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Are Gift Acknowledgements Really Necessary?


I don’t have a lot of unfounded opinion in my workshops.

As a practitioner, as a writer, as an author of how-to books and a trainer, I trust research. I trust experts. I trust proof.

But I do fiercely cling to one bald assumption:

Thanks>> That the nonprofit with the best “thank you” program wins. <<

What does “win” mean, you ask?

Just this: if you develop a great thank-you program, you’ll raise far more money and bask in the lasting benefits of better donor retention.

And what does better donor retention get you? Again: lots more money. Fast. Great problem to have, BTW.

As Dr. Adrian Sargeant‘s research shows, a mere 10% improvement in donor retention yields a 50% boost in donor revenue immediately (not a misprint). And that’s just the beginning, folks, according to Sargeant. Downstream, the cash just multiplies. The cornucopia has landed. That’s what Sargeant discovered about improved retention and its fertile side-effects.

Do thank-you programs and retention rates have anything to do with each other? There’s the rub: I don’t know.

As I say, I have no real proof that the best thank-you programs win. I’m not even sure how you’d go about measuring which elements make a thank-you program truly great. (Though I bet “gratitude engineer,” Lisa Sargent, knows.)

Tom Belford in a recent Agitator post opened the bomb bay doors and dumped a megaton of “No” on this very idea. “C’mon all you consultants out there … confess now. All these years you’ve been telling clients how important it is to acknowledge gifts, promptly. But perhaps the only thing certain is that this advice helps generate more creative and mailing fees for all those thank you and welcome packages!”

Tom Belford is a fundraising warrior of Jedi-like skills. His opinion deserves a listen.

Still, I am convinced. I am absolutely sure that if your charity puts as much effort into its thank you’s as it does into its acquisition, the payoff will ultimately be massive.

I have zero proof. But at least I can tell you why I’m sure it’s true.

Reciprocity: Psychology 101

At the core of my conviction is a psych phenomenon called “reciprocity.” Researcher Dr. Robert Cialdini lists it among his most potent triggers of persuasion.

Reciprocity, as I understand it, is simply this: If you give me something, I tend to feel I should give you something IN RETURN. Humans apparently have a built-in “exchange mentality.”

Mass-market fundraising depends heavily on Cialdini’s reciprocity principle to makes its millions. Using unsolicited trinkets to rake in gifts is pure reciprocity in action, at least in my view.

>> Receive my direct mail appeal containing some flashy item, maybe a saint’s medallion — and you might feel just a bit obligated to reciprocate with a small gift. I’ve done something for you. Now you can do something for me.

>> Receive some self-sticking return address labels from my charity, and you might feel just a bit obligated to send me a gift in return — even though (here’s the best part) you didn’t ask for the labels and don’t especially need them.

Of course, most people ignore most of these appeals most of the time. But enough people do respond to make the math work profitably.

In fact, the “trinkets” side of mass market fundraising — or as it might be called, the “reciprocity exploitation” side — is big business.

As practiced by innovators and high-level analysts such as Pareto in Australia, reciprocity exploitation can reliably generate record amounts of both cash and retention.

A different kind of reciprocity

Let’s return to my original obsession: thank-you programs.

Here’s what I think: When I give you, my donors, my warm and heartfelt thanks, I am giving you something of value.

I am giving you something you can actually cherish, because it confirms your goodness.

I am making you feel important, which is the primary job of all would-be donor-centered communications.

And you might, just might, reciprocate with another gift.

Thanks do not happen just at the point of sale, either, I’d like to point out. They are not just a knee-jerk reaction to the receipt of a gift.

Thanks — profound thanks — should happen in everything you send to donors, including your reporting media: paper and emailed newsletters.

I have seen the miraculous impact that a tone of thanks can do for a hospital’s donor newsletter.

That permeating tone of thanks, evident in every headline, increased gift revenue by 1,000 percent; bringing in a not-to-be-sneezed-at $50,000 per issue in newsletter-generated gifts.

I know another very thankful donor newsletter that generates a half million dollars a year in gifts from 10,000 donors.

This is reciprocity at work. I give you convincing thanks. I make you feel truly important.

And you will continue to make gifts.

This post originally appeared in the Ahern Donor Communications newsletter.

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