creative solutions by transforming your office into a party space or hosting a house party at a board member's home. If you're following social distancing guidelines, consider holding it at an outdoor space, like a park (don’t forget to apply for permits first).
  • Food and drink: Consider hosting a cocktail hour or brunch rather than a multi-course dinner. Purchase alcohol from a local grocer and task a staff member with serving as a  bartender for the evening.
  • Entertainment: Consider booking a local band or DJ, or simply creating a Spotify playlist for music. Invite individuals who have an active role to give a short speech on your organization's mission. This could be your executive director or someone who was directly impacted by your cause.

3. Create an itinerary ⏰

Even though it's a party, your event should have a start and end time. Set an itinerary, and ensure you stick to it. If you're wondering how to fill time throughout the evening, here are a few budget-friendly ideas to get you started:

  • Give a welcome address: Have a board member or executive welcome everyone to the party, thank donors for their contributions, and revisit your mission and values as an organization.
  • Create a video or slideshow: Create a montage of videos and photos from various fundraiser events throughout the year. Set your video to music for guests to enjoy.
  • Create a timeline: Create an art installation of major milestones since the new year.  Show any major events, fundraising campaigns, social media or PR mentions, and other events. Wherever possible, show donors how their money was used (e.g., "Purchased 80 new band uniforms for the middle school" or "Fed 873 meals to seniors during the pandemic").
  • Share personal stories: Invite several individuals to share short (3-5 minute) anecdotes about how donations personally impacted them. For example, if you raised money for the school volleyball team, invite two senior players to speak. If you raised funds for cancer research, invite several survivors to share their story.
  • Create a photo booth: Collect photos of donors socializing with volunteers and staff. You can either rent one or set up a DSLR on a tripod with a remote timer.
  • Set up lawn games: Set up cornhole (bags), life-sized Jenga, or a mini-putt course to entertain guests.

4. Assign roles to staff and board members 👯

A donor appreciation event is extremely different from a fundraising event. First and foremost, a donor appreciation is never, ever, ever about asking for additional funds. Instead, it's a time to thank donors and enjoy your time together.

Assign roles to each staff member, ensuring they are mingling about the party. This is your opportunity to deepen donor relationships, creating a personal contact with each person in attendance. As you assign roles, keep the following in mind:

  • Welcoming guests: Assign 1-2 people to welcome each guest, take coats, and explain the layout of the evening.
  • Food and beverage station: Assign 2-3 bartenders and servers, ensuring everyone is quickly served any refreshments.
  • Mingling: Make sure each person is actively approaching donors, introducing themselves, and asking to learn more about each donor. No donor should be standing by themselves in a corner.

5. Thank your donors one last time 💕

Before your donors leave for the evening, be sure to thank them one last time.

Remember to keep these thank yous thoughtful, but not extravagant.

After all, donors want the assurance their contributions went toward the cause they care about — not parties or gifts. Here are several ideas:

  • Card: Write a handwritten note.
  • Small gift: Offer a unique gift from a local business.
  • Photos: Send home a Polaroid candid shot from the evening.
  • Plant: Send home a potted plant or succulent (potting plants could also be an activity for the evening).

When it comes to thanking donors, timing is everything

Timing Is Everything GIF By Australian Survivor

To increase donor retention, you should thank supporters as soon as possible. Choose a fundraising platform that includes automated thank you messages as one of their features.

With Givebutter, each donor gets an automated thank you immediately following each contribution. In addition, Givebutter comes with 70+ features to increase donor recognition and engagement. Ready to see how Givebutter can make a difference in your organization? Get started with a free account today.

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Set up your peer-to-peer fundraiser for free in just a few minutes →

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