Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE recently joined us for a webinar in which she explained how to think through your thank you process, put some procedures in writing, and get others on board.

In case you missed it, you can watch the full replay here:

Full Transcript:

Steven: All right, Claire. Is it okay if I kick us off officially?

Claire: Go ahead.

Steven: All right. Well, good afternoon, everyone if you are on the East Coast and good morning if you are on the West Coast or somewhere in between. Thanks for being here for today’s Bloomerang webinar, “13 Nonprofit Thank You Mistakes to Avoid.” And my name is Steven Shattuck and I am the Chief Engagement Officer over here at Bloomerang and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion, as always.

I just want to let everyone know before we kick off officially that I am recording this presentation and I’ll be able to send out the recording as well as the slides later on this afternoon, in case you didn’t already get the slides. So, if you need to leave early or perhaps you want to share the content or review it later on, have no fear, I will send that recording and slides out later on today.

And as you’re listening, please free to use that chat box right there on your webinar screen. We’re going to try to save some time for Q&A at the end, so don’t be shy about sending in your questions or your comments. I’ll see those. Claire will see those. And we’ll try to answer just as many as we can before the 2:00 hour. You can also send those questions and comments over on Twitter if you are a Twitter type person. We love to see those. I’ll be taking a look at the Twitter stream also, so don’t be shy about doing that.

And if you are listening today through your computer speakers, if you have any trouble, these webinars are usually only as good as your own internet connection. So, if you can dial in by phone, if you’ve got a phone handy and don’t mind using the phone, the audio quality is usually a little bit better there versus your computer speakers. So, if you wanted to do that, there is a phone number you can use in the email from ReadyTalk that went out about an hour ago.

And if this is your first Bloomerang webinar with us, I want to say an extra special hello to you. We do these webinars just about every Thursday. We bring on a great guest like Claire, who gives a great educational presentation. It’s one of our favorite things we do at Bloomerang, definitely my favorite thing.

But in addition to that, we offer donor management software. That’s kind of our core business. So, if you’re interested in that or maybe you’re thinking about switching what you’re using or looking for your first software provider, check us out. You can download a quick video demo and learn all about our software, don’t even have to talk to a salesperson, if you don’t want to. Who wants to do that anyway? So, check us out if you are interested.

But for now, I am super excited to introduce one of my favorite people. She’s been a mainstay of the Bloomerang webinar series. She comes back every year. I love having her back every year because she draws quite a big crowd because she is awesome and super smart. Claire, how’s it going?

Claire: It’s good. Thank you, Steven.

Steven: We love having you. I want to brag on you for just a couple of minutes here before I kick it off to you. If you guys don’t know Claire, you’ve got to know her. You’ve got to check out her blog over at Clairification. She is the Principal there and she is putting out tons of great webinars and blog posts and lots of free resources on her website, definitely bookmark that one if you haven’t already.

She’s got over 30 years of experience as a frontline development person doing fundraising. She was named the AFP’s outstanding fundraising professional of the year, which not a lot of people can say that’s happened to them. She’s a CFRE instructor. She is a frequent contributor to Maximize Social Business and Nonprofit Pro magazines. She’s got her own webinar series. She’s also a frequent presenter for the For Good webinar series. If that’s not on your radar, definitely check out that website. There’s lots of good content there because of Claire, primarily, because she’s awesome.

I’m excited to have her kick is off today. She actually snuck in a 13th mistake to avoid. It was originally billed as “12 Thank You Mistakes” but she snuck in a 13th one. So that she has time to fit all that stuff, I’m going to pipe down and hand it off to Claire. Claire, take it away my friend.

Claire: Okay. Thank you, Steven. So, 13 is my favorite number. So, it’s my lucky number. So, I had to add one. I want to thank you all, really, for being here and congratulate you for committing to the power of thank you to retain and to upgrade more donors. It’s much more important than most people think. So, today we’re going to give it the credit that it deserves and I want to give you the credit you deserve for being here.

Steven’s great introduction, I appreciate it. I just want to share with you why you should even bother listening to me on this subject today. Before I started Clairification five or six years ago, I did work as a Director of Development and Marketing for over 30 years in the trenches. So, I really do understand the challenges that you face daily in your job. I’ve had a wide range of experiences, from arts to social service to education, 2-person shops to 22-person shops, fundraising and marketing combined. So, I’ve been doing this a while in different settings and I know that what I’m going to share with you today holds true no matter your size, no matter your cost.

So, first, why, how you say thank you matters. It’s really easy to get into the habit of focusing on the gift rather than the giver. But that focus is costing you a lot. So, the fundraising effectiveness project, the most recent one, shows that 77% of donors are lost after the first gift. You lose 40% of your multi-year donors and lose 54% of all your donors. So, if you haven’t shared this really abysmal result that we’re seeing in donor retention with your powers that be, I encourage you to do that so you can justify why you want to devote more time and more resources to your gratitude strategy.
So, I’ve shared with you the bad news, but the good news is if you can renew somebody just once, the probability that they’re going to give again increases from 23% to 60%. I want to start us out here first with a poll just to see which of these reasons you think is your biggest current mistake in saying thank you.

So, Steven, how do people do this?

Steven: Just click on the bubble for one of the four they think adheres to them. It looks like the answers are rolling in pretty quickly. I’ll pull up the bar graph for you.

Claire: Okay.

Steven: It looks like most people are struggling with they think their thank yous are boring and impersonal is winning right now. Interesting.

Claire: Can I skip to the results?

Steven: Yeah. You should see them here shortly. There you go.

Claire: Oh, there we are. Boring and impersonal, but also don’t give them out fast enough. There’s a significant percentage that don’t think they’re putting enough time in and don’t thank people enough. Okay. We’re going to deal with all of that.

I really want to restate what I think the central problem of most donor acknowledgement programs that don’t spend enough time crafting thank yous or thinking about this strategically is this, focusing on the transaction, the money received and not your donor’s transformation, the gratitude that you’re giving is going to cost you. When the focus is on money, that’s very organization-centric. Your donor gets this, “Thank you for the $20 gift.” And they go, “Ho-hum.”

But if you focus on gratitude, if you focus on love, if the focus is donor-centric, there’s something in it for the donor, they’re going to go, “Wow, that was really nice.” So, the magical powers that thank you have is something that we underestimate. So, I wanted to talk a little bit about why this is so important.

Common sense and research show that we should focus a lot more on what I call the four essential Ps of thanking. The first three come from Penelope Burk’s research. And if you haven’t read her donor-centered fundraising book, I really encourage you to do that. When I read it, when I attended a presentation of hers back in like 2001, it totally changed the way I approached fundraising.
And she found that when donors were asked what they want from charities, their top three all had to do with thank yous. They want it to be prompt. They want it to be personal and they want it to be powerfully demonstrative of the impact of their gift. Plus, one other thing, they’d like to hear from you at least once with some kind of report on the impact of their giving before you ask them to give again. And that’s it. It’s not engraved plates. It’s not invitations to events. It’s not their name in lights. So, if you can do this, you’re going to keep more donors and raise more money.

The other essential P, polite, is what I call Miss Manners’ Rule or Grandma’s Rule. It’s just common sense to be polite with Grandma and with your donors. The gift is hopefully not the end of the relationship, but it will be unless you do something proactive. So, if you don’t get back to Grandma or you don’t get back to your donor, they’re going to think that you’re lazy. They’re going to think that you don’t really care. They both want to know that you got the gift and how much it meant to you.

So, if you don’t thank Grandma nicely, she might think twice before she gives again to you next year. And this is what happens with 77% of first time donors. They don’t give again next year. So, you want a thank you note that’s more along the lines of the sweater you got from Grandma, you don’t say, “Thanks for the gift, Grandma.” You say, “Thank you for the blue sweater. It’s my favorite color, as you know. Here’s a picture of me wearing it.” This is not a boring letter. It’s not a boring receipt.

It’s not a thank you that sounds like another fundraising letter that’s filled with statistics about the numbers of people you’ve helped and how great you are and how big the need still is. It’s not a, “Thank you for the sweater. I got only one sweater last year. I got twice as many this year because of you. I’m super now. By the way, thanks. I still need a red one and a pink one.”

So, now you’ve got the four essential Ps to doing thank you right. We’re going to cover the common mistakes that are easy to make even if you know about the four essential Ps. We’re going to go over this checklist, this baker’s dozen of mistakes and you can see even this is from some recent research from Penelope Burk where 70% of donors say they would increase their giving if they got what they needed from you.

So, let’s begin with prompt. The first mistake that is made is delaying getting the thank you out. Most first gifts are impulse purchases. They are like first dates. And what do you do when you have a good date. You try to figure out how you’re going to get the next one. If you wait six months to get back in touch, you’re likely sunk. This is a losing strategy. Your donor is going to think you’re a loser.
However, if you thank right away, if you say, “You made my week, thanks for the great time,” if you say that to a date, they’re going to be inclined to be connected to you again, the same as true with the donors. The first contact is the most important because it triggers trust. This is based on a lot of research from psychology and from relationship marketing, neuroscience and philanthropy.

And in terms of philanthropy, the nonprofit guru on this is Dr. Adrian Sargeant in the United Kingdom. A lot of his research informs the Bloomerang website and product. So, if you haven’t gone there, go to his website. It’s called Study Fundraising. It shows you how vital the thank you is. And what the thank you does for your donor is it shows that you can be counted on. It shows you’re trustworthy. You got the gift. You’re efficient. You have manners. You’re going to deliver on the promises you made in your appeal. You’re going to put the gift to work as the donor intended. The donor is your hero.

You want to let them know this in some way because that really makes them happy. It turns out that the first 90 days are critical. If the donor doesn’t hear from you a few times in that time period, you may as well forget that you ever met. Promptness is not just a nicety, either. The most important predictor of likelihood to give again is recency. So, if you take a month to process a gift, you’re going to miss out on your donor’s most likely to give again period.

So, this is important. Your first thank you should get out the door in 48 hours. Period. No arguments. Donor etiquette is not wedding etiquette. You don’t have a year. People will try to tell you, your board members will try to tell you, they’ll say, “We don’t care if we don’t hear back from charities for a week or month or whatever,” don’t believe them. Penelope Burk has proven otherwise, as have other studies. Donors repeatedly report and demonstrate they want a timely thank you.

Burk’s study found that when donors were tracked for 14 months after receiving a call from a board member within 48 hours of making the gift, the donors that were phoned gave 42% more than the donors who were not. They were also 39% more likely to renew their gift. That’s really big. So, if you can manage to work thank you calls into your donor acknowledgement plan, do it. If you can’t call everyone, I recommend you try to call at least new $100+ donors. In my experience, these people are gold in terms of lifetime value of these donors.

Burk’s research also found that 95% would appreciate a thank you call within a day or two. It certainly can’t hurt. Eight-five percent said the call would influence them to give again. And a whopping 84% said they would definitely or probably increase their gift. If you want to learn how to make these calls, you can download my free thank you calls, eBooks and script and actually by virtue of attending this webinar today, you will be added to my list where you can get this for free.
Yes, I know some of you are thinking, “People screen their calls. This is not going to work.” Leave a message. Don’t waste your hard work. A lovely pure, “Just called to let you know we got your gift and I wanted you to know it really means a lot. Thank you so much. By the way, if you ever want to reach anybody here at our nonprofit, here’s my name, here’s my number, here’s my email. I’m your person.” That’s a great way to personalize it.
Again, if you don’t thank donors promptly, you’re destroying the rest of your hard work. They want to know you got the gift and it meant something to you. If you’re really slow, it makes you appear inefficient and they wonder, “Is this the way you conduct the rest of your business?”

All right. If you’re thinking, “Gosh, 48 hours. I’ve got some problems with that.” I hear a lot, “Our thank you letters always get stuck in the ED’s office.” So, what can you do? I would like to suggest that you create an interdisciplinary committee to address the issue of donor acknowledgement.

So, bring in everybody who touches a piece of mail, from the minute a check gets to your office until the donor acknowledgement gets out the door and walk through the journey of the donor’s gift and discuss the points of delay. I’ve done this and I’ve found sometimes it took a full day just for us to get the gift because nobody was going to the post office, who were waiting until 5:00 in the afternoon when the mail got delivered. So, brainstorm ways to eliminate the delays you want to cover and get group commitment to speeding up this process and to changing what you need to change.

One little thing I used to do is put the letters that needed to be signed into a red folder marked urgent. I enlisted the help of the administrative assistants for the ED and she would put this on top of the inbox every day. Let’s say you still can’t get the letter out within the 48-hour time period, all the more reason to make a phone call.

So, a practical tip . . . make it a priority every morning to assign thank you calls for folks whose gifts were received the previous day and spread the calls out among various staff if you want to make this less onerous for people and provide people with a little script and I like to give them some thank you letters that were written by clients so they can say, “Hey, Joe, I just want to let you know we got your gift. It really, really means a lot. By the way, I got a great letter from someone in that program, I wonder if I can share a few lines from that letter with you. I think it will make you feel good.”

And again, if you get a voicemail, say the same thank you, pure thank you, but, “I’ve got a letter. I was going to read a few lines, but I’m going to pop it in the mail.” That gives you another opportunity to get in touch and the more opportunities that you have to get in touch, the more you are building the relationship.
All right. The second mistake, misspelling the donor’s name. You absolutely have to get this right. Even sweethearts like Cookie Monster get upset when their name is misspelled. It’s really the quintessence of saying, “I don’t know who you are. I don’t care to know who you are.” So, there’s really no excuse for getting this wrong. It’s just sloppy and it borders on rude.
The next mistake is failure to personalize the salutation. So, personalization matters. Per the most recent Abila Donor Loyalty Study, approximately 71% of donors said they feel more engaged with a nonprofit when they receive content that’s personalized. It’s so easy to do this these days with CRM and mail merge programs that not doing it is perceived as lazy.

Unless you absolutely know that you have a constituent that prefers a formal salutation, use a familiar, the first name. Mrs. Axelrad is my mother. I’ve never gone by that. Except for judges and elected officials and military personnel, almost everyone these days goes by their first name. If they use a nickname or if they have a pesky initial, you better put this into the right field in your database because there’s nothing quite as awkward as a letter that starts out, “Dear Ms. R. Ellen,” when the donor goes by Ellen. Or, “Dear Beatrice,” when the donor goes by Bitty. Certainly don’t do, “Dear friend.” Remember, you are trying to build a personal relationship here. So, be personal. Be friendly.

The fourth mistake is making it be about the transaction, not the impact. When you just send a receipt that’s about a financial transaction, your donor is not going to perceive it as a heartfelt thank you. It’s not going to make them feel warm and fuzzy. So, you really want to avoid receipts. They’re about money and about process, not about your donor’s impact or the outcome they made possible.

I’m going to share with you a real awful example of a thank you I received from a local television station. I think its awfulness speaks for itself, but it is so poorly written, I have to take it to task a bit. It says, “If you donate too early, then the system, not a person, will consider an additional donation.” Oh no, not that. Beyond that, it won’t even accept my attempt to donate. Instead, it says the system says I must become a member whether I want to or not.

So, this thank you letter also happens to illustrate another pet peeve of mine, which I will share with you, which is this non-donor-centric distinction between member and donor. Folks, your donors don’t make this distinction. From their perspective, they’re making an exchange from their financial to their social portfolio. Both of these are tax deductible. Members consider themselves donors. Donors consider themselves members.
This leads us to our next mistake, which is boring content because that last one was really boring. This seems to be an area that all of you are struggling with. So, a thank you letter is really an opportunity to make your donor feel warm and fuzzy. You’ve got to stop being so formal and start being more genuine. When you begin your letter with, “Thank you on behalf of the board and the staff and all those who have helped with their generosity,” you put your donor to sleep. You also distance yourself from the donor. It doesn’t feel personal. Nobody talks this way.
So, anything in there that is generic and filled with jargon about your organization’s accomplishment is just you checking the thank you off of your list. It does little for the donor. It certainly doesn’t set them up to really feel like, “Oh I want to give to them again.” So, much better is something that uses a warm tone that’s not stilted that makes your donors feel really good right off the bat.

That’s why to open strong is to leave the word “thank you” out of it. “Jimmy will go to sleep tonight with a full tummy because you cared.” Leaving thank you out of it forces you to be more creative and ensures you don’t say that, “On behalf of the . . . ” which is a common rookie mistake in thank you letters. So, think first before you write this. What did the donor make possible? How can I lead with this?

You remembered because Gloria could not. This will capture their attention and remind the reader of your cause immediately. In other words, this couldn’t be a thank you for any other organization. “The glass of water she drinks today will not make her sick.” This makes the donor feel good about what they did. They feel like a hero. It’s not just about the single transaction of giving. “Mary won’t feel her son died in vain because your gift will build a cancer research center.” It starts to become a transformative experience that reflects back to them the person they want to be.

Then you want to make sure your content is emotional, even gushy. Okay. “So, I understand this might seem a little over the top or even silly, but here’s the thing, I think what you did is exceptional. You don’t want to bury this good stuff that you’ve got inside of you. I believe the individuals involved in the One Justice Network are pretty special and my heart is full to overflowing with gratitude. I wish I could thank each and every one of you in person.” That’s a real thank you letter that I received.

All of these are real thank you letters. “Words cannot express how much your gift at this time means. We are absolutely thrilled to have your support again this year. Did you know you’re really our hero? You were wonderful to renew your support. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.” So, really, gush a bit.

The next mistake is ignoring what the donor shows you. So, some of what you’re going to learn from your donors is overt. Some of it comes from observation. You want to pay attention to things like the remit form they send back, the carrier envelope that it comes from. Be alert for important information of which you must take note. And then make appropriate connections or inputs into your database so you can incorporate this information both into your thank you and into your next communication.
So, notice if they spell their name differently than you did, notice if there are name changes or if they use a nickname. Notice this on the outer envelope they crossed out somebody’s name and maybe there’s been a death or divorce in the family. Notice if their address or their phone number has changed. And notice if they earmark the gift, they checked off the box, it’s for a particular purpose. Your donor wants to be reassured that this is how you’re going to use the money. There’s no point of giving them spaces to put all this information in if you’re not going to take the time to make a note of it in your database.

The next mistake is ignoring what the donor tells you. So, they want to know that you listened. They want you to show them that you know them. You really want to acknowledge everything they tell you. You want to reassure them in the thank you letter that you’re going to comply with their wishes and follow through on any direction. This is what establishes trust, which is the underpinning of any lasting relationship.

So, if they want their gift to remain anonymous, your thank you letter should say, “As directed, we will assure your gift remains anonymous.” Notice how they want their name to appear in print in your letter. “As requested, your name will appear in print.” Notice if they increase their gift. Deflect back to them, “Thanks so much for increasing your giving.” If they ask for pledge reminders, assure them you’ll stay on top of this. If the gift is in honor or memory of someone, assure them that you saw this and that you sent a notice to the person they ask you to send to.

Okay. Onto the eighth mistake, which is forgetting to share specific impact. So, even bar mitzvah kids know to tell folks they really needed that fountain pen and they’re going to be putting it to work immediately to write thank you notes. The donor wants to know you really needed their gift and how wisely you’re going to use their investment for the purpose they intended. This is a very simple thing to do and yet it’s missed in a lot of thank you letters.

So, let’s move on to the ninth mistake, which is overlooking the fact that this thank you is an opportunity to offer your donor something of value. This is a big one. You need to remember that all of philanthropy is based on a value for value exchange.

The donor gives you something, which is money, in this case, and you give them something back, which is usually an intangible, a feel good, a sentence that makes them feel happy that they fulfilled a moral obligation and a religious obligation, something that makes them see that they gave back and they felt like they were being good. They want to feel like they’re good, something that makes them see that they’re getting connected with like-minded community, maybe even that they got a tax deduction or they helped you to leverage a match.
Good donor stewardship requires a back and forth value exchange because, sadly, giving is not always its own reward. It’s up to you to proactively reward your donor and help them feel like the hero that they are. This means you have to be conscious of what you’re giving to them so that you can be sure to incorporate this value, this intangible value into your thank you letter because people have to feel happy with every interaction with you.
There are lots of different ways to give donors a values boost through the thank you. Also, not just the first thank you, but subsequent thank yous throughout the year. I have a “Creative Ways to Thank Your Donors” eBook on my website that has 62 suggestions of ways to do this. But let’s look at a few right now.

So, what kind of intangible token gifts can you give in your thank you letters. Let’s say you have a café, you’re a school, you’re an arts organization. Give them a coupon for coffee or ice cream or something at your café. Or if you don’t, maybe a local business will give you some coffee coupons and you can send it to them saying, “This business supports us and also supports all the friends of us and here’s a cup of coffee on them.”

What about a token gift like a stick of gum or some gold star stickers that say, “Thanks for sticking with us,” or here’s a suggestion of Doublemint gum, just a stick of gum, “When you doubled your money by responding to our challenge, that really meant a lot.” I know it’s corning, but corny is good in thank you letters and one stick of gum doesn’t even add to the weight of the thank you letter.

There’s stuff that you can do that is the same kind of content that I recommend that people share in their e-newsletters and their blog, which is useful stuff that your donors can use that’s related to what you do. So, that can be reading recommendations. It could be a list of tips if you’re a child serving organization, “10 Ways to Baby Proof Your Home.” If you’re an environmental organization, “5 Things to Do to Recycle at Home.” It also builds your authority and connects them more with your mission.

The other thing are just testimonials, thank yous from people who were helped. I like to sometimes put these on the flip side of the thank you letter. I like to keep the thank you letters to one page, but the front and back is fine. Then just a PS that says, “The words of some of the people your gift helped express more eloquently than can I the impact of your gift.” So, you want to be giving your donors something of value now that continues this circle of giving and getting, the value for value exchange.

All right. Onto mistake number 10, forgetting to suggest next steps. So, when you go on a first date, you kind of feel awkward. You’re not sure what kind of an impression you made. Did your date like you? Do they want to get to know you better? Donors feel the same way when they make a gift. They want to know what’s going to happen next in their relationship with you. If you don’t want this gift to be a one-time transaction, suggest to them the next steps. Don’t end with a thud before you’ve really begun.
So, let them know when you’re going to next be in touch. Let them know some events they can attend, ways they can volunteer, ways they can get involved with you as an advocate that doesn’t involve more money, ways they can reach you directly, which leads us to the next thank you mistake, which I’ve alluded to, which is not including contact information.

What if the donor has a question? What if they want to do more for you? What if you made a mistake in their letter and they want to correct it? How are they going to reach the right person easily if you don’t give them a name, a phone number and an email? Again, this is about building personal relationships. So, you want to give them contact information. They’ve got to be able to reach you easily. The best thing is I made a gift to you and now all of a sudden, I got my person there. I’m not a sort of anonymous amorphous kind of person like I am part of your family and I can talk to somebody.

All right. Now onto the next common easily avoided mistake, sounding like you’re asking for more. So, you’ll notice I didn’t say simply asking for more. That’s certainly a no-no because a thank you should be pure. It’s equally important to avoid the appearance of asking. So, take a good look at your thank you letters. Do they sound a lot like a solicitation? Are you still kind of moaning about the need in the community and bragging about all the people you’ve helped and adding there’s still so much to do?

Remember I mentioned an Abila Donor Engagement Study earlier. We had also found that 21% of donors say they were never thanked for their gift. Now, I think probably some of them weren’t thanked, but I bet a lot of them were, but they didn’t perceive it as a thank you. It either just looked like a receipt or it sounded like another fundraising letter and they threw it out.

You really just want to take the space that you need to get your warm thank you message across. Thank you notes don’t honestly need to be longer than a paragraph unless the extra stuff you’re adding is value-added stuff that makes them feel really good. So, let’s look at some examples.

So, this is a donor-centered thank you letter formula, really, three parts to it. What the donor did, why the donor did it and what’s in it for them? So, what did they do? This is where you put in your catchy opening, “You remembered because she couldn’t.” And then you tie it back to the reason they gave. “Thanks for responding to our request for the Dementia Center with your $500 gift.” So, it’s not, “Thank you for your $500 gift.”
Why the donor did it. So, they had an emotional reason. “Mary will be safe from now on because she’ll have help at home. You’re our hero.” Because is a great word. It’s really a way to tie back to the purpose of their giving. Remind them they’re a hero. That’s really making it about the donor. Then reassure them you’re paying attention. “As you directed, we’ll keep your gift anonymous.”
And then finally, what’s in it for them. This is where you say, “Hey, would you like to tour? Would you like to volunteer? Please call. Here’s our contact information.” You’re inviting some kind of involvement with you other than money. I like to use the PS because it really is the most valuable piece of real estate. This is true for your appeal letter as well.

I never want to you see you do a letter without a PS because after the salutation, it’s the first place that people go and read. So, put something in there that’s new, useful, fun, not tax information. I like to just put the tax information in small print at the very bottom underneath the signature and the PS. But maybe here’s a good place to put, “Here’s your personal contact information,” or, “Here are some words from some of the people who were helped by your giving.”

All right. This was a mailed appeal. Let’s look quickly at an email thank you that is a real one that I got that I think does a pretty good job at avoiding all of these mistakes. And you can see first of all, I got it immediately upon making the gift. It’s warm. It’s friendly. It’s not just a receipt. It’s a genuine substitute for a mailed letter. So, it satisfies the spirit of the 48-hour turnaround guideline.

It’s personally addressed, “Dear Claire.” It kicks off with a warm, “Wow.” It compliments me for making a good investment. So, that really validates my decision. Especially first time donors need validation they made a good decision in giving to you. It’s got some emotional content that says, “I’m going to bring help, hope, and justice.” I think this can be improved a little bit, but it’s good.

It’s got some impact. It tells me I’m going to help over a thousand people. This is the only number in the letter, so it’s not overwhelming with statistics. It’s about my being a hero. It says, “You’re a justice hero.” It clarifies the next step, when I’m going to hear from them. It tells me I’m going to get a hard copy of the thank you letter and they’re going to keep me informed and they’re going to send me updates all throughout 2017.

It also gives me an opportunity to connect. It asks for my feedback. They want to learn about my interest in legal services. They say if I ever have any questions, if I just want to chat, I can give a call, I can email. And then it’s got a picture of the person the letter is from so I can make a more personal connection in my mind. It feels real. The tax information is also there and there’s no additional ask.

Okay. Onto the final lucky 13 mistake, which is failing to repeat gratitude. So, I’ve mentioned before, you should not just do one thank you letter. There should be many opportunities during the course of the year.
Part of the science of donor retention is based on psychological research on gratitude by Seligman and Steen, who found that to produce lasting effects, gratitude must be repeated. A one-time act of thoughtful gratitude, in the study they did it was a hand-delivered thank you letter, produced an immediate 10% increase in happiness for the recipient, which is great, except that within a week, the effects were cut by 50%. Within six months, they were gone entirely.

There’s other research on emotion that backs this up, that shows that positive emotions wear off quickly. Our emotional systems like newness. So, if I the donor get a thank you letter, I feel good once, that’s nice. But if I don’t hear back from you until the next time you ask me for a gift, I’ll likely have forgotten all about you by then. I won’t be in a warm, receptive mood at that point. Maybe I’ll repeat the gift, maybe I won’t. I’m certainly unlikely to give more.

So, I’ve told you that when you write your thank you letter, you really need to think about what’s in this for the donor. You should also be asking what else might be in this for the donor so that you should have a whole written donor acknowledgement, donor retention strategy written down where you think about different ways you’re going to spread thank yous throughout the course of a year because donors need positive reinforcement. Gratitude repeated frequently and in different ways packs a bigger punch and drives increased loyalty because it goes against the self-serving bias which we all have. It’s our human nature to say we reached our goal. We’re great.

Our organization did this. And this self-congratulatory stuff really misses the point, which is to make something possible together for which many people can feel gratitude and take credit. This whole endeavor, this whole value for value exchange is about community coming together around shared value. So, you need to cultivate ongoing gratitude as a practice. You need to make fundraising about your donor’s meaningful actions. If you don’t do that, they’re not going to stick with you.

So, what I would like to suggest to you is that you keep a donor gratitude journal. I know it sounds a little bit hokey, but if you do this, if you get into the habit of thinking about what you are specifically grateful to your donors for, it will take you a long way. You don’t have to do this for an hour every day, but just take a minute, two minutes every day to write one entry in your journal that says, “I’m grateful to Mary for giving us a scholarship. I’m grateful to Joe for cheering me up with his phone call today. I’m grateful to Sal for bringing us 12 new donors with his birthday campaign.”
You sit down on Wednesday at noon right before you go out to lunch and you say, “Okay, what happened today, who am I grateful for today? Okay. I’m grateful to Amy for agreeing to invite a friend to tour. I’m grateful to Lee for bringing coffee cake to our meeting this morning.” When you’re grateful, you can give credit to other people for your success.
And I just wanted to share this little slide and you can look at it more closely later. It’s courtesy of the Happier Human website, which I really love because they pulled together data from 40 different research studies on the benefits of gratitude. They found that a five-minute a day gratitude journal can increase your long-term wellbeing by more than 10%, which they say is the same impact as doubling your income. So, I’m thinking if you kept a donor gratitude journal, maybe you could double the lifetime value of your donor.

So, let’s quickly summarize. This is what I want you to stop doing. Stop sending the same generic thank you to everyone, checking it off the list as done. Stop making thank you an afterthought, acting as if timeliness doesn’t really matter. Stop sending just a transactional receipt because this is unlikely to make anyone really feel good about what they did.

Stop with the thank you letter that sounds like another fundraising letter filled with lots of statistics and numbers of people you helped and how great you are and how big the need is. Stop with the thank you on behalf of the board and the staff. It distances you from the reader. Stop failing to pay attention to what the donor shows you and tells you. Stop making donors sad.

Bottom line is that Penelope Burk found thank you letters or calls are critical in reconcerning to a donor that they have made the right decision. If the letter is poor or arrives a long time after their gift, it makes them wonder whether they’ve supported the right cause and it makes them less likely to give again. So, you can actually do harm with your thank you letter. Certainly that letter I showed you from the public television station did some harm in my mind.

So, here are some things I want you to start. Start thinking of your thank you as your setup strategy for your next gift. It’s really your opportunity and you don’t want to blow it. Start showing donors what they did, make them the heroes, tie back to the purpose of your appeal and their gift and tell them specifically what you’re grateful for. And start helping donors feel they’re joining a community of like-minded folks. We all want to join a tribe.

Start to thank them multiple times using some creative strategies that will make them sit up and go, “Wow, that was so nice.” Start to develop some written policies and procedures to ensure this thank you plan happens. This is really essential if you’re going to get your thank yous out promptly, to make sure you have the database and infrastructure in place to get them out personally. And then start to institute an ongoing institution-wide gratitude culture that keeps donors happy with every interaction they have with you. Start making donors happy.

So, exceptional thank you letters have a tremendous positive impact. Here, Burk did a study of a Canadian nonprofit where she found 41% of donors who reported receiving exceptional thank you letters attributed their decision to give again specifically to the letter. And 24% of those who said they were influenced to give again by a thank you letter said they decide to make a larger donation because of the letter.

I’ll just share with you a personal story. I worked for a long time for a large comprehensive social services agency. There was a time when we had an older couple who were remarrying. Both had lost their spouses. They were wanting people to send gifts to charity because both had full households. They didn’t need any stuff and the groom picked our charity. The bride picked two other charities.

We had a whole tribute giving program. We sent thank yous out immediately saying so and so made a gift in your honor and we even included a little notecard so they could send back a thank you to the people who had made the gift in their honor. So, the whole process was really easy for them. And we got a lot of gifts. So, we were doing this all the time.

I remember at one point he called me and he said, “I just want to commend you for doing such a great job acknowledging these gifts. This really means a lot to us. We listed three charities and we haven’t heard anything from the other two that my wife picked.” I ended up inviting him out to coffee, getting to know him better. Long story short, he joined our development committee. He became the chair of it. He joined the board. He became vice president of the board. He became a $10,000+ donor. It all started because of the thank you process.

I want to just close with a hug. Everyone deserves a hug. That is true for your donors too. The research on donor attrition is showing us most of us don’t hug our donors enough. I am guessing that you put a ton of effort into asking. You think about who you’re writing to, what to say, when and where to say it. It’s all oriented to have an impact, stand out and persuade someone to give.

Well, why not be that exacting about the who, what, when, where, and how of your thanks? Right after the donor gives is when they need to feel good and it’s your job to facilitate the feeling and then to facilitate their philanthropy journey. Thank you kickstarts the journey, the relationship by establishing trust.
So, you’ve got to keep this fundamental in mind when you craft your next thank you letter. You can’t take donors on the philanthropy journey unless they trust you to be their guide. This might matter more even than all the technique that you put into asking because if you ask well, you get one donation. But if you thank well, you may get a lifetime of donations.

So, I want to take some questions now. First, I really want to thank you for joining us and for doing the important work you do to make our world a better, a more caring place. Thank you, Steven. Thank you, Bloomerang. If you already subscribe to Clairification, thank you for that too. If not, please check out my website. You will get my bi-monthly Clairity Click-It curated e-news that has links to lots and lots of free resources, as Steven mentioned.

More important, I hope you will consider enrolling in Clairification School, which is really my way of getting all my original content out to you on a weekly basis, giving you access to my entire archive of more than 600 articles. Lots of stuff, lots of discounts to my products and my courses because if I know it, I want you to know it.

Okay. Questions?
Steven: Well, Claire, that was awesome. I would just echo what you said. I really encourage everyone to check out those resources, especially the Clairification School. We actually bought a season pass on behalf of Bloomerang just for our employees and we’ve really gotten a lot out of all Claire’s advice. So, definitely check that out if you’re not already subscribed. Follow Claire on Twitter, email her. In fact, Claire, would it be okay if you took questions via email because I do not think we can get to all of them in the next three minutes?
Claire: Sure.
Steven: Please email her if I don’t get to your question. We have time for a couple. So, I’m going to pull out the questions that multiple people asked and smush them together into one. Claire, we got a lot of people asking about the concept of including like a reply envelope or an ask in the thank you. Is that a practice you think people should avoid? Does it work? Does it matter if it works? Do you still avoid it if it works? What do you think about those?
Claire: You should avoid a direct ask in the thank you.
Steven: Okay.
Claire: I think it’s okay to include a remit envelope because that’s subtle. What I prefer is a tribute envelope, which gives them an opportunity to make a gift in honor or memory of someone. I think of this as giving them another little gift, another little value. It gives them a way to easily make a gift in honor of somebody for some kind of occasion. It’s very convenient for them. They don’t have to use it. Maybe I rationalized that. But I think you can include that kind of envelope. I think that’s perfectly fine.
Steven: They can keep it on hand for when they do need it. That’s cool. I’ve never heard that. I think that’s a good idea.
Claire: I’ve had people call and say, “Can you send me more envelopes?”
Steven: Right. Would you include it already stamped?
Claire: No.
Steven: Okay. A lot of other people, Claire, and I’m just going to generalize multiple questions, but they’re worried about maybe kind of bragging too much in the thank you, maybe being a little too self-promoting in terms of all the great things that the org has done or even that the donor has done. Is there sort of a line or a delicate balance between sounding too braggy?
Claire: As long as you make it about the donor, you can do it. So, go through the thank you letter and cross out every time you say, “I, our,” the name of your organization. It’s not the hospital visit. It’s you visit. You made this possible. That is fine. But you don’t want to have like, “This year we’ll be able to serve 48,000 people, one out of four people in our community is still hungry.” That really starts to sound like a fundraising letter. That’s not making them feel good. That’s making you feel bad. That’s making you feel like, “What I gave was just a drop in the bucket.”
Steven: That makes sense. Last thing before I let you go, I don’t want to keep people too long, especially if they haven’t had lunch. Claire, what about instances where you’re getting multiple gifts a year from people, so maybe a monthly donor or even a weekly contribution at church. Should you do 12 thank you letters or 52 thank you letters? How would you suggest not overloading someone with thank yous? Or is that possible? Does it even matter if they’re getting too many thank yous?
Claire: Honestly, I don’t really think that you can thank people too much. But a monthly thank you that looks the same every month and is a fill in the blank kind of thing, that’s not looking very personal and that can kind of work against you and then it ticks people off. They think you’re wasting paper and postage.
So, for a monthly giving program, I think what you want to do is when you send them your first thank you, you let them know how often you’re going to be in touch. So, you might say, “We will let you know every month when your credit card is charged,” which you might do via email, but, “We won’t be sending you a monthly thing through the mail unless you would like us to, in which case let us know.” It’s just very personal, like if you were talking to someone. “What would you like? Would you like to hear from us every month or not?”

Then in your gratitude program, I would wrap into it something where maybe you have a newsletter from your monthly donors, where you’re just talking to them about the impact of their giving overall so that you are in touch with your monthly donors on a regular basis. You don’t just do this one thank you once and then they never hear from you again. A lot of it is the format that your thanks take and how warm and fuzzy it makes them feel.
Steven: I like it.
Claire: “Got your gift again this month, thanks,” is not doing much.
Steven: Yeah. Makes sense. I love the idea of asking the donor. Why agonize over it and try to think of it yourself? Well, Claire, this was awesome. We’re over time, but I just want to thank you for sharing an hour of all your knowledge with us. It was great. We’ve gotten a lot of comments as well. So, thanks for being here.
Claire: It was my pleasure to be here. I just want to remind people that when we ask people to give, we don’t do it because we want their money, per se.
We want it because we want them to join us in making the world a better, happier, more caring place. It’s our job to give back to them that feeling of happiness and love and caring. I always say this. If you want gifts, you must give them. So, just think about this in a very sort of common sense way. What can I give back that makes this person feel good? It will be different depending on your constituency. You don’t necessarily have to say, “You’re the best because you made a major gift,” but you can say, “This gift really meant a lot and thank you for increasing your gift this year. It was so generous.”
Steven: I love it. Thanks to all of you for also hanging out with us for an hour or so today and choosing us over all the news stuff that’s going on today. We really appreciate it. So, email Claire if we didn’t get to your question. I know we ran out of time here, but she’s obviously a wealth of knowledge. Send her a tweet. And sign up for her Clairification School, really good resource, really reasonably priced as well, definitely worth the investment.
We’ve got a great webinar coming up one week from today. If you struggle as maybe an ED or a board member with leadership skills. This webinar is for you. Larry Johnson is going to join us one week from today and talk about leadership as it pertains to nonprofit organizations specifically. That’s going to be a really good one. It’s a topic we haven’t really covered. So, I’m excited for it. Please register. There are lots of other webinars as well that you can check out throughout the rest of the year, even. We’d love to see you again on some other Thursday.

We’ll call it a day there. Look for an email from me with the slides and the recording. Hopefully we will see you again next week, if not some time after that. Have a good rest of your Thursday, have a good weekend and we’ll talk to you again soon.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.