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In times of belt-tightening, donor acknowledgement programs are often among the first things nonprofits cut, says Jen Shang, co-founder of the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy, but it’s smarter to do the opposite.
“When things get tough, let’s perhaps add a few rounds of thank-yous,” says Shang, who co-authored a recent study on the philanthropic psychology behind donor loyalty. Not only is “taking care of our people,” the right thing to do, she adds, but it pays off in the long haul by keeping donors engaged — and by motivating greater giving.
At a minimum, nonprofits should provide the same level of customer service that people expect from businesses, Shang says. Ideally, you should go beyond simply meeting standard practices, such as ensuring an immediate thank-you message on your website for online gifts, an email within 24 hours, and a welcome packet or other follow-up information within a week for first-time contributors.
To stand out and inspire loyalty, it’s critical to think about the steps you’ll take to thank donors, and how you want them to feel each time they hear from you, Shang says. For example, will they remember your communication as “a hug, a kiss, a greeting, a little flower, or a little heart bump?” or will they feel that you’re always after more money?
If you leave donors feeling like they did something nice by giving and that your organization is doing good work with their money, then they may even wonder if they should give more, Shang says. “It’s about nurturing that relationship so that people can get a genuine sense that you care about them.”
Becky Carlino, vice president of development at Volunteers of America Ohio & Indiana, has been revamping her team’s thank-you efforts during the past few years after taking Shang’s classes on philanthropic psychology and fundraising copywriting. She says a core takeaway from these studies was the importance of thanking donors’ decision to share their heart, or love for your mission — not their money. “It’s not their checkbook we should be thanking,” Carlino says. “It is not their check or their cash that made a difference. It was the decision from the heart.”
One way Carlino applied this lesson was by honing Volunteers of America’s acknowledgement letters from six paragraphs that thanked donors for their gift and then talked mostly about the organization to three paragraphs that convey to donors: “You are amazing. This is what you did. We can’t wait to talk to you again,” she says.
It’s not their checkbook we should be thanking. It is not their check or their cash that made a difference. It was the decision from the heart.
The gift is the “afterthought,” Carlino says, the P.S. at the end with the necessary tax language. “That’s the boring part … For the people that care, they just want to know, did I make a difference?”
Carlino has also been trying new approaches for email communications, including testing a campaign last Christmas that was tailored for different groups or donor segments. “We really played with the language to address that specific group and their attachment,” Carlino says, such as using donors’ first names in the subject lines and asking them to “put their hero cape on” and help make a difference by giving the gift of love.
Here are more lessons and tips that can help you improve your nonprofit’s efforts to show gratitude to donors and ensure they stay close.
Lead with stories. In its impact report this year, which the group calls its “Great Big Gratitude Report,” Volunteers of America put stories and thank-yous first, instead of stats. For example, the report might offer a story about a client and then explain, “This is one of 4,500 people that were touched by your kindness or sheltered with your love,” Carlino says. The new approach resonated: Revenue from the piece doubled over the previous year, she says.
The nonprofit also shifted how it tells stories in its summer newsletter, from focusing on how it helped clients out of their “darkest moments,” such as substance use disorder, to how donors help clients rebuild family bonds. Not all supporters could relate to clients’ specific struggles, she says, but most of them have family members or other relationships.
It’s about elevating the “likeminded piece” that connects donors to the people your nonprofit serves, she says. For instance, one story highlighted a client named Patrick, who wanted to recover from homelessness and substance use disorder so he could play video games with his son. “That was the story,” Carlino says. “It wasn’t the darkness; it was that little piece where he wanted to be with this son and just do something that everybody else does that he can’t.”
Use examples for inspiration. It’s OK to use emails from other organizations as templates to save time, Shang says, but think about how you want to sound to donors and use that voice to make them your own. For example, one of Shang’s fundraisers decided to write her donor emails with her grandmother’s recipe for her favorite cookies in mind. “So, every time she writes an email, she’ll have her grandma cookie-test [and ask herself], does the email taste sweet?” Shang says. Find a couple groups that create communications that you love, and join their email list to gather inspiration, she suggests.
Explain the impact: Be specific. Don’t tell donors you couldn’t do your work without them, Shang says. “Is that really the best you can tell someone — that we can’t do something without you? I mean, wouldn’t it be much better to tell them what [we] can do?”
Water for Good, an organization that works to bring water to people in the Central African Republic, does this by specifying what different gift amounts help the group achieve, says LeAnne Lavender, donor and content manager. For example, the organization says that a $480 donation covers annual maintenance costs for one water pump, or that just $5 gives someone access to clean water for a year.
Be spontaneous. Shang was surprised to find in her research that unexpected thank-yous — such as a note or update that a fundraiser shares outside of the planned communications cycle “just to be nice” — are an important element of successful acknowledgement programs. “So, it’s not like a holiday, you know, it’s not formulaic,” she says. “It’s just, wow, there is something amazing that just happened, I just want you to know. It’s a surprise for you, and it’s a surprise for them, and it just feels authentic and makes an impression on them.”
Build a culture of gratitude. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson & Union Counties in New Jersey works to create an “ecosystem of gratitude,” from their staff members to the volunteer mentors and mentees. By extension, thanking donors is easy and comes across as authentic, says Carlos Lejnieks, CEO.
The organization has a weekly “Thankful Thursday” staff meeting that sets aside time for sharing gratitude. Leaders might use a story from the previous week, such as a memorable moment with a mentee, to prompt staff to share other thoughts of gratitude that come to mind. They often make connections to personal memories, Lejnieks says, which brings the mission to life for them and reinforces the idea that they each are a part of it.
The group also has a “High-Five Club” that helps employees “manifest a dream, an event, or an opportunity” for their five-year anniversary at the organization. In preparation, leaders spend time getting to know the staffers’ interests outside of the office, such as through a questionnaire that asks things like where they would go if they could travel anywhere in the world. “And that blossoms other ways to express gratitude to our staff,” Lejnieks says.
For example, the nonprofit paid for one “high-fiver” to go on a meditation retreat with her partner and sent another to a Dallas Cowboys football game. Donors understand that hiring is part of Big Brothers Big Sisters’s mission, Lejnieks says, so the group shares these stories and thanks them for helping make the program possible.
Time your thank-yous well. Shang’s research shows that the good feelings donors get from a thank-you can last for about six to eight weeks. So, you might want to send thank-yous about once every two months, or four to six weeks before you need to make your next ask, she says.
Thank people simply for being on your donation page. Don’t wait until after donors give to show appreciation, Shang says. Include language on your donation page that thanks them just for being there and thinking of supporting your mission.
“The fact that they come to your website [means] they are already choosing you,” Shang says, “And if they are already choosing you, then you want to thank them for that decision — before they then decide how much and what they’re going to give to.”Return to Insights & Events