There are a variety of ways to express appreciation to donors. Using a multi-level approach may be most beneficial.
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. (See IRS Publication 1771.)
Although most people today use email, some—especially older donor 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. Keep in mind also that donors may not have a readily accessible printer and may thus not be able to print essential tax records sent via email. Donors also may delete an email without realizing they need to print it for their tax records.
News about your charity
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 (see the February issue of Give & Take to learn how one fundraiser keeps her donors informed). 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 that is of special interest to them.
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 estate plans.
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. In short, focus on the “who” and the “why” of the gift while also mentioning the “what,” “when” and “how,” where natural and appropriate.
Featuring special donors in testimonial-style articles not only expresses your gratitude for their gifts but also encourages other donors to follow suit.
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 charitable entity, the geographical distribution of donors 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 a “soft 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 or institution.
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. Members may also enjoy receiving certificates, plaques or other tokens of appreciation. In addition, you may wish to consider recognizing donors for longevity of giving and cumulative giving, especially where you have large numbers of older, regular donors of relatively small amounts.
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 and ongoing stewardship process. Some may even revoke inclusion in a will, trust or other deferred gift arrangement if they feel their current gifts are not appreciated. Many donors may never tell you about their concern regarding lack of appreciation, but may harbor growing feelings of resentment over time and slowly drift away.
Charitable entities 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.