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[ASK AN EXPERT] What's The Best Way To Steward Tribute Donors?

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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 recognize and steward tribute donors:

Dear Charity Clairity,

Our small organization has been around for many years, but we have only just recently begun receiving donations “in memory of a loved one in lieu of flowers” for example. We’re wondering how we can publicly recognize the donations. Would a page on our website be enough? Would it be appropriate to post a blanket thank you on our Facebook page? Would a mention in our quarterly newsletter be appropriate? What would you suggest?

— What’s Enough?

Dear What’s Enough,

Congrats on receiving more tribute gifts, and good on you for considering the best ways to recognize the generous supporters who refer these gifts to you. 

I’m of the firm opinion you can never thank donors too much, so the real question is “What’s not enough?”

If you come from the perspective of creating a great donor experience so the donor feels good about what they’ve done – ideally good enough to give again—then you know, at the least, you must thank them personally, promptly, and in a manner powerfully indicative of the impact of their gift. This is what I call the “Three ‘P’s’ of Thanking.” In this case, you’ll want to thank both the person who made the donation and the person in whose honor or memory it was made.

How to thank tribute donors and honorees

Here are tips for thanking tribute donors, at a minimum:

  1. Prompt: Within 24 – 48 hours. Immediately if the gift is made online. You may want to set a threshold over which you also mail a card if the gift is $100+, $500+, or whatever amount seems above average for your organization.
  2. Personal. Use their first name unless they’re someone for whom an honorary title must be used to show respect (for example, military; elected official; member of the clergy).
  3. Powerfully indicative of impact. This element is super-important for tribute donors, because often their giving is connected with gratitude, heartache, pain, healing, or love. Impact is important to them, and many may not be familiar with your organization’s work. This is your opportunity to show them they didn’t just buy an empty box with a pretty bow. Show them the real gift inside the box they just gifted to their friend or loved one! You’ll want to demonstrate two types of impact:
    1. Mission impact: How people, animals, nature, or a cause were meaningfully helped.
    2. Honoree impact: How the person or family in whose honor or memory the gift was made has been notified a gift was made in their honor. [PRO TIP: Never mention the amount of the gift in the notice to the honoree. This is definitely a case where it’s the thought that counts, not the money.].

Here are tips for thanking honorees of tribute gifts:

  1. Prompt: Within 24 to 48 hours is still a good, general standard. However, if someone well-known in your community asks for gifts to be made to your organization—whether it’s for a special life-cycle event or because they participated in your walkathon—you may want to save these up and send the honoree a weekly list. Just be sure to let them know this is your plan, in the interest of saving paper and postage.
  2. Personal: Whenever someone is honored by a tribute gift, the thank you should also extend good wishes or condolences, as appropriate. If they asked people to direct gifts your way, be sure to warmly thank them for this as well.
  3. Powerful impact: Generally, the person being honored or remembered knows your organization pretty well. Sometimes, however, this is not the case. Regardless, it never hurts to remind the person or family of the blessings these gifts are making possible.
  4. Practical info: Let them know the name and contact information of the donor so, if they wish, they can send a thank you note. [PRO TIP: With my notification letter to honorees, I used to enclose little thank you cards they could immediately turn around and send out, making it super easy for them to fulfill all rules of etiquette. You can include something related to the mission; it can be as simple as, “Thank you for caring.”]

How to publicly recognize tribute donations

How you recognize these donors will be related to how you thank other donors. Increasingly, organizations are getting away from donor honor rolls because of the costs and risks involved. Preparing them takes an inordinate amount of staff time to assure everyone is included, spelling is accurate, and gifts are listed in the appropriate giving level.

If you publicly acknowledge your donors, it’s customary to list your tribute donors in the same manner. In other words, if you normally don’t list donors under $100, you’re not obliged to list $10 tribute donors. If you’re listing, Facebook is probably not your best choice as not all your donors likely participate. Put it where it’s most likely to be seen (for example, annual report; program; newsletter; website). You can choose to indicate the gift is in honor or memory, or you can leave this off to save space or paper. I recommend leaving it off.

  • Honor rolls can get pretty messy—and lengthy—if every third name listed says “In loving memory of John Henry Doe, II.
  • Some honorees will have lots and lots of donations, while others may have one or two. You don’t want this to become a popularity contest or in any way make an individual or family uncomfortable if they weren’t loved or respected enough.

How to publicly promote tribute donations

Always offer the option to make a gift in honor or memory on your remit devices and donation landing pages. These gifts can be a way to persuade donors who may not otherwise have given to you to do so and essentially “fill two needs with one deed.” They’re able to make a gift to a cause they care about, and also take care of a gift to a friend or loved one—one they now don’t have to go out and buy. If the donor is thinking, “Oh, I would’ve spent $50 on a gift for George anyway,” perhaps they’ll give that to you instead of the $10 or $25 they would otherwise have given. 

Let donors choose how they’d like their friend, colleague, or family member informed of the gift by including notification options on your donation page. Option types: email; snail mail, or no notification.

[PRO TIP: I also like to enclose tribute envelopes in donor thank you letters. It’s not the same as enclosing an annual campaign remit envelope, which seems like another too-soon ask. Rather, consider it a courtesy—the offering of an opportunity to easily make appropriate tributes whenever such occasions arise. Sample language: Give today. Honor someone you love for birthdays, anniversaries, speedy recoveries, special thanks, and memorial tributes. People often used to call and ask me to send more envelopes!]

If you always think from your donor’s and gift recipient’s perspectives, you’ll always know what’s enough. And what’s not.  

— Charity Clairity

P.S. You’re not the only one with this question! See How to Publicly Recognize Memorial Gifts.

Please use a pseudonym, like “What’s Enough” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

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