How to Create an Effective Donor Thank You Program

David Hoyt, Consultant

The Thank You Opportunity

Fundraisers I meet tell me that they thank their donors profusely. Yet at the same time, many donors report feeling underappreciated by the charities they give to.

How can this be?  Maybe there is a pile of beautiful, handwritten thank-you cards in a bin somewhere in the bowels of the USPS.

More likely, busy fundraisers unwittingly deprioritize donor recognition in favor of more urgent tasks. It takes a fair amount of time to adequately thank donors, and it usually doesn’t show immediate tangible results.  But it shouldn’t be put off.

Thanking donors is an opportunity.  Since so few organizations send timely, thoughtful thank-you notes, it can be a comparative advantage for your organization to excel at it.  When it comes time to ask for a meeting or gift, the groups that planted seeds of respect and gratitude will reap the rewards of a more personal relationship with their donors.

A successful recognition program should be guided by a few key principles.

  1. Every thank-you note should be only a thank you, and not contain donation forms or anything that could be construed as an ulterior motive. Keep it personal, somewhat conversational, and in the author’s true voice.
  2. Phone calls and handwritten notes are best for your top donors. Neither need be overly long, but they should connect donors to the beneficiaries of their support.  The open rate on handwritten notes is many times higher than your average letter, so take the opportunity to engage with the donor at the heart level with visual and emotional words.
  3. Communicate your organization’s vision. I find it helpful to paint a picture how the world will be a better place in the future because that specific donor decided to give this gift right now.  It may be a freer American republic, or a more vibrant economy, or students breaking the cycle of poverty by attending schools of choice. Try to write as though the only people in the room are the donor and the people they’ve helped through their gift.
  4. Your donation tracking system is just as important as the content. Keep the system as simple as possible to meet your goals, but no simpler. The best system is one that your development officers use. Whether it’s Salesforce, Blackbaud, or another system, your database must be designed to alert the responsible party proactively when a thank-you is due, and what type of communication to utilize (i.e. phone call, handwritten note, signed letter, etc.).  Ideally, the system should report to managers if any tasks are overdue.
  5. Train your team. Millennials are more comfortable sending a text than picking up the phone. One-to-one communication, through the mail and on the phone, is something of a lost art, but it was critically important to previous generations, and I would argue that perhaps it’s time to bring it back. Invest some time in ensuring that the younger members of your development staff understand and practice making calls and writing notes.

Fundraising guru Jerry Panas often says that the thank-you letter is the first step to the next major gift.

At its best, an effective thank-you program makes your organization an invisible pass-through, directly connecting donors and beneficiaries, whether they are activists, students, small business owners, or whomever might be close to your donor’s heart. Focus on them, not the staff and structure of the organization.

And who better than we fundraisers to do it?!

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