“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
– William Arthur Ward, American writer (1921-1994)
Thanking donors for their charitable gifts is often discussed but surprisingly, many nonprofit organizations still lag behind in acknowledging charitable donations, either from the standpoint of common courtesy or the legal requirements.
The Internal Revenue Service provides detailed guidance for legally acknowledging charitable donations of all types on its web page, “Substantiating Charitable Contributions.”
While working with many nonprofit organizations as an employee, adjunct staff member and volunteer over the years, I have known some nonprofits to be extremely conscientious about acknowledging donors. But some nonprofits – even those that have received six and seven-figure contributions to capital and endowment campaigns – have sometimes failed to acknowledge those gifts promptly, or at all.
My experience is that constant staff turnover is often the cause of some of this negligence. Raymond Flandez’ article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy (2012) is eye opening and timeless, “The Cost of High Turnover in Fundraising Jobs.”
“The high turnover rate of fundraisers is costing charities money. Lots of money. The average amount of time a fundraiser stays at his or her job: 16 months. The direct and indirect costs of finding a replacement: $127,650.”
To this I would add that constant turnover in the development department can also result in lost relationships with key donors. And who is normally responsible for acknowledging and communicating with donors? The development staff.
A report sponsored by CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund discusses similar concerns (and more), “Underdeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising” (2013).
Certainly, most nonprofits today use constituent relationship management systems to record the basic facts about donors and prospective contributors. But subtle information regarding donor preferences, personal interests, communication styles and the like can be lost in an employee shuffle. This can result in lost contributions.
I mention in a prior blog article a nonprofit with which I worked that had to return a $1 million grant to a donor. I was hired to repair the damage and help the organization raise millions to complete a stalled capital campaign. Shortly after my arrival, my conversation with this donor revolved around one central issue: the failure to communicate. They “never heard back.”
The positive side of this story is that we did eventually secure the funding required to complete the campaign. The negative side is that after almost three years of solid professional fundraising – and having left behind detailed documentation about each donor – donors associated with this tremendous project were still left to drift. Why?
The director retired immediately after celebrating the success of the capital campaign. It took a year to find a replacement. No development professional was recruited to carry forward with donor “TLC” until after a new director was hired. In my estimation, this group could have continued to secure significant funding well into the future (including for a greatly needed endowment), if it had built upon the momentum we created during those three happy and productive years of major gift fundraising. Thankfully, the nonprofit is properly staffed at last.
In the case of another nonprofit organization with which I worked, the director expressed the opinion that donors should give generously without needing recognition or special communications of any kind. It was a tough sell to get the director to pay attention to the nonprofit’s contributors, but once we did, the nonprofit reaped significant financial rewards. You might enjoy my article sharing additional advice, “Taking a Step Back Will Lead You Forward.”
I have posted below several resources regarding acknowledging donors. There are some terrific ideas to be found therein, from how to write standard written thank you letters and notes to creating thank you videos, thank you e-mails and e-cards, and acknowledging donors with social media.
I believe successful fundraising professionals should consider thanking donors in multiple ways and on multiple occasions over time, not just once. In my early nonprofit training, we were taught that thanking donors seven times was the secret to retaining them, and to receiving additional future contributions. Of course, to make this process easier on you and your staff, you will want to develop a plan to accomplish it.
On a personal note, in addition to the above methods I enjoy incorporating high quality e-cards into my “thank you” strategies for donors and volunteers. In addition to beautiful e-cards, Paperless Post has an ever-growing range of capabilities including securely housing your VIP e-mail lists, allowing e-card recipients to respond back with personal messages, the ability to download RSVPs and guest lists in various formats. Hallmark, American Greetings, Jacquie Lawson and even some creative nonprofit organizations have developed their own attractive e-cards. For some, this is still considered a very modern and somewhat unusual approach to thanking donors. But as online communications have become increasingly popular, you might consider including e-cards into your “thank you” mix.
On another topic, some experts will tell you giving a tangible gift to a donor is inappropriate, and I believe their concerns are well-founded. Gift-giving can get out of hand. Gifts should not overshadow your nonprofit’s cause, nor cost so much they put a burden on the budget of the nonprofit.
However, don’t put down those “premiums.” T-shirts, mugs, writing instruments and wristbands emblazoned with your logo, for instance, are a relatively inexpensive form of advertisement and endorsement. That is very valuable to your nonprofit organization, and many nonprofit donors enjoy showing-off their support of your good cause by wearing or using those kinds of items.
I have also found that donor gifts need not be expensive to provide immense joy. High quality photographs of the donor or volunteer participating in a nonprofit event or program are a good example. These images bind their hearts and minds even more closely to your nonprofit. There are several platforms today that enable you to create photo “books.” Whether you give a donor a framed a photograph, or create a modern book with multiple images (Google Photo Books is one excellent example), these are a beautiful way to recognize donors.
Regardless of how you acknowledge and encourage your donors – in the old fashioned or more modern ways – in the end the important thing is simply to do it.
- Fidelity Charitable has posted, “How to thank donors who use donor-advised funds” (n.d.), which includes a downloadable thank you template.
- Kivi Leroux Miller provides timeless information in her Nonprofit Marketing Guide, “Advice and Tips – Thank You Letters for Nonprofits” (2016).
- Network for Good has produced, “The Complete Donor Thank You Guide” (2018). Click on the link to download it. You might also enjoy, “How to (Easily) Thank Donors with Video” (March 13, 2020).
- Jeff Brooks of Future Fundraising Now has posted, “How to Thank Donors, and Measure the Impact of Your Thanking” (2012).
- Raymond Flandez has posted, “How to Make Great Thank-You Videos,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy (November 29, 2011).
- Joanne Fritz provides good basic advice in, “Ten Tips for Donor Thank You Letters: You Can Never Say Thank You Too Well or Too Often,” About.com Guide (2019).
- Terrific advice comes from Marc A. Pitman, The Fundraising Coach (2010), “7 Ways to Thank a Donor.”
- Minda Zetlin wrote for Inc. Magazine, “How to Write a Sincere Thank-You Note That Will Make People Smile” (2017).
- Chive Charities has a highly effective way of engaging donors and thanking them, so that they keep giving and increasing their donations. Follow the link to read more. “Donors are connected to the entire story from beginning to end – we watch our recipients go out into the world to do incredible things, and we are right beside them.”
The photographs illustrating this article were provided by Adobe Spark.