Posted January 1st, 2016

Dos and Don’ts of Thanking Donors

Typewriter with text thank you

Experienced fundraisers know that for their efforts to be most effective it is vital to maximize retention rates of donors acquired through the years. One of the best ways to increase retention and the amount donors give over time is to make sure you don’t take your past donors for granted.

Before turning your full attention to your 2016 fundraising plan, stop and make certain you have properly thanked those donors who extended their support last year. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the dos and don’ts of thanking those who give.

Do acknowledge all gifts promptly.

Once a gift has been received, timely acknowledgment is essential. While you may decide that gifts larger than a threshold you determine call for a personal visit in addition to a handwritten letter and/or phone call, gifts of any size merit an appropriate and timely thank-you.

Don’t fail to acknowledge smaller gifts.

Don’t assume a small gift indicates a small interest on the part of a donor. There may be more appropriate ways to reduce fundraising costs than choosing a minimum gift level for acknowledgement. Many of those who make gifts of smaller amounts may be highly devoted to your cause and may be giving a larger gift in relation to their resources than others. Treat all donors—even those of modest amounts—with the respect they deserve and thank them accordingly.

Keep in mind that older, long-term donors who may be living on a fixed income may be in the process of “deacquisition” and/or “downgrading” their giving. For example, someone who has been a loyal supporter for 25 years may feel she is only able to give $15 currently. Thanking this long-term donor may yield tremendous benefits when that person decides how to distribute her $250,000 estate among a handful of charitable interests that have appreciated and faithfully acknowledged her generosity during her lifetime.

For this reason, you may wish to append age information to your donor file and modify your gift acknowledgment process in a way that considers age and longevity of giving—especially where older donors of relatively small amounts are concerned.

Do communicate thanks by sharing news with your donors.

Whether they have made a large or small gift, those who make contributions of any amount have indicated an interest in your cause. They may have made a sacrifice when giving funds that they could have used for themselves in many ways. Remember that any amount that is given to charity could have been spent, saved or given to a non-charitable beneficiary instead.

Consider sending your donors information about how their gift will make a difference. Invite them to events when possible. Mailing newsletters and other updates, for example, can also be a good way to say thank you on an ongoing basis while informing donors about how their gifts are being used. (See “Three Ingredients for an Effective Newsletter” for newsletter tips.)

Don’t make a recognition society difficult to join.

Many organizations recognize donors of various amounts with memberships in special giving societies. Implementing such recognition efforts—especially for those who have made planned gifts such as bequests, life income plans or other gifts from long-range estate and financial plans—can be an effective way to steward and maintain ongoing relationships. This is especially true when staff turnover is an issue over time.

Membership should be as inclusive as possible. Donors who notify you that they have included your organization in their will or have made some other type of planned gift are showing faith in you and your institution. They are trusting that you will spend their money wisely and will allow them to therefore participate in the fulfillment of your mission.

In the minds of some, by asking them to provide “proof,” such as a copy of a page in their will or of a beneficiary form, you may not be returning the respect and trust they have placed in you. Some donors who are asked to provide documentation may be offended by the request and may then question their commitment.

Perhaps most importantly, many planned gifts are revocable. Even if “proof” is provided, a charitable interest may easily be taken out of a donor’s will at a later date with or without its knowledge. It is best to take the donor at his or her word and use this opportunity to strengthen the bonds that already exist.

An exception may be in the context of a capital campaign or other special development effort where recognition is being given for the gift and/or the institution will rely on the commitment when planning for future spending. In this case, donors will naturally understand the need for
documentation.

Do respect requests for privacy when thanking your supporters.

While you may offer to include recognition society names in your communications pieces, be sensitive to the fact that some donors will wish to remain anonymous for various reasons. Be sure your gift acknowledgment system is designed to respect anonymity where desired.

Remember, however, that just because some do not want their names published does not mean they do not want and need to be thanked or privately recognized. Find less public ways to thank these donors, and they will appreciate your regard for their wishes.

Bottom line.

More nonprofits than ever are asking people to give from income and assets in times of economic uncertainty. Maintaining a close relationship with supporters by expressing your gratitude sincerely and appropriately can go a long way toward growing the regular or occasional donor into a major and/or planned giver.

Help people feel good about their association with you, thank them in meaningful ways, and you will nurture a constituency of long-term, committed donors who are happily devoted to your cause. ■

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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