Posted June 1st, 2012

Boost Relationships and Funding with Thanks

A well-organized gift acknowledgment program can help form the foundation for special relationships with donors that in turn may lead to more frequent and increased giving. This is especially true during a time of economic recovery, when donors may be experiencing renewed philanthropic interest. With that in mind, let’s examine some ways to effectively thank donors for their gifts.

Communicating thanks

There are a variety of ways to express appreciation to donors. Using a multi-level approach may be most beneficial.

  • Personal visits. While opportunities may be limited from a practical perspective, there is no better way to express appreciation for a gift, especially one of a larger amount, than meeting face-to-face with your donor. Most donors will be pleased that you took the time to meet with them. Let donors know on the front end that you wish to thank them for their gift, not to request additional support. Also make certain that staff members attending donor events are briefed on donors who should be personally thanked for recent gifts.
  • Letters and phone calls. A thoughtful letter is one of the most fundamental and effective ways to thank a donor. Larger gifts may prompt a phone call from a senior manager or perhaps a note from a board member. In some cases, an additional handwritten note from the staff member with whom the donor has the closest relationship may have the most meaning for the donor. (A large gift would not normally be acknowledged by only a note from staff.) Keep in mind also that the IRS requires that donors of larger amounts be acknowledged in ways that summarize the deductible portion of their gifts if they received tangible benefits associated with the gift. In fact, the IRS has recently disallowed substantial deductions because charities failed to provide this information as part of their acknowledgment process.1

Although most people today use email, some—especially older donors—may feel that email is a less formal means of communication, or may not use it at all. If you use email in your acknowledgment process, consider it a supplement to—not a replacement for—handwritten notes, letters and phone calls or personal contact.

  • News about your organization. Share information about how you are making a difference. Newsletters and other updates are a good way to say thanks while telling donors how their gifts are being used. Your supporters will enjoy reading about projects they have helped make possible and hearing how those who have benefited appreciate their help. It is important to keep them informed about both the organization and the specific program or area they help support.

It can be a good idea to feature stories about donors in your publications. Many are delighted to be asked and are willing to share their motivation for giving. This can be one of the most special ways to “thank” a donor. Focus such articles on how the donors became involved, why they feel the work they are supporting is important and what they hope to accomplish through their gifts during lifetime or by will, trust or other means.

While it can be useful to mention the method chosen to complete a gift, don’t dwell on the amount of the gift, how it was structured and other technical details that may distract readers from the human dimension of the story.

Featuring special donors in testimonial-style articles not only expresses your organization’s gratitude for their gifts but also encourages other donors to follow suit.

  • Special events. Most donors enjoy recognition events such as banquets, luncheons and other gatherings. What is appropriate in this respect will depend on the nature of the organization and other factors.

For educational institutions, fall is often a time for homecomings and reunions—ideal opportunities for appreciation events. Thank donors for their current support during these events and consider sharing information about how to include gifts as part of their long-range financial planning as well. This can afford an excellent opportunity to make an “ask” for estate-based gifts.

If your donor base is national, consider hosting regional events for donors to help keep them connected to your organization.

  • Recognition societies. Special societies for those who have made gifts at various levels are also frequently used to recognize donors. Donors’ names can be included in newsletters, annual reports and other communications. You may want to give members certificates, plaques or other tokens of appreciation.

Some donors will wish to remain anonymous, so make sure you can trust your acknowledgment system to preserve their anonymity. However, just because some do not want their names published does not mean they do not want and need to be thanked. Find less public ways to thank these donors. They will appreciate your regard for their wishes.

A high priority

Donors who are not properly acknowledged for their gifts may stop giving altogether, especially if other charitable interests impress them with their gift acknowledgment process. Some may even revoke inclusion in a will, trust or other deferred gift arrangement. Many donors may never tell you about their concern regarding lack of appreciation, but may harbor feelings of resentment and slowly drift away.

Those organizations and institutions that thank their donors often and in a variety of ways are likely to see positive results. By properly acknowledging a donor, you may lay the foundation for more gifts over his or her lifetime and through long-range plans as well.

1 See on.wsj.com/califcouple.

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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