Posted June 1st, 2003

“Making the Thank”

Recently I was reviewing the conference program for a national convention of development executives. There were at least five sessions related in some way to what the presenters referred to as “making the ask.” The presenters promised information on subjects such as preparing for the “ask,” timing the “ask,” deciding who should make the “ask,” dealing with objections after making the “ask,” and many other related topics.

There is no shortage of valuable information on “making the ask.” In today’s environment, however, I believe more time should be devoted to “making the thank.”

I have noticed that whenever professional vocabulary begins to transform verbs into nouns and/or nouns into verbs, the subject at hand may deserve closer scrutiny. I worry when I hear that someone is preparing for an “ask” in the hopes that a donor will “gift” an asset, especially when little or no consideration is given to making the “thank” if the solicitation should prove successful. While I am not recommending that “making a thank” become part of our working vocabulary, I believe many programs could benefit from revisiting the way they thank donors for their gifts.

How much is enough?

I am reminded of one institution that has implemented programs where donors of significant amounts are thanked by a number of individuals, including the CEO, Board Chair, Vice President for Development, the development officer assigned to the donor, the staff executive in charge of the program to be benefited, and the researcher, professor, counselor, or other person whose work would actually be funded by the gift. It is obviously impossible to thank all donors in this way, especially for an organization that receives hundreds, thousands, or even millions of gifts each year. In some cases, the time and effort spent thanking the donor could actually consume more resources than the amount provided by the gift.

Unfortunately, some programs go to the other extreme and fail to thank many donors at all. Their reasoning is that it would not be prudent to spend $2 to thank a donor for a $10 gift—thereby expending 20% of the donor’s gift in the acknowledgment process. As valid as this argument seems to be, I have observed that organizations that make attempts to thank as many donors as possible tend to raise more funds in the aggregate at lower overall costs than those that do not.

For example, one client that enjoys a large amount of bequest income each year discovered that 25% of bequest donors had made average gifts of less than $10 during their lifetimes. Further study revealed that the average size of bequests from those persons was no less than the overall average.

Somewhere between thanking donors six or seven times for one gift and not thanking donors for smaller gifts at all, there must be a happy medium. Most nonprofits have addressed the issue of thanking the majority of donors in some manner. Few fail to at least thank donors of substantial amounts.

In today’s world, when more nonprofits than ever are asking donors to give from assets and incomes that may be increasingly uncertain, it may be a good time to re-examine the ways in which we thank donors, especially where the largest and the smallest gifts are concerned.

Larger gifts

Ten years ago, a friend who had just assumed responsibility for all fund raising for a smaller organization called me and said that she was under a good deal of pressure to show increases in funding. She was newly responsible for a program that she said was “a mess,” and she didn’t know where to start.

The first step I recommended was to obtain a list of the 500 largest gifts her institution had received the previous year and determine the dollar amount of the smallest of these gifts. I suggested she set aside an average of 30 minutes each day to make two phone calls to donors who gave at or above that amount. To facilitate her calls, she requested that every new gift above that amount be immediately brought to her attention, including a photocopy of the check, if applicable.

In 250 working days she was able to call and thank 500 donors. She reported the conversations were for the most part easy and pleasant. After thanking the donors for their gifts, she explained she was new to the organization and would like to learn why they decided to offer their support. She then sought their advice concerning ways she might generate interest among other potential donors.

With the largest gifts, she instructed that the check be held until she could at least attempt to thank the donor. When she could reach those donors, she let them know that she had not yet cashed their check. She took this opportunity to explain that they might save more in taxes by making their gift in a form other than cash. While most still chose to make their gift by check, they did not soon forget the conversation.

This work, along with other diligent efforts, paid off. Funding to the organization grew 25% the first year and doubled in three years. The number of gifts of securities dramatically increased. She discovered excellent volunteers, some of whom eventually became board members, and she made many friends in her community.

Her development staff now numbers ten. The percentage cost of fund raising is much lower than when she began. A $30 million capital campaign is nearing a successful completion, and a full-time planned giving officer is on board to help many of the organization’s friends make their gifts more effectively. Ten years ago there were four donors giving more than $1,000; today there are over 400. Needless to say, the development officer is still there, having survived two CEOs, and she still enjoys her role immensely.

How did this happen? There are many reasons, but this person would tell anyone it started with a frightened young development officer in a one-person shop thanking donors.

Ironically, the positive reinforcement and energy that comes from first learning to “make the thank” can provide the courage and confidence required to “make the ask.” What better way to start a day than a conversation with someone who has recently made the decision to make a large gift to your institution? While it is of course important to find as many new donors as possible and to learn to effectively “make the ask,” I can still think of no better advice for a new development officer struggling to succeed than to start by thanking those persons who have already chosen to make the cause one of their priorities.

Smaller gifts

It can be equally important to make sure that donors of smaller amounts are appropriately thanked. If nothing else, this can be done as part of the solicitation of funds. Donors can be told in a tasteful way that the organization would like to devote its funds to the advancement of its mission, and for that reason they will not be receiving an extensive acknowledgment package. Fundraisers may still want to write or call long-term donors or donors of relatively large amounts.

Computer-generated thank-you notes and receipts also have a place in working with large numbers of donors of smaller amounts. The best programs, however, make major distinctions when working with the longest-term donors of any amount.

In some cases, having volunteers make thank-you calls may minimize costs. In fact, some of the donors initially called to acknowledge larger amounts may agree to help thank other donors. Even if long distance phone calls are involved, the typical call can be made for no more than the cost of a first-class stamp.

It is important to remember to treat all donors with the respect they deserve. Thanking a 25-yearlong donor who is only able to give $1 in the same manner you thank a $10,000 donor may yield tremendous benefits when that person decides how to distribute her $150,000 estate. It is not uncommon for such persons, especially the childless, to leave the entire amount to one or more charities. A personal letter from the CEO thanking such donors for their 25-year commitment or a phone call from a volunteer will likely further strengthen their commitment to your institution. Imagine the donor’s thoughts regarding that organization when an attorney asks him or her about charitable priorities. Such donors may also decide that a gift annuity or other life income gift might help them be able to give even more during their lifetime.

A review of the gift history of the donors who left bequests and/or entered into gift annuities with your organization last year will in many cases make believers out of those who doubt the wisdom of carefully thanking long-term, older donors of small amounts.

To each its own

Obviously each organization must develop “thank you” programs that are suited to its unique circumstances. If there is one thing I have learned, however, from over 25 years of experience as a development officer, as attorney for donors, as attorney for institutions, as a board member, as a consultant, and last but not least, as a donor, it is that the organizations that shine are the ones that do at least two things well: They devote as much or more energy to retaining donors as acquiring new ones, and they invest as much time and other resources in making the “thank” as they do in making the “ask.”

This article is excerpted from Session I of Major Gift Planning I. Visit www.sharpenet.com/seminars for information about upcoming offerings of this and other Sharpe seminars.

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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