What better time of year is there than Thanksgiving week to talk about thanking your donors?

This week’s best practice area covers the thank you process, and what you can do to improve your organization’s fundraising outcomes by fine-tuning your thank you receipting process.

Before we get into tips & tactics though, I want to share a little about why this area is so important.

There are three things that influence a donor’s continued giving (per Russ Reid’s Heart of the Donor study) to your organization: 1) Your mission must be personally relevant; 2) You must be a trustworthy organization; and 3) the donor needs to have a positive experience.

In fact, an overwhelming majority of donors said that the way nonprofits can fulfill on items #2 and #3 above are to:

  • Send a prompt thank you receipt
  • Explain the specific mission of your organization
  • Give me information about exactly what my gift accomplished
  • Make me feel like my gift made a real difference
  • Give me details about your organization’s finances.

As you can see, nearly every item on that list can be tied back to your thank you receipting process, and the feedback you give donors after they make a contribution to your organization.

It’s important to note that donors also list as one of the top reasons for not making additional gifts to an organization the fact that they felt like the nonprofit didn’t care about their earlier contribution.

The takeaway here?  The way you treat people matters.  A lot.

So how do you implement a best practice thank you process at your organization?

Set goals.  Being prompt is important.  Set a goal of getting thank you receipts out within 24-48 hours of receiving the gift.  The importance of timely receipting increases with the size of the gift given.  Major donors are more likely to rate timeliness of receipt as very important in their decision to make ongoing gifts than are donors who give at lower levels.

Just say no to generic copy.  Thank you receipt copy should tie back to the specific offer and ask that prompted the initial gift.  You should use this opportunity to tell one specific story about how the donor’s gift made a positive impact in the life of one of your clients.  And tell the donor exactly how you used (or plan to use) her gift.

Receipt every gift.  I’m probably going against the trends here, but I think it is important to thank everyone who supports your organization, regardless of gift size.  Many nonprofits these days are cutting back and only sending thank you receipts for gifts at certain levels as a cost cutting measure.  In my opinion, this is dangerous for several reasons.  First, if I’m just checking your organization out for the first time, I might not give as generously as I could.  Maybe I only give you $10 the first time you ask – but I have the potential to give you 10 x’s that much on a regular basis.  If you look at me as just a $10 donor and never thank me, you’ll never get close enough to me to know different.  And second, people talk.  Guess what happens next time I’m at a dinner party, in the office or with a friend who brings up your organization or cause?  You can bet I’m going to tell them that I sent in a donation and never got a thank you.  The additional cost of a receipt is minimal, but the impact of not sending one could be significant. 

Don’t stop at the receipt.  Too many organizations consider sending the tax receipt as the fulfillment of their stewardship obligation to a donor.  Once that’s out the door, they figure they can get back to the more important task – asking again.  That’s not the case.  The tax receipt should be the start of your stewardship process.  You should be thinking up dozens of ways to continue to thank and recognize your donors for their ongoing commitment to your organization.

Write handwritten notes.  Not for every gift, but for gifts above a certain amount, or from donors that you’ve pre-screened for potential to make a major or planned gift, this is critical.  Staff can write these.  Or better yet, set aside time in every board meeting to have board members write these.  Handwritten notes from board members can have a huge impact on retention and future giving potential.

Pick up the phone.  Calling to thank donors is critical to retaining long-term donors, major donors and any newly acquired donors who have high potential.  Short of visiting them face-to-face, this is the most personal interaction they’re going to have with your organization.  As with handwritten notes, these calls can be made by staff, but will have greater impact if they’re made by board members and influential community volunteers.

Make it about the donor.  In your thank you receipt and any other stewardship pieces (handwritten letters, newsletters, thank you calls, etc.), remember this…your donor gave not because of who you are, but because of who they are.  Don’t use these vehicles to talk about how great you are.  Instead, recognize your donor for how great she is, and all that she’s accomplishing by giving to your organization.

Establish triggers in your gift processing department.  These triggers are protocols that are used to notify your gift officers, directors and CEO when any major donor, planned gift donor, or high potential prospect makes a gift (regardless of size or designation).  This way you can begin personal stewardship outreach even before your official thank you receipt has hit the mail stream.  Nothing shows a donor how important they are than you or your CEO calling to say, “Mary, my associate just opened the mail this morning and was elated to see that we received a gift from you and Jack.  Thank you so much!

It’s ok to mix channels.  If a donor makes a gift online, many organizations just send an automated e-mail receipt.  After all, this saves money, and the gift was online anyway, right?  Wrong!  That’s a big mistake, because we know that most donors who make an online gift and go on to make additional gifts will do so through the mail.  Start that process off early by sending a paper thank you letter in addition to the automatic receipt. 

Put an envelope in your thank you receipt mail.  I know, I know, you don’t feel like it is appropriate to “ask” in a thank you letter.  And some consultant somewhere told you donors don’t like it either.  Well guess what?  Putting an envelope in a thank you letter isn’t asking.  It’s simply being a good steward of your resources and giving people an opportunity to make an additional gift if they choose to do so.  I do not advocate making an actual ask in your thank you letter.  Results back this recommendation up consistently.  We find that simply including the reply envelope will increase your revenue by approximately 10%.  For example, if your appeal generates $100,000, then you can expect receipt mail from that appeal to generate another $10,000 in additional revenue on average.

Accuracy is critical.  Proofread your thank you letters not just for spelling and grammar.  Make sure you’ve got names, gift amounts, dates and fund designations correct.  The last thing you want to do is have a donor call to tell you that she gave $1,000, not $100.  Or that he is “Mr. Pat Jones”, not “Ms. Pat Jones”.  If you don’t know, don’t just assume.

Do something special.  Something unexpected.  Central Union Mission, a Washington, D.C.-based homeless shelter does something very special with their thank you receipt mail.  Their development staff puts thousands of Post-it-Notes on sheets of newsprint.  On each note is a handwritten and initialed message from one of the men in their recovery program.  One of these notes is added to each thank you receipt before being mailed, to give it that extra personal touch.  Here are some of the messages that donors get from men in Central Union Mission’s program:

  • Thank you for loving your neighbor
  • Your donation helped change lives today
  • Thanksgiving will be better because of you
  • You helped feed someone today
  • Your donation kept me off the streets today
  • Your donation gave me a place to stay

Want more on this topic?  Check out Jocelyn Harmon’s recent presentation, Thanks a Million: How to Thank Your Donors So They’ll Come Back and Give More.