Posted December 1st, 1998

Acknowledging Donors–Part II

Part II of our discussion with two development professionals about the significance of thanking donors.

In last month’s Give & Take, we featured an interview with two development professionals about acknowledgment systems and the importance of thanking the people who give to nonprofit organizations. This month we continue our in-depth discussion with Tom Cullinan, executive director of gift planning at the University System of Maryland, and Donald Ragona, director of planned giving for the Native American Rights Fund.

Give & Take: How do you acknowledge those long-term donors who may not give large sums of money, but who have exhibited their commitment to your organization regularly for many years?

Cullinan: We try to give such donors special attention. Longevity is a key indicator of a higher likelihood for making planned gifts, so we always look for ways to involve these people. When you look at setting up a campaign, the people who tend to be named to advisory committees or campaign cabinets are those who either have made a large donation in the past, have the potential to make a large gift, or they work for a company who could make a significant gift. But we also try to involve those very committed donors to cement the relationship in the most positive way possible, inviting them to explore new connections with the University. These people may not be on everyone’s “A” list, so to speak. But I think it is our job to comb the “B” and “C” lists and to seek to include the most committed among the ranks of these donors in appropriate ways.

Ragona: We have some loyal Peta Uha [NARF giving society] members who are reaching a point in their lives when they can no longer give at the same level. We are now in the midst of developing a program specifically for these people. What this program will do is formally acknowledge them as lifelong members, thank them for their support over these many years, and let them know that just because they are not able to give as much or as often as in the past, that they will always be a vital part of the Native American Rights Fund and that they will continue to be honored members of the NARF family.

Give & Take: What advice would you give to fellow gift planning professionals about the importance of having a system in place for acknowledging donors’ gifts?

Cullinan: I think the most important thing about any system is that it be responsive to our donors’ needs. The philosophy I have about systems and procedures is that they are there to help us out not when we are good at our job, but when we are not. So you want to make sure that donor acknowledgments aren’t overlooked or somehow don’t get done in the proper way. I also think it is important that you have a flexible system, one that will draw out people who are good examples who will inspire others and provide models for other prospective donors. For example, we currently have one particular faculty member who is making a commitment to the University. Because it may lead us to finding other faculty members who are interested in making similar gifts, this gift is getting the kind of attention a larger gift would receive because it serves as a good example of what a faculty member can do. If you don’t recognize donors for their commitments, they are going to be less likely to give again. People can be forgiving, but there is a limit as to how forgiving we want to ask them to be.

Ragona: Genuine contact is invaluable and genuine thanks will be appreciated. Don’t be phony with your donors. If you believe in what your organization is doing, share that story. You won’t connect with everyone, but the relationship with those people with whom you make a strong connection will be lifelong, and it will be both personally rewarding and financially beneficial for your organization.

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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