Thanking Donors – Once Is Never Enough

I came across an old Chinese custom once that said you should thank someone seven times when they give you a gift. As a fundraiser, I thought this was a great standard to which we should hold our efforts. In our business, there are few things more important than recognizing our donors.

When I mention this concept to people in the non-profit industry, I am often met with incredulous stares. The notion of such an expansive program seems beyond reach for professionals whose time is already stretched to the breaking point. While saying “thank you” seven times may seem like a lot of work, it can be managed if it is broken down, analyzed in part, and planned carefully. I suggest the following seven methods of thanking donors, with an extra thrown in for good measure.

Thank You #1 – The gift entry clerk makes a quick phone call to let the donor know their check has arrived and has been entered. In addition to thanking the donor, this also lets them know their check is not floating around in outer space. This is a good professional development tactic as it invites staff members at every level to interact with donors and speak on behalf of the organization.

Thank You #2 – A brief, handwritten note from the development officer. This will either be the development director or, in a multi-person office, the development officer responsible for that constituent. The handwritten aspect of this note is critical, as it communicates a superior level of personal attention.

Thank You #3 – A typed thank you letter from the organization’s CEO. In an effort to optimize the CEO’s time this is often a mail merge letter. You may wish to send out batches of letters every few days or once each week, depending upon the volume of gifts coming in. It is acceptable to have a few days lag before this letter goes out, assuming the donor has received more immediate recognition, as under Thank You #1 and #2.

Thank You #4 – A typed letter from the board chair or other volunteer. You may wish to reserve the board chair’s participation for particularly significant gifts. If the gifts are for the annual fund and a certain board member supervises that effort, their signature would be appropriate. It can be equally powerful to have a “front line” volunteer sign the letter, as they can attest first-hand to the work made possible by the donation.

Thank You #5 – A brief note from the volunteer who participated in the solicitation. Their presence at the meeting warrants a response to whatever gift resulted from the request.

Thank You #6 – Mention the donor’s name in the organization’s annual report or other publication. This may be done on a periodic basis, as in a quarterly newsletter, or all at once in the annual report.

Thank You #7 – Invite all of your supporters to a donor recognition event. These events take many different forms, depending on the nature of the organization and the giving level being recognized. Orienting the event around some aspect of the organization’s work can help to remind the contributors of the work their gifts support. For instance, a Habitat for Humanity chapter may have their donor recognition event at a home construction site.

Thank You #8 – The final thank you comes at the start of the next solicitation. One of the first sentences of the presentation or letter or phone call should be, “Thank you so much for your gift of $500 dollars last year. That was a tremendous help to us.” Hopefully, the presenter will also say, “For this year, can we count on you to increase your donation to $750?”

When examined in detail like this, it does not seem like such an insurmountable task. Preferably, all of these letters would not go out on the same day. By spreading them out, you can almost continually thank your donors and keep your logo and identity in front of them throughout the year. The key is to have a formal system in place to generate these various responses. These letters cannot be created one at a time as the gifts roll in. They should be drafted and reviewed beforehand, with the necessary staff and volunteers approving the content. In this way the process can be automated, a necessary aspect for an organization with hundreds or thousands of donors.

The next time you are on an airline, you will note (on any well-run airline), the pilot says over the public address system, “We recognize that you have a choice when choosing airlines, and we thank you for choosing ours.” Your donors have a choice, also. Recognizing their gifts as often as possible and in as any ways as possible insures that they will continue to choose your cause when making their charitable decisions.

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