The other day I was having lunch with two other fundraisers. Each of us started new positions within the last year; we were chatting about what is new and different, what is working well, what could be improved. We all work in the healthcare arena: one in a national cancer organization, one in a community hospital, one in a disease-related organization. We face similar challenges and opportunities – each of us wants to increase our capacity around major gifts, we all want to engage our donors better.

“So, what about thank you letters?” I asked. “I’m just going through a refresh for this year, and…” Both of them sighed. One offered,

“Ours are all signed by the Chair of the Board. Of course, the Board Chair never actually signs any letters. It’s just a printed signature.”

“Ours were just awful,” my colleague groaned. “My predecessor did everything because she liked to have a lot of control in the office, but the letters… it was one of the first things I worked on.”

For my part, when I arrived very few letters – only those above the $500 (major gift) level – received a live signature. With only about 2,500 active donors and members, I didn’t think my organization could afford to “phone it in” by just merging up letters without any personal touch, note or interest.

Show your appreciation!

Worse, in my opinion, was that the memorial donors never got a real signature. Why? At this organization signing letters by hand “takes too much time.” I’m a long-time fan of writing notes on donor thank you letters in addition to the signature – something personal that connects with the donor. And if I know the donor, or know this is a second gift this year, why not mention it?

As the three of us talked, it came down to the fact that thank you letters becoming a process, rather than an appreciation. Seth Godin spoke about the issue of dehumanizing. When charities ensure letters are “turned around quickly” after the gift is received and that becomes the focus of the thanks, process begins to supplant appreciation.

The thank you letter process is not, in itself, bad… it guarantees (almost) that each donor is thanked. But that process can quickly become dehumanizing, removing grace and gratitude from what likely began as a moment of joy for the donor.

Lots of trusted fundraisers point to the importance of thank you letters. Penelope Burk says that they are the first step to a next gift. Katya Andresen weighs in. Erica Mills has advice. Lisa Sargent… well, enough said there! Do you think about your thanks before you make your ask? When planning direct mail campaigns, you should work on the thanks as well as the solicitation.

You and your team put in a lot of effort  to create strategies for major gift donors, craft direct mail solicitations, or write proposals. Why should the effort to thank be any less? If your organization can create thank you letters that are personalized and express thanks from the heart, they will be the first step in your donor stewardship.

True appreciation cannot be manufactured from a process. It must come from the heart.

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