5 Inexpensive (And Better) Ways to Thank Your Donors

Extending thoughtful gratitude to donors is one of the most fundamental and yet under-utilized aspects of the gift cycle. As development professionals we invest a lot of time and resources in the identification of prospects, their cultivation and their solicitation. However, I would argue that the final phase of the gift cycle – stewardship – is the one least attended to.

A huge component of stewardship is simple saying “thank you” for a gift.  Most will agree that extending thanks is both the ethical response to an act of generosity and also, is pragmatically the first step in encouraging the next gift.   And yet, we complain that we don’t have enough time or resources to do what we know we should be doing when a donor believes in us and our mission so much as to invest.

Here, then, are 5 approaches to extending thanks that are low cost and high impact:

  1. Thanks Tied To An Event – We often fall into the trap of thinking that a donor appreciation event has to be a new, stand alone effort.  And the expense can easily derail any such plans.  But what about the events you already have planned? Perhaps a community breakfast, an athletics contest, a play, or other organizational gatherings of some sort.  An easy way to say “thanks” is to make special invitation to donors to attend the event or a reception before or after the event and extending your gratitude to them publicly.  In fact, think about the many opportunities you can leverage to include donor appreciation in every activity or event you conduct.  It’s easier than planning stand alone donor events and it is cheaper.
  2. A Visual Thanks – Everyone has a smartphone today that takes decent video and pictures.  Look at this brief video made by an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania.  No spoken words.  Just images and signs.  For many of your donors, such an approach will be unique and memorable.  And it wouldn’t cost your institution much to make.
  3. Thanks From On High – “Our institution values each and every donor,” is a safe statement made by most leaders.  But, then when it comes to sending the gift receipt and thank you letter that accompanies it, we have the assistant director to the assistant of the annual fund sign it.  Not at all to slight any person or their title (I think I’ve held just about all of them at one point or another!), but I believe a part of leadership of an institution that accepts charitable gifts is to personally sign-off on thank you letters.  Why can’t the VP, or the CEO, or the President, or the Dean, etc. take some letters to sign?  And not an electronic signature, but a live signature.  It is evidence – not just talk – that your leadership truly values each donor.
  4. Thanks For The Results – One of the most oft-repeated criticisms of annual fund gifts is that donors are not told exactly what happened as a result of their generosity. Donors, we tell ourselves, want to clearly understand how their giving has helped.  They are not fond of giving money to the ‘black hole,’ we are convinced.  Meanwhile, research suggests that even wealthy donors make the majority of their largest gifts in support of operations.  My conviction has always been that donors don’t have an issue with supporting mission and operations.  Instead, they have an issue with not hearing back throughout the year how giving has impacted the institution.  In other words, an email message (it can even be standard text with no html treatment) every 6 months sent from an institutional leader that highlights the progress of the institution and those it serves and how giving has helped make that progress happen.  It is easy and, again, inexpensive.
  5. Being the Conduit for Expressing Thanks – I’m a parent.  The handwritten notes and pictures drawn by my little ones are priceless to me.   I keep a collection of them and sometimes travel with a hand-drawn picture or two in my suitcase.  I’m not alone of course.  Most folk find great meaning in gifts that are not exceptional by worldly standards but are one-of-a-kind, heartfelt, and created with pure intentions.  One of my clients, Loaves & Fishes Community Pantry in Naperville, IL, recently provided their principal gift donors with a framed picture drawn by a little girl from a client family.  The picture, as you might guess, looks like a child’s creation.  She is not a prodigy nor a youthful virtuoso.  It is a simple picture of a grocery cart full of food – no doubt it is the grocery cart of food she has watched her mother receive at Loaves & Fishes before.  The handwritten message under the cart?   “Thank you for our food.”  Let that sink in for a moment.  Executive Director, Charles McLimans told me when he and Director of Development Megan Selck delivered the picture to one of their most generous donors, they proudly and immediately hung it amidst their world-class art collection.  It cost Loaves & Fishes the frame.

We know we should be spending more institutional energy in extending thanks in meaningful ways to our donors.  The good news is, expressing thanks is an opportunity for us to remind our donors of the good feeling they had when they gave to us.  The better news is, when we do it exceptionally well, it doesn’t have to cost much at all.


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