donor love

What about counting the ways for your donors this year?

Or at least for a subset of your donors who have the potential to give you the lion’s share of your philanthropy?

We talk a lot in the sector about donor love and gratitude, but how do we practice it? As a virtue, or a transaction?

I recently happened on the work of Scott Monty, an executive advisor whose tagline is “Speaker, Advisor, Timeless Wisdom.” His newsletter is not nonprofit specific, however it’s certainly relevant to anyone working in the social benefit sector. I’d like to pass some of that timeless wisdom on to you here. I’ll begin by sharing some thoughts from Gratitude is a Virtue, Not a Transaction.

Monty suggests “gratitude is a behavior, not a set of tactics. It can only come through practice and a conscious effort, at the intersection of reflection and kindness.”  

When your donor love and loyalty strategy consists largely of tactical “to-do’s” you check off your list (e.g., send a thank you letter; make a thank you call; create a thank you video) you’re focusing largely on process (how) rather than people (why). 

Process is dutiful, yet lacks the feeling of being heartfelt. Like a kid sending a thank you to Grandma for a birthday present. Or a couple buying form thank you cards, to which they affix little more than signatures, to send as gratitude for wedding gifts. Or a Hallmark card to which no personal note is added.

Do these things count as gratitude? As love? Perhaps a little. But not enough to nourish your donors and encourage them to continue sustaining your mission. There are better ways to count donor love, and show you can be counted on.

Which brings me to A Gift for My Children, which I found particularly transferable to the work of major gifts donor cultivation and stewardship.

Monty came up with a brilliant idea for a gift to his children. Each kid received their own leather-bound journal at birth. Every week he spends some time writing thoughts and observations in the journal. His goal is to create a customized handbook of life, with moments unique to each child. He’ll give them the journal when they leave home.

Is your heart melting?

I absolutely LOVE this idea!

What if you could melt your donors’ hearts using this totally translatable idea as a gift for your donors?

Of course, you don’t have to do it exactly the same way he did. You can get creative with your donor love!

An Example You Can Borrow

I did something similar for my own son (many moons ago.) I bought a few 12-month calendars, and wrote just a little bit in every box for the first three years of his life. Sometimes it was a new word he learned. Sometimes it was something funny he said. Everything was something for which I was eminently grateful; something I didn’t want to forget. Something I hoped to share with my son at some point so he knows how much he is loved.

Here are a few actual entries from that calendar:

  • Noah definitely has mastered the pincer grasp of Cheerios.” Grateful he’s developing.
  • Listening to Rodrigo with Noah. Cry tears of joy. Noah, brief tears for his bottle. Soft summer rain rounds out moist night of love.” Grateful for family, life and love.
  • Noah is very cranky. (His brain must be growing.)” Grateful as only a parent can be.
  • Noah cries when we insist on holding his hands to cross the street. He walks cutely with his hands crossed behind his back like a little penguin.” Grateful for small joys.
  • Noah discovers rigatoni can go on fingers!” Grateful for playfulness and creativity.

I know… I know. It’s a bit anal. But, ever after, I would sometimes spontaneously ask him: “Want to know what you were doing on this date when you were three?” He might roll his eyes at me, but he always listened. At least he knows I was paying attention.

Show Donors You’re Paying Attention to Them!

  • That you appreciate them.
  • That you’re grateful to them.
  • That they’re not simply an amorphous mass to you.

Sadly, giving is not always its own reward. Sometime you have to help it along by reflecting on why your donors give to you, why you’re grateful to them, and what they might find rewarding.

Show Donors they are Distinct, Individual, Caring, Valued People

  • Write down what makes them special.
  • Write down what delights you about them.
  • Write down how wonderful they make you feel.

It’s difficult to imagine this won’t make them feel good. I often say: “If you want gifts, you must give them.”

A Gift for Your Donors

I wouldn’t suggest you do this with every single donor. However, this would be a truly great cultivation and donor love strategy for upgrade targets and major donor prospects.

What if you created a little journal for each major donor prospect in your portfolio?

It wouldn’t have to be leather. In fact, it probably shouldn’t look expensive. Donors don’t appreciate it when you use their gift to buy things they deem unnecessary. However…

I guarantee if you do this right you will have some very appreciative supporters.

  • You could perhaps buy a bunch of pretty notebooks at a 75% off sale somewhere.
  • Or you could buy them in bulk online.
  • Or perhaps you could even make your own, using an online service such as Vista Print.

If you opt for the latter, you could add some photos showcasing your mission. Use happy photos that make your supporters feel like heroes for having created such joyful outcomes.

Once you have your journals in hand…

Develop a Journaling Plan

There’s no one right way to create or implement this plan.

Just pick something that works for you.

  • I’m pretty old-school and tactile, so I can imagine creating an Excel spreadsheet which includes the names of all my major donor prospects down the left-hand side of the spreadsheet. Across the top of the spreadsheet I would have space for every day of the month. I would then place an ‘X’ in the appropriate box on the date I planned to make a journal entry for any particular donor.
  • Alternatively, I might simply make an Outlook or Google calendar entry online for each of the donors in my portfolio. Today it might say “write something about Susie.” Tomorrow, “write something about Tom.” And so on.
  • There are all sorts of online project management tools you could use for this purpose as well. If that’s how you organize your work, you’ll already probably have some favorites.
  • Honestly, I used to do something similar to this using a big three ring binder. I had a page inside for each one of my major donor prospects. They were in alphabetical order, and whenever I wanted to make a record of a conversation or interaction, I would simply go to their page and hand write what had transpired. This is super old-school, I know, but it worked for me.
  • I can also imagine having 30 little journals lined up on a shelf and going to them whenever something occurred to me that made me particularly moved by an individual donor.

Kooky? Perhaps. But it will certainly make you stand out.

In a good way.

Come from an Attitude of Gratitude

I’ve been known to suggest to philanthropy facilitators like you that you keep a gratitude journal.

This gratitude journal strategy is an internal process that helps you become better in touch with your supporters as people.

It simply means making a journal entry in your donor love and gratitude book anytime you feel a burst of gratitude towards a particular donor.

You will need to train yourself to recognize these moments, but once you are aware of what you’re looking for it starts to become both easy and fun! (Similar to looking for magical moments you might want to preserve about your child’s formative years).

Commit to Your Donor Love & Gratitude Process!

Make it a practice for 10 minutes at the end of every day to think about who you are grateful to that day and why. Or do this the first thing every morning, looking back to the previous day.

In your journal, take time each day to indicate in writing why you are grateful to a specific donor on that day.

  • I am grateful to Les for bringing a coffee cake to our committee meeting
  • I am grateful to Mary for upgrading her gift
  • I am grateful to Joe for making thank you calls
  • I am grateful to Lily for taking people on a tour
  • I am grateful to Paul for telling me a really funny joke I’m going to want to share
  • I am grateful to Vera for sharing the newsletter she received from her alma mater

Wrap it up with a Ribbon

By the end of a 12-month period, you may have anywhere from 6 to 12 handwritten entries per donor.

All you have to do now is wrap your little journal up in some pretty paper or ribbon, plop it into a mailing envelope, and send it off to your donor with a note of gratitude. Or use this as an opportunity to call up your donor, let them know you have a little gift for them, and ask if you can drop by or meet them someplace for coffee.

What a gift!

There is no way your donor won’t appreciate seeing how you thought of them over the past year. And the key to donor retention and upgrading is making your donors see they matter more to you than they even imagined they did.

This is something tangible. Something they can hold onto and look back at. In this digital era, gifts such as these are becoming increasingly rare.

When you think of giving as a value-for-value exchange, this is something incredibly valuable. Something to be treasured. Something precious… because they can’t get it anywhere else.

People Want to be Treasured and Remembered

A personalized gift is much more meaningful than a mass emailed greeting card. Or a refrigerator magnet. Or a pen, T-shirt, or coffee mug.

When you treasure and remember your donor, they will treasure and remember you.

  • This can be a great holiday gift at the end of the calendar year.
  • This can be a lovely surprise at the end of your fiscal year.
  • This makes a thoughtful and special Valentine for your donor.
  • This makes a wonderful “just because” gift anytime you’d like to find an excuse to connect one-to-one with your supporter.

If you do this consistently, I’ve little doubt you’ll inspire some donors to continue giving to you at a major gift level — even if it’s just so they can look forward to the coming year’s journal!

In fact, it may even make them consider what they can do during the course of the year to inspire your gratitude — and merit a journal entry.

If that isn’t a win – win, I don’t know what is!

donor love and loyalty

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.