Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make | Sharpe Group
Posted June 1st, 2008

Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make

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

Stewarding donor relationships means paying attention to basics. In the rush of day-to-day duties, the basics can too easily be missed. It’s always more profitable to keep a current donor than to find a new one.

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

Seven basic fund raising don’ts

Don’t #1 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 years ago, we would examine 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 Elizabeth versus Elisabeth). You may be surprised at how many errors you find when you take the time to check the names on your database.

Don’t #2 Don’t dillydally when it comes to sending thank-you letters. Send thank-you letters out FAST! You may have written a nice, personal thank-you letter, but if it takes a month to reach the donor, it sends the message that the gift is not really very important.

Oddly enough, sending a delayed thank-you letter is more apt to occur with large gifts than 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 is far from “perfect.”

All thank-you letters should be mailed as quickly as possible, hopefully within 48 hours of the arrival of the gift. If the CEO can’t complete the letter in that time frame, the development executive should send a note over his or her signature now and then have the CEO send an additional, more personal note of thanks a few days later.

Don’t #3 Don’t forget to update and personalize thank-you letters. Look closely at letters you send for gift acknowledgment. Do they sound fresh and interesting, or boring and bureaucratic? Update them regularly and bring some of the same sense of excitement from your appeals into the thank-you letters.

Also consider hand writing a personal note at the end of the letter. While not always possible, it does have a real impact that strengthens the relationship. Donors will appreciate that you took the extra time to communicate with them in a more personal way.

Don’t #4 Don’t leave out wording required by the IRS for gift receipt purposes. Does every gift acknowledgment you send to donors contain the appropriate language the IRS requires from donors who want to deduct their charitable gifts? You are required to send this tax wording to donors 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 leave out the necessary IRS wording. Remember, without the correct acknowledgment wording from your organization, your donor cannot receive 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 #5 Don’t ignore a donor’s age. Some in the philanthropic world are now saying “age does not matter.” This is absurd. Age and stage of life matter a great deal, and charities that ignore this do so at their peril.

Don’t forget to focus appropriate attention on seniors age 70 and older. This is one of the wealthiest generational cohorts in history. They are reaching a life stage where upgrading gifts is unlikely, and cutting back on their giving may be on the horizon. However, they are also at a point where they will soon be making their final estate plans. Stay in touch with these donors—particularly long-time donors, single donors, childless donors, and donors who have a history of volunteering.

When working with these 70-plus donors, gift planners need to realize that losing a $25 annual gift is less important than potentially gaining the $40,000-$75,000 per charity bequest that such donors could be making in the near future. This is particularly true when dealing with those who are widowed and may be living on less income than they had before the passing of their spouse.

Don’t #6 Don’t produce materials your donors can’t read. Are your communication materials designed with the all readers in mind? In many cases, the donor population is aging. Eyesight weakens by age 45—the age of bi-focals. 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 loopy, “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 #7 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 feasible, regular phone contact can also boost personal relationship-building and donor stewardship.

Remember 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.

Final thoughts

Keep in mind that with a weak economy, donors may be more reluctant to respond to your gift requests. Today’s environment is very competitive. That’s why getting the basics right is more critical than ever!

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The publisher of Sharpe Insights 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 Sharpe Insights 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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