Posted January 1st, 2015

Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make

By John Jensen

mistakes to avoidFundraising success is made up of many things. Once you have identified a donor who finds your mission compelling, you have someone you can cultivate for future gifts of all sorts—or someone you can alienate and potentially lose as a donor. The difference is often to a large extent within your control.

Because the basics are so critical to fundraising success, it is a good idea to periodically step back and examine the details of how you are interacting with your donors.

Don’t get a donor’s name wrong.

Nothing is more important—or as basic—as getting someone’s name right. When I managed the local chapter of a national charity, we checked each name on our donor file once a year to catch obvious errors in spelling. These days, you may also want to run all donor names through a spell checking program, but even that will not catch every misspelling (consider Philip versus Phillip and the many ways to spell Catherine). You may be surprised at how many errors you find when you take the time to check the names on your database.

Don’t put off acknowledging a gift.

Even the most thoughtful thank you letter will lose its impact if it takes weeks to reach the donor.

Oddly enough, sending a delayed thank you letter is more apt to occur with large gifts than with small ones. Why? Because these letters often need to be reviewed by multiple parties and signed and personalized by the CEO or others. Since more people tend to be involved with larger gifts, there is a sense that the thank you letters for these gifts need to be “just right.” But, a “perfect” thank you letter sent 3-4 weeks after the gift may be far from perfect from the donor’s perspective.

All thank you letters should be mailed as quickly as possible after receipt of the gift. If the CEO can’t complete the letter in an acceptable time frame, another appropriate team member should send a note over his or her signature right away and then have the CEO send a more personal note of thanks a few days later.

Don’t forget to update and personalize thank you letters.

Look closely at your standard gift acknowledgment letters. Are they fresh and interesting, or boring and bureaucratic? Update them regularly and bring some of the same sense of excitement from your fundraising appeals to your thank you letters.

Also consider handwriting a personal note at the end of the letter. While not always possible, this simple step can have a real impact that can strengthen the relationship. Donors will appreciate that you took the extra time to communicate with them in a more personal way.

Don’t leave out wording required by the IRS for gift receipt purposes.

Does every gift acknowledgment you send to donors contain the language the IRS requires from donors who plan to deduct their charitable gifts? Charitable recipients are required to include this special tax wording in acknowledgment communications to those who have contributed $250 or more. In my experience, while most organizations’ regular gift acknowledgment letters contain the receipt language donors need, sometimes the more personalized letters thanking donors for larger gifts inadvertently leave out the necessary IRS wording. Remember, without the required acknowledgment wording from your organization, your donor may not benefit from a charitable income tax deduction. This can cause real problems at tax time for larger gifts and do needless harm to a relationship.

Don’t produce materials your donors can’t read.

Are your communication materials designed with all readers in mind? In many cases, the donor population is aging. Eyesight weakens by age 45—the age of bifocals. If your donors are mostly over 45, make sure that your printed pieces use 12- or 13-point type in a clearly readable font (italics and very ornate, “wedding”-style fonts become increasingly difficult to read as one ages). For those over 65, consider using 14-point type with lots of white space.

Don’t ignore older donors whose giving has lapsed.

Remember also to devote appropriate attention to older donors, even if they no longer respond to communications. Seniors now comprise one of the wealthiest generational cohorts in history, and many will soon be making their final estate plans. Stay in touch with these donors—particularly long-time donors, single or childless persons and those who have a history of volunteering.

Don’t just sit behind your desk.

Are you visiting your best donors and bequest expectancies from time to time? There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction with donors when possible. When personal visits are not practical, regular phone contact can also boost personal relationship building and donor stewardship.

john jensenRemember that simply helping donors feel more connected to your organization through visits either in person or by phone can increase giving substantially. We have all heard that people give to people, so be sure that your donors know you well enough to call on you when they are ready to consider their next gift.

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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