Don't Let the Pursuit of 'Free' Stop You From Thanking Donors
Does your organization’s "lack mentality" extend to the very process of thanking?
What exactly is a lack mentality? If you’ve worked in the nonprofit arena for any amount of time, you already know what it is. You probably also know, as is the case with many cultural problems, that pinning down a precise definition is tricky. So what does it look like, then? Our lack mentality is the bizarre lengths to which we’ll go in endless pursuit of “free"—free web hosting, free training programs, free email service providers, free databases, etc.
I once worked for an executive director who, throughout my two-year tenure, was constantly admonishing me to weed out our donor database to keep the number to fewer than 500, in order to maintain the free status of the software.
Ironically, I had been hired to grow individual giving.
You see, lack mentality comes with a hidden price tag—continued inefficiency. Indeed, I’ve always believed that the nonprofit cult of free speaks to something much deeper. After all, if you’re not committed to funding your mission, how can you possibly be committed to your mission? And if you can’t be compelled to spend money to make money, how committed are you?
So, when I saw the responses to the following question in a Facebook group, I knew I had to respond:
Need advice, please. Our organization gets most of its donations from direct mail. Gifts can vary week to week. The lowest amount in September was 203 donations in one week, and the most was 632. Gifts can be from $1 to $3,000. I send a welcome packet to every new donor, a thank-you letter/photo for all lapsed donors that have come back, and a thank-you letter/photo to current donors. Sometimes, the amount for the current donors will be $50-plus, and if it is a slow week, I will go down to $25-plus. For September, it was between 100 and 200 letters a week going out. Do we save funds on supplies (ink, paper, envelopes, photos and postage) and only acknowledge quarterly? Send out a notice in the next round of letters that we are trying to save funds? I am totally against this but wanted advice from the hive. Thank you.
One of the most disheartening follow-ups told the writer to get “bulk-mail rates (valid for more than 200 pieces of mail)!”
Readers, you’ve been hearing it ad nauseam for years now: Donor retention is a serious, serious problem in our industry. The Association of Fundraising Professionals Fundraising Effectiveness Project reports that every $100 raised in 2015 was offset by $91 in losses through gift attrition. What’s more, the average first-time donor retention rate stands at a paltry 29 percent.
My business coach is constantly asking me this question: Are you working on your business, or in it? Meaning, are you paying attention to what is propelling you forward, or are you laboring over minutiae that keeps you stuck in place?
While, yes, you want to be focused on acquisition, your real growth comes from those lifetime relationships—from the cultivation processes that grow your first-time donor to a lifetime donor.
I teach and believe in the power of "thank you."
Penelope Burk has reams of research pointing to the benefits of a prompt, sincere acknowledgement process.
The business world, too, is slowly beginning a shift that acknowledges that the bottom line goes beyond mere money. In his book, "Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success," Dr. Adam Grant writes:
We spend the majority of our waking hours at work. This means that what we do at work becomes a fundamental part of who we are. If we reserve giver values for our personal lives, what will be missing in our professional lives? By shifting ever so slightly in the giver direction, we might find our waking hours marked by greater success, richer meaning, and more lasting impact.
Dear fundraiser, I implore you: Rather than thinking first of economies, let your first thought always be to embrace grace and gratitude at every step of the donor cultivation process. Make gratitude a daily habit and integrate it into your life, fundraising and beyond.
Please, at all costs, steer clear of bulk mail for thank-you letters. While, yes, you want to thank your online donors by email, you also want to follow up with a direct mail thank you. Instead of thinking of ways to economize on postage, seek gifts of rolls of first-class stamps from board members and staff (perhaps the petty cash fund). Examine your processes for sharing the impact of your donors’ gifts throughout the year. Really scrutinize how you’re welcoming new donors to your family, with a keen eye toward gratitude and retention—toward creating relationships that are built to last.
“Those thank you's aren’t clerical work and postage expenses," copywriter Mary Cahalane told me. "They’re smart investments in donor relationships.”
She couldn’t be more right on the money, and if you keep this locked away in your memory, you’ll be right on the money, too.
Case in point: You won’t find a better example than this thank-you card (full card at the link) that recently landed in my mailbox, courtesy of Mercy Corps:
Take a moment to review it and note:
- This card was sent first-class postage.
- The envelope was hand-addressed.
- The card was personally signed by members of Mercy Corps’ fundraising team.
- This card was sent in response to an online gift.
Imagine how I felt upon receiving this card. Yes, a cost expenditure was involved in the postage, but you know what else wasn’t free? The time—the time spent hand-addressing the envelope, along with personally signing it. Time well spent can lead to all kinds of great things, including personal touches. Plus, time and money go hand-in-hand, and they’re equally important, from an economical standpoint and for creating the kind of gratitude that makes donors feel special. Wouldn’t you like your donors to feel this kind of appreciation?
Fundraiser, lead with gratitude! Go forth, and inspire and delight your donors, and make it a daily thing. You’ve got the capacity to go there and do it, and before you know it, you won’t remember how not to infuse gratitude into your thanking processes and your nonprofit’s culture.
Pamela Grow is the publisher of The Grow Report, the author of Simple Development Systems and the founder of Simple Development Systems: The Membership Program and Basics & More fundraising fundamentals e-courses. She has been helping small nonprofits raise dramatically more money for over 15 years, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Fundraisers by Civil Society magazine, and one of the 40 Most Effective Fundraising Consultants by The Michael Chatman Giving Show.