Posted October 1st, 2010

Dos and Don’ts of Thanking Donors

In today’s environment, it is more important than ever to spend as much or more energy retaining donors as acquiring new ones.

While you may be tempted to curb gift acknowledgment efforts in order to save funds, be wary of cutting back on thanking your supporters. We have observed that organizations that make attempts to thank as many donors as possible tend to raise more cumulative funds, both current and deferred, at lower overall costs than those that do not.

The final weeks of the year are traditionally the busiest season for charitable gifts, and for this reason thanking donors becomes even more critical at year-end. 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 of larger amounts ideally 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 assume a small gift indicates a small interest in your mission. Many of those who make a gift of a smaller amount may be devoted to your cause. 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 “downgrading” their giving. For example, someone who has been a loyal supporter for 25 years may feel she is only able to give $10 currently. Thanking a long-term donor like this may yield tremendous benefits when that person decides how to distribute her $250,000 estate to a handful of charitable interests that have 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 this important factor.

Do respect requests for privacy when thanking your supporters. Many organizations offer donors of various amounts membership in special giving societies (see page 1). Creating clubs or societies for donors—especially 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 maintain ongoing relationships.

While you may offer to include recognition society names in your communications pieces, be sensitive to the fact that some persons will wish to remain anonymous for religious and other personal reasons. Be sure your gift acknowledgment system is designed to preserve anonymity where appropriate.

Remember, however, that 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, and they will appreciate your regard for their wishes.

Don’t make a recognition society difficult to join. 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 donors to provide “proof,” such as a photocopy 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 show documentation may be offended by the request and may 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 without its knowledge. It is best simply to take the donor at his or her word and use this opportunity to strengthen the bonds that already exist.

One exception may be in the context of a capital campaign or other special development efforts 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 communicate thanks by sharing news with your donors. Whether they have made a large or small gift to your organization, those who make contributions 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 in furthering your mission. Invite them to special events where 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.

Bottom line

More nonprofits than ever are asking people to give from income and assets that may be increasingly uncertain. 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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