Posted December 1st, 1997

The Importance of Saying the Appropriate Thank-You

It has often been said that the art of saying “thank you” has been lost in America. Having spent many years working in a large national charity, I know how difficult it is to establish procedures that enable you to appropriately thank donors. However, now more than ever, and particularly with baby boomers, it is becoming increasingly important to initiate a plan at your institution that enables you to say “thank you” to all donors in meaningful ways.

As we face the end of another year, this is an excellent time to contact those who have made special contributions, including those who have indicated they have remembered your institution in their estate plans, to express your appreciation. And, if you don’t already have procedures in place, now is a good opportunity to develop an acknowledgment system that enables you to thank even the smallest donors.

Use the Golden Rule when it comes to thanking donors

Several months ago my wife and I decided to make gifts to four different charities. While the gifts were not major, they were gifts that, at least to us, were significant. One of the gifts was a memorial honoring a special friend who had died. The other two gifts were to charities that are special to my wife. To date, each of the charities has put us into their direct mail program and solicited us for other gifts. However, only one charity has managed to write an acknowledgment, and that charity unfortunately thanked me for a gift that my wife had chosen to make (the original request was to her and she signed the check!).

While I’m hopeful that my experience is not reflective of most donors’, it indicates a need for all of us to periodically review procedures for acknowledging donors. It is easy to be so focused on bringing in new dollars each year that we sometimes forget the basics that will make the development office more productive and help us keep the donors we have.

Acknowledging bequests and other planned gifts

Many donors consider a commitment in their will to be so personal that they are not likely to tell the charity about it. Also, recent focus group data for an environmental organization indicates that many donors, even though they realize that they can legally change their mind about a bequest, are concerned that if the charity knows about their plans, it will be counting on the funds. Donors may also feel that by informing the charity of their bequest they are giving up control over the assets that they may need at some point in the future. However, a certain percentage of donors will raise a hand to let you know they would consider or already have remembered your institution in their will. You need an acknowledgment plan for these donors.

Suppose you receive a call one day from a very distant aunt informing you that she has recently written her will and has decided to remember you. How would you respond? Would you say “thank you”? Are you likely to remember this aunt on holidays? Are you likely to have lunch with her on occasion? Are you likely to keep her informed about what you are doing in order to maintain the relationship?

When a donor notifies you of a bequest intention in a will or trust, the donor has elevated your organization to the status of family. It is important that you get to know these donors and treat them as you treat family.

Using the previous example, how would your aunt feel if you were to ask her how much she was planning to give you? How would she feel if you were to ask for a copy of the will? These are issues that must be decided on before adopting policies that require copies of instruments, etc. Obviously, if the gift commitment is for a campaign pledge, different rules may apply.

Imagine you are a family member of someone who has died and remembered a charity with a bequest. Do you feel as if you have made a gift because the assets might have gone to you had a charity not been named? Consider acknowledging the family members of those who make bequests. Maintain or build new relationships with the family members and keep them informed as to how their loved one’s gift is being utilized in your charity and tell them how important every bequest is to your work.

Special donors deserve special thanks

Sending thank-you letters, mailing special informational packages related to your mission, and holding special events for higher level givers are all activities that you probably have in place. We recently discovered a unique and special way of acknowledging donors. Before the holiday break, one major gift officer at a leading university prints a list of his top 25 donors that he knows are either alone or would appreciate a personal call from him on Christmas Day. Every year on Christmas Day, he goes to a quiet room in his house and calls these special friends to wish them a Merry Christmas. The response from his donors has been overwhelming. And the special sincerity of this gift planner’s traditional holiday wish is inspiring.

Giving is a gift

As we reflect upon this past year and look forward to 1998, let’s all remember to say a special thank-you. Your donors make a sacrifice when giving to your institution. After all, the funds they give could be used for themselves in many ways. So, as representatives of charities, we should recognize their sacrifice by developing meaningful ways to simply say “thanks.”

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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