Thank You!

This is the cover of an old-fashioned thank you card purchased at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, designed by Rifle Paper Co.

“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 webpage, “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. I urge you to read Raymond Flandez’ article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy (April 2, 2012), “The Cost of High Turnover in Fundraising Jobs.”

Front view portrait of four business executives sitting in a line

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 customer relationship management systems to record the basic facts about constituents. But subtle information regarding donor preferences, personal interests, communication styles and the like can be lost in the shuffle. This can ultimately be even more costly when it comes to potential 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 of dollars 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.”

If you don’t thank your donors, you might be “unplugged” from future gifts.

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 left to drift.

The director departed and it took a year to find a replacement. No development professional was recruited to carry forward with donor “TLC” (tender loving care), until after the new director was hired.  In my estimation, this group could have successfully continued to secure significant funding well into the future if it had built upon the momentum we started during those three happy years. Thankfully, the nonprofit is properly staffed at last and working diligently to get back on track.

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.

I have posted below several helpful online resources regarding acknowledging donors (and tracking donations). There are some fabulous ideas to be found therein, from how to write standard written thank you letters and notes to creating thank you videos, donor walls, thank you e-mails, 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 for accomplishing it.

On a personal note, in addition to the above methods I enjoy incorporating high quality ecards into my “thank you” strategies for donors and volunteers. In addition to beautiful ecards, Paperless Post has an ever-growing range of capabilities including securely housing your VIP e-mail lists, allowing ecard 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 nonprofits have developed their own suites of attractive ecards.

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 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 them.

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 an event or program are a good example. These images bind their hearts and minds even more closely to your nonprofit.

Regardless of how you decide to acknowledge and encourage your donors – in the old fashioned or modern ways – in the end the important thing is simply to do it. And kudos to the tech companies that are giving mobile donor communications a classy touch!

Additional Resources

A shorter, updated version of this article appears on the website of Nonprofit Ally (November 29, 2016).


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