A well-organized gift acknowledgment program can help form the foundation for relationships that lead to more frequent and larger gifts. This is especially true at a time when Americans may be experiencing renewed philanthropic motivation in the midst of economic uncertainty. With that in mind, let’s examine some ways to effectively thank donors for their gifts.
There are a variety of ways to express appreciation to donors. Creating a system that includes a multi-level approach to acknowledging donors may be most beneficial.
- Personal visits. If possible, thank your donors in person. There is no better way to express your appreciation than meeting face-to-face with your donor. Most donors will be pleased that you took the time to meet with them. But be sure to let donors know on the front end that your wish is to thank them for their gift, not to request additional support.
- Letters and phone calls. A thoughtful letter is usually one of the first ways for a donor to be thanked. Donors of smaller amounts may receive a letter from a development staff member that includes a gift receipt for tax purposes. Larger gifts may prompt a phone call in addition to a letter. A call from a representative of top level management may be suitable in some cases. Perhaps a note from the chairman of the board may be appropriate as well. In the case of larger commitments, a handwritten note from a staff member with whom the donor has the closest relationship may sometimes have the most meaning for the donor.
While e-mail has become a preferred method of communication for some, be careful when using e-mail to thank donors. Even though the number of people who communicate online is growing, many people—especially older donors—may feel that e-mail is a less formal type of communication. If you decide to use e-mail in your acknowledgment process, consider employing it as a supplement to, not a substitute for, handwritten notes, letters, and phone calls to donors.
- Recognition societies. Some choose to offer membership in recognition clubs or societies for donors of various amounts. Creating special societies for those who have made planned gifts such as bequests, life income plans, or other gifts from long-range estate and financial plans can also be an effective way to maintain ongoing relationships with such persons.
Recognition society donors’ names can be included in organizational newsletters, annual reports, and other communications. You may also want to give members certificates, plaques, or other tokens of appreciation. Consider sending cards to members on various holidays and other special occasions.
Respect requests for privacy when thanking your donors. Some persons will wish to remain anonymous for religious and other reasons, so make sure you can trust your acknowledgment system to preserve their anonymity. Let donors know through your communications that there is an anonymous category of membership for recognition societies. This is especially true in the case of planned gift recognition. Remember, how-ever, 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. They will appreciate your regard for their wishes.
- News about your organization. Consider sharing with your donors information about how your organization or institution is making a difference. Sending donors newsletters and other updates, for example, is a good way to say thanks on an ongoing basis while informing them about how their gifts are being used. Donors enjoy reading about projects they have helped make possible and hearing how those who have benefited appreciate their help. It is important to keep donors informed about both the organization and the program or area they have been involved with.
It can be a good idea to feature stories about donors in your publications. Many donors are delighted to be asked and are willing to share their motivation for giving. Focus such articles on how the donors became involved with the organization, why they feel the organization’s work is important, and what they hope to accomplish through their gifts during lifetime, by will, trust, etc. While it can be useful to mention the method chosen to complete a gift, don’t dwell to a great extent on the amount of the gift, how it was structured, and other technical details that may distract donors from the human dimension of the story.
Featuring special donors in testimonial-style articles not only expresses your organization’s gratitude for their gifts but also encourages other donors to follow suit.
- Special events. Most donors, other than those who wish to remain anonymous, enjoy recognition. Arrange a variety of donor recognition events, such as banquets, luncheons, and estate planning seminars, for those in special giving societies. What is appropriate in this respect will depend on the nature of the organization and other factors.
For colleges and universities, fall is often a time for homecomings and reunions—ideal opportunities for appreciation dinners that also contain estate and gift planning information. Don’t overlook the opportunity to thank donors during these events and consider sharing information about how to include gifts as part of their long-range financial planning, especially in light of recent tax law changes.
For those organizations that do not already sponsor regular gatherings of supporters, consider creating events where donors can be brought together and acknowledged. If your donor base is national in scope, consider hosting regional events for donors to help keep them connected to your organization.
Who is the donor?
Last but not least, before you thank donors, be sure you know precisely who they are. This may sound simple, but consider this. Suppose you receive a gift by check signed by Jane Doe. The check is from an account including both Jane and her husband John. Can you assume that the check you received is a gift from Jane and her husband? Should you assume that the gift is from Jane only? In cases like these, you must find out if the gift is from the Does as a couple or from Jane individually in order to properly acknowledge the appropriate donor(s).
A high priority
If donors are not properly acknowledged for their gifts, both current and deferred, there can be serious repercussions. Some donors may stop giving altogether if they are not thanked effectively, especially when compared to other charitable interests that impress them with their gift acknowledgment process. Some may revoke plans to include a charity in a will, trust, or other deferred gift arrangement if their notifications are not quickly and thoughtfully acknowledged. Many donors may never tell the organization about a problem, but may harbor feelings of resentment because they feel unappreciated and then slowly drift away from the cause.
The consequences of not preparing and executing an effective acknowledgment program can be many. But, for those organizations and institutions that tell their donors “thank you” often and in a variety of ways, the results are positive indeed. By properly acknowledging a donor, you may lay the foundation for more gifts from the donor over his or her lifetime and through long-range plans as well.
Take steps today to ensure that your acknowledgment program expresses appreciation to donors in a prompt and appropriate way. Then keep them informed of your progress and updated on your continuing needs and ways that various gift planning tools can help them achieve their charitable objectives.