As fundraising professionals, we all know that we need to thank our donors. What most of us don’t realize is that our donors already know what kind of thanks, beyond a standard acknowledgement, would be most meaningful. The best thank yous say more than just, well, thank you.

Donors want to see results. In fact, in focus group research that we’ve conducted here at Good Works we’ve heard from donors over and over again that they want to see what their last donation achieved before they make their next one. In our most recent online poll, almost 70% of Canadian donors said that charities should do a better job of telling them where their money was spent – and what impact their money had on supporting a charity’s mission and programs.

So even though we all know that stewardship is an incredibly important part of the cultivation process, it would seem that it’s not something we do as well or as often as we should. It’s critically important that you say thank you in a personal way, and that your best thank yous are not reserved only for donors who gave big today. The best thanks yous are inspired because they say thank you AND they spell out the charitable good or social change that the donation itself facilitated. In my view, getting this right is what separates donor acknowledgement from stewardship.

I did a quick scan of the sector and used my social networks to ask one simple question: What is your best donor thank you or recognition practice? Here’s a quick overview of some of the fantastic examples of great donor thank yous that were brought to my attention.

Just film it. We can’t always thank our donors in person, and the thank-you video is about as personalized as it gets without having to show up at your donor’s front door. The Small Change Fund, which uses a crowd-funding model to connect donors to grassroots projects, has leveraged video effectively to thank donors for their one-time donation and also at the end of a project to report back to donors what the project achieved. The project videos are particularly effective because they feature program participants – not just staff or volunteers – who share how their lives have been transformed in their own words. It’s pretty close to meeting the person you helped and being a first-hand witness to the change you brought about.

Making video has never been easier or more affordable to do. These aren’t necessarily high-tech or complicated videos – they don’t have to be. And frankly, it’s the personal touch that really matters. An online tool like Animoto or the video editing software that came installed on your computer will often suffice.

Hand-written thank you note. The hand-written letter or note is quickly becoming a lost art. Not everyone is skilled at writing thank you notes from the heart, but I bet if you look closely at your board, staff or volunteer team, you’ll find a person who not only thinks that the thank you note is incredibly important, but who also happen to be really good at writing them. These incredible individuals write heartfelt and sincere thank yous that marry appreciation and the difference an investment makes.

In these days of high-tech, fast-paced email communications, there’s nothing like a thoughtful handwritten note that arrives in the mail, perhaps with even a program artifact or picture enclosed, to make your donors feel valued.

Postcards from the field. Who better to write a thank you letter, note or postcard than staff working directly on the social change your organization is striving to make? At Inter Pares, staff members are asked to share their handwritten stories of the people and organizations they’re meeting with abroad on blank postcards that are then snail mailed to donors.

If your organization is able to capture rich photography, an app like Simply Postcards may make saying a personalized thank you a cinch. Snap a good picture of an event or a program in action with your smart phone (or ask someone directly involved at the program level to do so), and you can quickly send a customized postcard to your supporters along with a personalized thank you note on the reverse. The key is making sure it’s a good quality photo that visibly demonstrates your social impact.

Thank you from someone who benefitted from your work. Stories of how your charity impacted or changed someone’s life adds a vital human element to your good work. I recently saw an impressive thank you that Rouge Valley Health System Foundation mailed to their donors. This three-panel self-mailer featured a photo of a father, Andrew, with his daughter. It also told his story, in a letter written in his own handwriting, of how the hospital and Dr. Vijay saved his life when he was rushed by ambulance to the emergency room. The piece also included quotes from other patients thanking donors for ensuring that the hospital had up-to-date equipment that saved their lives, too.

If you’re not already collecting stories from the clients or people who use your services, this is an essential component to add to your donor stewardship and cultivation efforts.

Repurposing the infographic. The infographic is an increasingly popular way to communicate these days. It’s a new way to tell a story. I’m seeing more and more charities ditch the annual report and move to the infographic to show their donors the impact of their investment. Charity : Water continually does fantastic things with their donor stewardship efforts. Check out how they’re breaking stewardship boundaries by taking a look at the 2011 year in review that Charity : Water emailed to their supporters (you may also want to check out their five year anniversary thank you video campaign while you’re at it).

One note of caution if you opt to go the infographic route – make sure you tell a story. The emphasis should be on what you did with the money, and not just how much you raised.

Pick up the phone. When was the last time you picked up the phone to simply call a donor to thank them for supporting your organization? I’ve seen staff members make it their mission to call one donor every day of the year, and I’ve also seen organized phone thank you campaigns where staff, board members and program participants call to thank donors for their support.

This is a fantastic way to engage your donors in a one-to-one conversation about the work your organization is undertaking. It’s not only inspiring for your donors to hear directly from you, but you may also find that you get a little bit more passionate and excited about the work you’re doing. I love talking with donors. If you haven’t connected with your donors in a while, start with those who have been loyal to your organization with gifts for several years and your monthly donors.

Cultivating the next generation. What do you do when you receive reply coupons or letters that note your donor is now deceased? Most of us would update our records and move on.

One of my colleagues wrote a blog post on a letter that she received from Carefor Health and Community Services after letting them know her grandmother passed away. I encourage you to read the post and take a look at the brilliant letter that Carefor sent to her. It reminded me to see our donors as people and not just donors. This is something that Carefor obviously excels at.

Inspired thank yous move beyond saying thank you. They show impact. They’re personalized.

What are some of the best examples of inspired thank yous that you’ve seen of late? How are you going to move from donor acknowledgement to stewardship?

This article first appeared over at Charity Village as part of our series on Deconstructing Philanthropy.