Make 2015 a Year of Resurrection: The Importance of Thanking and Retaining Donors

Over the last several months, I have developed a friendship with a woman who does not work in the fundraising world. And yet, she probably should because she does an important part of a fundraiser’s job better than almost anyone I know.

She says thank you. And she says it in a way that makes me feel as if I am the only person in the world that matters to her and that my small action truly made a difference. I recently received a handwritten note from her related to my help to prepare Thanksgiving dinner (in exchange for joining in a delicious feast with her family). Nothing I did was thatspectacular or sacrificial, but she recounted each with such gratitude that I wanted to do more for her.

Contrast this to the thank-you letters and receipts I have received this year to acknowledge the donations I’ve sent. I’m sorry — there is no comparison. In a world of horrific donor retention and declining response rates, we’ve somehow lost the ability to tell those who choose to give how much of a difference they made. Looking over my receipts I see some common — and easily corrected — issues.

We focus on ourselves. Yes, a donor wants to be reassured that she made a good decision when she chose to give. But that doesn’t mean we have to send a letter that is 90 percent about the organization’s accomplishments and has very little about the donor’s importance in those accomplishments. In fact, the letters read like the organization has already solved all its problems and leave me wondering why the nonprofit needed my $50.

They sound like they were written by a computer, not a human. “You will find your receipt in this email …” certainly is true, but it doesn’t leave me feeling good about the gift I gave — and it certainly doesn’t leave me wanting to give more. When the wording is accountant-speak it often is not relationship-building. “Your donation was successfully processed” does little to build a relationship. It has reduced my voluntary and sacrificial gift to a transaction.

Yes, people are busy and don’t necessarily want to wade through a lot of copy to realize that this is the receipt they need for tax preparation. But that doesn’t mean we can’t include a few sentences that say how grateful we are and how much their gifts are helping.

They are too insider. Especially when it’s a first gift to your organization, a receipt has a tough job to do — it needs to begin building a relationship that will endure. Subsequent gifts need to be acknowledged in a way that furthers the “construction” of that relationship. Providing the donor with four dense paragraphs of what you are doing — most of which means little to me because I have no frame of reference for the information — is not a good “first impression.”

One organization, upon receipt of a first gift from me, sent an 89-word thank-you letter printed on 8.5-inch-by-11-inch letterhead in a 13-point type. In that easy-to-read message, it conveyed gratitude, reminded me what my gift was doing, provided an inspiring quote and made me feel like I had done something important. Wow!

They are skipped altogether. In this day of cost-cutting, receipts and thank-you letters seem to be seen as superfluous. After all, how important is a $25 donation? Well, it might not be that important to the organization, but a donor chose to give it to your work instead of another nonprofit or to use it for groceries. To the donor, quite likely it mattered.

Yes, we have to be good stewards of our limited funds. But saying “thank you” is not an obligation; it should be seen as a privilege as well as a means of furthering a relationship. To be crass, if nothing else it is a way to cultivate the next donation from that person.

Fundraisers have to see themselves as relationship builders. Yes, we raise funds. But if we aren’t building deeper relationships, one-time donors will continue to dominate our donor files.

This old dog believes that the acknowledgment for the donation is a critical part of building a lasting relationship with donors who give over and over and who give more and more. A good donation acknowledgment opens the door to the next gift.

How can you retain more donors in 2015? Start by resurrecting the lost art of saying “thank you.” Be sincere. Focus on the donor. Make it sound like it was written just for her.

Donor attrition is serious. And that’s why saying “thank you” deserves our very best effort.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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