Posted November 1st, 1998

Acknowledgement Programs–From Two Gift Planners’ Perspectives

Part I of our discussion with two development professionals about thanking donors.

Acknowledging gifts is crucial element of any gift planning program, no matter what the type of nonprofit organization or institution. To find out more about how different charitable organizations thank their donors, Give & Take spoke with Tom Cullinan, executive director of gift planning for the University System of Maryland, and Donald Ragona, director of planned giving for the Native American Rights Fund. While their missions may be different, they have similar thoughts on why acknowledging donors for their gifts is an essential component of the fund-raising process.

Give & Take: There have been many articles in Give & Take about the importance of thanking donors for their gifts. Why do you think acknowledging donors’ gifts is so important to your organization?

Cullinan: There are really two aspects to acknowledging donors’ gifts. One is related to the business of what we’re doing–documenting our receipt of the gift–and the other is our expression of appreciation for the donor’s generosity. The documentation aspect is also useful to the donor, who may wish to claim an income tax charitable deduction, and it is useful to us because it confirms our receipt of the gifts and becomes a written record evidencing the donation. Beyond that mechanical function, the acknowledgment goes directly to the relationship we wish to extend with our donors. We seek continuing involvement, ongoing positive contacts, and the opportunity to earn donors’ commitments for subsequent gifts.

Ragona: Gifts to a nonprofit organization are our lifeblood. Without them, we don’t exist. Stewardship, regardless of the type of nonprofit, has to be the watchword. You’ve got to let individuals know how important they really are, regardless of the size of the gift, from the $1 gift right on up to the $1 million endowment gift. People like to be thanked, some privately and some publicly. If you don’t thank the donor, your job is only half done. To just drop the ball after receiving the gift, I think you are doing a disservice not only to the donor but also to your organization. Ideally you want to keep that relationship going, build it to the point that a donor becomes so genuinely close to you that it is a natural thing to put you in his or her will or trust or remember you in some other significant way.

Give & Take: Explain your organization’s system for acknowledging gifts and thanking donors. Is there a difference in the way you acknowledge major donors and planned givers?

Cullinan: As gift planning officers we write personal letters and notes to the donors, we speak with donors by telephone, and we often write or call the advisors who were involved in helping us get a gift commitment. Donors also receive letters from the development officer of the particular college the gift will benefit, as well as the dean, the vice president for university advancement, and the president of the university. We try not to make planned givers feel different from other donors. What we try to do, since we are in a campaign environment, is credit and recognize donors of deferred gifts just as we do donors of current gifts. We encourage people to participate in the campaign the best way they can. We want to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

Ragona: All of our programs are named for traditions or special positions in Native American culture. For our major gift program, we have the Peta Uha Society. While all of our donors are respected, these people are held in very high esteem by the Native American Rights Fund. Peta Uha means “fire keeper” and, among the Lakota, this individual was a very honored tribal member who made a solemn commitment to ensure that as the tribe traveled, the sacred flame, a source of life and energy, would always be kept burning. We have two tiers to the Peta Uha Society. The Silver Feather level involves a minimum annual gift of $500, and these donors receive a beautiful certificate designed by a well-known Native American artist which is signed by our executive director and board chairman. Thirty days after the certificate is sent the donors receive a silver feather lapel pin. The same items are also given to our Gold Feather members who make annual gifts of $1,000 or more, but their pin is made of gold. I also try to visit donors, shake their hands, and personally thank them for their help. For those people who can’t afford to give at higher dollar levels today, but decide to include NARF in a deferred gift such as making us beneficiary of a life insurance policy or leaving us in their will, we have the Circle of Life Program. Circle of Life donors receive a certificate and a wheel decorated with porcupine quills depicting a cross within a circle, containing the four sacred colors–red, black, yellow, and white. This wheel symbolizes the never-ending circle of life that is universally important in Indian culture.

See next month’s issue of Give & Take for Part II of this discussion in which Mr. Cullinan and Mr. Ragona share more insights about acknowledging donors.

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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