How Good Receipting Leads to Better Retention
I had an unexpected reconnection a few weeks ago with Rev. Tony Marciano, executive director of Charlotte Rescue Mission, Charlotte, N.C. The last time we talked was when Tony asked me for some suggestions on his receipting program. Since about seven years had passed, I decided to ask Tony how things were going.
And what he told me is worth sharing.
To begin with, the receipting program “is one of my passions,” Tony said. Yes, the executive director of a nonprofit organization is passionate about something as “routine” as mailing out receipts. “If you’re communicating well and you’re getting donations, but you’re not receipting your donors and thanking them, then everything else is a waste of time,” is the message he shares with other nonprofit executives. Too often what he sees is that “they do all the hard work of developing relationships, but they don’t know how to thank people.”
Tony has always been committed to receipting, but he’s “figured out how to upgrade it,” he said. “It’s all about the donors; it’s about them and how their gifts are impacting the people we serve. Most [thank you letters] are all about us [the organization], and that’s scary because we have just one shot to connect the donor with the person in crisis. That’s our job.
“Our donor-centric model is about them [the donors] and their gifts impacting our people,” he said.
Tony also handwrites a lot of thank you notes. “I could email them, but it doesn’t mean anything. The handwritten note comes across radically different. An email to me is the lowest form, and then it goes to letterhead, and then it goes to a handwritten note. I want to be known as the charity that is always thanking its donors.”
Here are some other secrets for success from Tony:
Investing yourself in a nonprofit organization matters. Tony has been at Charlotte Rescue Mission for 20 years, and donors trust him when he talks to them because he’s proven over and over that his organization does what it says it does. “When you have longevity, you can speak into the heart of the community," Tony said. "And I think that’s the difference.”
Treat your first-time donors like major donors. Tony’s policy: “Regardless of the gift amount, every first-time donor gets a hand-signed letter. And there’s a personal note put on it.” That is a strategy that has proven itself over and over for Charlotte Rescue Mission. For example, one man made a donation. After receiving a 'thank you' letter with a handwritten note from Tony, he took a tour of the mission. Later that year, he gave a gift of $10,000—and then continued to give $10,000 year after year.
Be genuine with your donors. “The receipting process is loving on people,” Tony told me. “It’s the old expression, ‘I don’t care how much you know; I want to know how much you care.’ It’s all these things working together; there isn’t any silver bullet.”
A good donor "thank you" program positively impacts your donor retention rate. Charlotte Rescue Mission retains 68 percent of its donors—and Tony knows saying “thank you” is an important reason for that: “You talk about strategy and major gifts work, but if the bottom of your donor pyramid isn’t working with receipting, stop everything. If you can bring in millions of dollars but you can’t thank donors, they’re going to go away.”
Sending a receipt out in a matter of a few days is critical. For Tony, a receipt that comes weeks (or even months) after the gift is next to useless. “I want us to be known as the charity that, when you’re reading the 'thank you' letter, the ink is still drying in your checkbook,” Tony told me.
A passion for receipting has to come from the top. Tony’s staff knows that quickly and accurately processing gifts, and getting receipts ready for him to sign, is job No. 1—because he’s told them it is! His message? “You can pretty much mess up everything for Charlotte Rescue Mission and I’ll forgive you, but if you mess up the receipting program, update your resume. There’s a table outside my office and they put a big envelope there with all the 'thank you' letters in it, and they know that the next morning that envelope will be on their desk and they are all signed.”
A gift triggers a thank you letter and receipt—and the receipt has the potential to trigger the next gift. Tony uses the tried-and-true three-part receipt form. For his audience, he’s found that the best design is to have the receipt on the top of the page, the 'thank you' letter in the middle, and the bounce-back coupon on the bottom. Charlotte Rescue Mission also includes a return envelope as a convenience to the donor.
But most of all, a "thank you" letter should be hand-signed and have a handwritten message—maybe it's just the words “thank you,” but it shows the donor that Tony is grateful to him or her, and he’s taking the responsibility to be sure that gift advances the mission of the organization.
Is it time for you to become passionate about receipting? This old dog knows that a receipt program is an investment of time and energy, but I also know that it’s a proven way to improve donor retention.
It’s certainly working for Tony and his team at Charlotte Rescue Mission!
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.