5 simple rules of thanking donors

Your acknowledgment/thank you’s should be:

For everyone.  E-very-one.  I once worked with a nonprofit that thanked everyone who gave $250+ on letterhead, $10-249 on copy paper, and under $10 not at all.  My first step was to thank everyone.  I know that the love discussion from yesterday can come under pressure when finances are tight.  But as an exercise, go back and look at the first donors of your last ten large bequests.  My guess is that the majority were under $20 and some under $10.  Thanking everyone is not only right and polite; it is a great investment in your long term.

That doesn’t mean that you have to ask for a $2 gift again, or in the same way.  You still have a responsibility to maximize your contribution toward your cause. But you do have to be grateful that they gave a gift.

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That doesn’t all mean that you shouldn’t differentiate your thank you’s.

Differentiated by reason for giving. Part of making people feel special is to treat them specially.*

Your different types of donors are supporting different types of things for different reasons.  Your monthly sustaining donors are giving, presumably, because of appeals you have make about the need for steady, predictable income.  Your advocacy donors – those who donated in conjunction with an urgent appeal for change – are going to be the exact opposite.  They will be looking to support the urgent rather than the constant need.  Thus, the messaging should be dissimilar for these.

Differentiated by lifecycle.  If someone is a lapsed donor who is reactivating, remember the prodigal son.  Now is the time to kill the metaphorical fatted calf and welcome them back and letting them know you appreciate that they are coming back, especially if you had been using lapsed-type “why has thou forsaken us?” language to get them back.

Similarly, new donors should have a whole new set of acknowledgment and onboarding messages.  I won’t repeat my blog post on onboarding for new donors and supporters, except to commend that piece to you.

Differentiated by amount given/quality of supporter.  This in part pragmatic – you want to invest more in keeping your better donors.  But it is oft said that smaller gifts are given from the heart and major gifts are given from the brain.  This is partly misleading, in that you have to engage the heart of your major donors first, but the pitch that you make to a major donor is more about the long-term impact that they are going to make with their investment.  Similar language just isn’t appropriate for a $10 donor, who is helping your mission, but not because of a transformative legacy they are looking to leave.  There too is a difference in messaging necessitated by a difference in reasoning.

And then there’s the obvious part – your largest donors should have higher touch acknowledgments.  That includes handwritten notes, personal phone calls, cards for special occasions like birthdays or holidays.  The key that many, many organizations forget is not to let high touch get in the way of a timely thank you.  If you normally send out thank you letters every day, but your high dollar donors get a letter from your ED that s/he sends out every 1-2 weeks, you are falling into this trap.  You are essentially differentiating backwards – your best donors are receiving the worst donor service.

The way to avoid this is to get the standard receipt and thank you immediately as you normally would do, then to follow up with your high-touch thank yous.  Few will mind if you say “I know you got our standard thank you last week, but I wanted to personally reach out to tell you how much your gift meant to me.”  Rather the opposite in most case.

This is imperative because one of the best predictors of whether someone will give again is how quickly and well they are thanked.  So, the final rule is:

Timely.  Get your receipts out as soon as you can, because of the impact on the next gift.  If it’s for a high-dollar donor, consider differentiating even on timeliness, with first-class postage on those thank yous.  Take a look at Blackbaud’s mystery shopper experience here.  Your donors are used to get receipts in week one (for the above average) or week two (for the just average).  You want to be above average to get those additional donations.

Thank you for reading.  Tomorrow, we’ll talk about different ways to thank your donors: some that are a bit nonstandard, all of which help express your gratitude.

* It’s statements like that that are the reason I make the big bucks.

5 simple rules of thanking donors

Why say thank you?

Since this is the week of Thanksgiving here in the United States, I thought it would be fitting to do a week on thanking donors for their support.

Also, since I’m nothing if not data-driven, I didn’t call this blog post “Wherefore thank yous” because my previous attempt to go Shakespeare – Wherefore segmentation –  was one of my least trafficked posts so far.  So I’m going to have to get my fix some other way.

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So, why do we say thank you to our donors and supporters?

If you just said because there is a legal requirement to do so know that I am virtually very disappointed in you.

As nonprofit marketers, love is our business.  Our goal is to have people who fall in love with our causes, who are interested to read our next mail piece or email, watch our next video, or take our next advocacy action.  For these people, the people who love us, donating is a pleasurable experience, connecting them to something they care about.

You may remember upwards of two things* from your freshman year Econ class:

  1. Something about supply and demand
  2. Individuals act to maximize their individual utility rationally.

Donating to a nonprofit does not fit the second one.  If we were logical, coldly rational beings, we wouldn’t donate to charity any more than we would appreciate a sunset, cry with our friends for their losses, and know that our children are the cutest of all possible children**.

Thank goodness people aren’t like this.  Thank goodness we give to those we don’t know, care for people we’ll never meet, and plant trees who will give shade to someone else’s grandkids.

As I write this, well in advance of its publication, Americans are caring about the people of a nation that many were so mad at a while back that they renamed potato side dishes to avoid using that country’s name.  Here you see both sides of the coin – the maddening demons in human nature exploding violently on to the innocent versus the millions better angels of our natures working together to heal, repair, and care.

My point, and I do have one, is that giving is an irrational act in the absolutely best possible meaning of the word irrational.  People love our causes.  In return, it is vital that we love them back.  Saying thank you is part of the social contract of giving and even if it were not, we would still do it because we are as good or aspire to be as good as those who are giving of themselves to our causes.

So was a little bit more flowery than I had intended.  Let me assure you, tomorrow, we’re going to get back to how acknowledgments can help us raise net revenues again.  Because make no mistake, a quality acknowledgment program can and should net additional money in the long term.  Just because it is the right thing to do doesn’t mean it will require sacrifice.

* I hate to brag, but I was an Econ minor, so I remember a third thing: “Something about inflation.”

** Clearly, this is wrong, because mine are and everyone else’s are competing for second.

Why say thank you?

Next steps in direct marketing

Hopefully by now you’ve tried out some free ways to stay in touch with your supporter base and attract new supporters and you are ready to test out spending some money on direct marketing.  I’ll start with your existing donors.

Acknowledgement

thank youOften, thank yous are an afterthought or a legal requirement.  In reality, they are a great way to deepen a relationship with a donor.  Every donor should get at least one thank you, generally in a similar format to how they gave the gift.  That is, if they mailed you a gift, mail them back a thank you note; if they gave a gift online, make sure they get an email receipt.

Please note I say “at least one thank you.”  Gratitude is something to be practiced throughout donor communications largely for its own sake, being the right thing to do and all, but it can also be profitable.  A way to dip your toe into the mail water is to start sending thank you letters to online donors of a certain amount or more.

What is that amount?  Whatever you are comfortable with to start.  You can dial back if the mailings get too onerous (a nice problem to have) or expand the program once started.

This mailing does a couple of things.  It conditions the donor to expect things from you in the mail and that those will be good things.  Also, just as it is better to be a bit overdressed instead of a bit underdressed in everywhere except the tech sector, it is better to be just a little bit more appreciative of a gift than your competitors other worthy causes.

Donor mailings

To keep your early losses to a minimum, start your mailings with a few tried-and-true pieces.  Some that generally work well are:

  • Membership pieces. Even if you are not a membership organization, creating a supporter club or whatever name you feel comfortable with gives your donors a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves alone, which is great, because they are.  Also, you then have a reason to ask for renewals each year.
  • Holiday giving, especially end of year. Online end of year will be its own topic at some point (incidentally, I count nine topics I’ve promised to talk about after only six posts; I may be creating a monster), but during the holidays works well for mail as well, where a holiday spirit generally increases response rates.  It’s also a good time to thank your donors and wish them well in the New Year and with whatever holiday(s) they choose to observe.
  • A newsletter. While traditionally a cultivation device, you can write ones that will more than pay for themselves. We’ll talk more about that in another post (ten!), but if you are champing at the bit, I strongly recommend Making Money with Donor Newsletters by Tom Ahern. You get what’s on the tin.

So that’s what to do with current donors.  How do you talk to potential donors without breaking the bank?  We’ll (try to) cover that Tuesday.

Next steps in direct marketing