As we count our many blessings in this season of Thanksgiving I hope a top priority for your gratitude runs to your donors.
Not only is saying Thank You the polite action to take with your donors every day of the year, but wise fundraisers also know in this special season it’s particularly important—and quite productive.
For some fundraisers, creating a special seasonal thank you may be beyond your production capacity at this stage of the year. So, stick this post at the top of our New Year Fundraising Resolutions file. If you get in the habit of saying “Thank You” regularly and effectively, you’ll be mighty pleased with the improvement in your 2023 numbers.
Whether your organization is huge, tiny, or in between implementing an effective and regular thank you program will pay big dividends.
Ignore the Polite and Simple Act of Saying Thanks at Your Peril
The art of saying thank you is one key to building real relationships. Unfortunately, it’s often ignored. Many organizations take weeks, sometimes months to acknowledge gifts. Others never get around to it.
Too many nonprofits view “acknowledgements” (the term often used for what should be a genuine Thank You alone speaks volumes) with a jaundiced eye. They see them as a cost center and a production pain.
As communications specialist Erica Mills put it, “Acknowledging isn’t thanking. An acknowledgement doesn’t make the recipient feel warm and fuzzy about what they’ve done. It makes them remember that soon they’ll have to file taxes. That’s stressful, not joyful.”
The Agitator’s files and Comments section are filled with notes from fundraisers who do understand the importance of the thank you process. They know it’s far more than simply some form of creative receipting.
Angel Aloma, head of Aloma Fundraising and former Executive Director of Food for the Poor writes:
“Thank-you letters have been effective fundraisers for our organization. On average, we get more than one-fifth of our net income from them. We pay a lot of attention to the quality and strength of the letters and make sure they are tremendously donor centric. We don’t include any ask in the letter, but we do include an envelope and a reply piece.
“Among our highest donors, we tested two groups. At the beginning of the year, we sent a sincere, simple thank you card to 25,000 donors for their past generosity—no ask, no reply piece, no envelope. The other group didn’t receive this. Both groups gave almost identical numbers of gifts that year, but the group that received the thank-you gave almost $450,000 more.”
Thank you’s are most effective when personal and relevant, as evidenced by this comment from Jessica Harrington, head of the Harrington Agency:
“For one organization’s first renewal, we personalized the letter to the year the donor first joined and what was happening then. For example, if the donor joined in 1980, she was supporting the organization’s Call to Halt the Arms Race. Or if a donor joined in 2008, she was supporting the counter-recruitment movement. We then showed key milestones the donor helped achieve since she first contributed.
“We didn’t just pull out a date or reference a package—the customization was several paragraphs long and took the donor through the organization’s history and her recognizing that none of this could have happened without her.
“Of course, the key was linking the past accomplishments and donations to why her support was needed today.
“We think we did that. Revenue is up 54%.”
Personal vs Timely? Or Both.
When it comes to showing thanks and appreciation to donors, an infinite amount of advice abounds. Some claim a highly personal thank you is essential. Others argue that a personal thank you isn’t nearly as important as getting something to the donor as quickly as possible.
The studies done by DonorVoice found donors themselves put a premium on timely thank you’s. A slight majority defined ‘timely’ as a note arriving within 48 hours, while an even larger majority indicated they wanted their gift acknowledged no more than a week after it was received.
A caveat on timeliness: quick thank you’s have become more the norm or so-called ‘best practice’ today. But just being fast, as in the use of an autoresponder for online contributions, won’t distinguish you. Nor will a quick and computer generated thank you, churned out and dropped in the mail that night.
I suggest you focus more on the ‘thank you’ part of the communication, stressing why the gift is appreciated, why it matters, and how it was put to work.
Because effectively thanking donors is critical to retention and long-term value of donors, you’ll likely need to make some changes and compromises within your organization. For example, if your policy is to have the CEO sign and personalize thank you’s and the stack is piling up on her or his desk, then you’re betting on the wrong horse.
Strategically and operationally, any organization sacrificing timeliness for personalization – or vice-versa – should change course and figure out how to do both.
P.S. Here’s a list and links to resources you will find particularly helpful:
- Now Say Thank You Nicely. A terrific post from the inimitable Ken Burnett that’ll help you, in Ken’s words, “Perfect your attitude of gratitude.” Plus Ken’s great response to those who believe charities shouldn’t waste money on thank yous.
- A case example. Pamela Grow of The Grow Report offered a lucky nonprofit a free analysis and recommendation from Thank You Guru Lisa Sargent. Take the time to read and learn from the “Before” and “After” analysis.
- Lisa Sargent’s Thank You Letter Clinic. If you’re not aware of this wonderful resource on SOFIIcheck it out. There are sample letters, more ‘before’ and ‘after’ illustrations and great stuff you can simply swipe.
- The late Simone Joyaux’s and Tom Ahern’s recommendations, two of the most thoughtful folks on donor care and retention, can be found in their book Keep Your Donors. It belongs, well read and underlined, on your desk.