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[ASK AN EXPERT] Do All Donors Need A Thank You Within 48 Hours?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity. Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on how to persuade leadership to get donor thank-you letters out sooner:  

Dear Charity Clairity,

I just took a new job and have discovered they don’t get thank you letters out for two weeks. To me, this is unacceptable. But I can’t persuade them we need to speed this up. I told my boss, the E.D., the industry standard is 48 hours. He thinks I’m nuts. And I quote: “This is perfectly okay. No one expects immediate responses from us. Especially smaller donors. They know we’re busy with our work. And we’ve been just fine until now.” Do you have any tricks up your sleeve that can help me persuade them the status quo is holding them back, and they could be MORE than fine if we upped our gratitude game?

— Stymied

Dear Stymied,

I feel your pain, and you are not alone. In fact, back in the day, I encountered this exact problem. And I, like you, feel the imperative of a prompt, personal thank you that’s powerfully indicative of the impact of the donor’s gift.

And I’ll tell you what I did to address it.

But first, some data to impress on your boss how critically important prompt, personal gratitude is to retaining and upgrading donors.

Why getting a thank you out quickly is important

First and foremost, the active practice of gratitude does not belong on the back burner. It’s human nature to seek validation. A little reinforcement for a good deed well done. And it’s better to give it sooner than later, for a couple of reasons.

  • Saying thank you establishes trust, reassuring donors their money didn’t go into a black hole. Trust is the foundation of all lasting relationships. When the thank you is delayed, trust can be eroded before you even get a chance to make a critical and good first impression.
  • Recency is the most important predictor of likelihood to give. If your donor is stuck in processing mode for weeks or months after giving, you’ll miss out on their most-likely-to-give-again period – a time when you could have received a second gift.

What you can do to speed up your thank-you process

Here’s an exercise I took my team through to address the issue of a too-slow donor acknowledgement process. I began by gathering everyone who touched the gift and/or the thank you from the minute the gift arrived until the minute the acknowledgement letter left our office. We then looked at the total gift journey. Here are questions you can ask yourself and your team to go through a similar exercise.

  1. Do you wait for the mail to arrive?
  2. Where does the mail go first?
  3. Where do checks go first?
  4. Where do credit card payments go first?
  5. Once the gift arrives in the development department, what steps are taken next?
  6. Who is assigned the job of gift acknowledgment?
  7. Once a computer-generated letter is produced, what happens next?
  8. Once the thank you is signed what happens next?
  9. Once the thank you is sealed what happens next?

Not having clarity on the answers to these questions can easily tack on several days to a week to your thank you letter’s journey. Anyplace that’s a bottleneck (i.e., checks sitting at the post office for hours instead of you picking them up; checks languishing in a mailroom instead of being immediately distributed; checks sitting on someone’s desk rather than being quickly deposited and entered into a donor database; credit card gifts waiting a week until they can be entered in batches; thank you letters sitting on the desk of someone who is out sick, and so forth).

What today’s donors expect

In 2018, WSJ columnist Christopher Mims observed:

“Alongside life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, you can now add another inalienable right: two-day shipping on practically everything.”

“Everything” includes a prompt expression of gratitude when someone makes a philanthropic gift to your organization. At least that’s what today’s donors believe. And you better deliver – or else.

In fact, here’s what a reader of my Clairification blog recently added in the comments section of an article exhorting nonprofits to get their post-holiday thank-you letters out right away:

Hello — We have a “Christmas Wish” Memorial Fund in my late father’s name (he died 30 years ago) that spits out several hundred dollars per year. Since it’s in our Community Foundation, it must be given to 501c3s. I’m about ready to give up on the nonprofits in our rural community, as even when I’ve gone to the trouble of contacting them, got the grants approved and personally delivered the checks, my rate of hand-written or phone call thank-you messages is probably around three or four per cent. We gave away about a thousand dollars in three grants this past Christmas, and it’s nearly February and I haven’t heard a word from any of them. I even offered to volunteer at one of the places! Pathetic and sad. They will likely disappear from my list forever.– Brad D.

Share with your boss how beyond frustrating this can be from a donor perspective. I understand nonprofits being busy, but there’s no excuse for not exercising common courtesy. Those who say, “We’re very small; we just don’t have time for this,” are losing sight of the big picture. Because if they keep losing supporters along the way, pretty soon they won’t have time — or resources — for anything, including their mission.

Here’s some advice from another expert – Penelope Burk of Donor-Centered Fundraising.  In response to an inquiry about whether it was really important to treat all donors the same when it comes to thanking (i.e., maybe “smaller” donors didn’t need as much promptness or personalization), here’s what she had to say:

“I know this is a hard concept for fundraisers to grasp because you have had it hammered into your heads that donors who give big should be treated better than donors who don’t. But this makes fundraising passive when it should be active. Active fundraising assumes that all donors could give more than they are giving now (which our ongoing research keeps proving to be true); and, in order to encourage that higher level giving, fundraisers need to inspire donors through truly meaningful thank you letters and calls that show your gratitude, among other things. If you wait for a donor to give big before telling him how much you appreciate his efforts, most supporters will never get to that state of giving generously within their own means.

You asked donors to give; they responded. Now it’s your turn again to show them your very best and inspire them to go higher the next time. That is proactive fundraising and it is also “donor-centered.”

Based on data from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, less than 20% of first-time donors renew, but 60% of recurring donors renew. If you prioritize getting a second gift – starting with strategic prompt, personal gratitude — your donor is three times more likely to stay with you than if you don’t have a targeted second gift strategy.

Hopefully once your E.D. understands this dynamic, you will no longer be stymied in executing a thoughtful donor love and loyalty strategy.

— Charity Clairity (Please use a pseudonym if you prefer to be anonymous when you submit your own question, like “Stymied” did.)

How quickly do you send out donor thank-you letters? Please let us know in the comments below.

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