Have Non-Profits Forgotten to Say “Thank You”?

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

Following last Friday’s posting, “Saying Thank You in the Social World”, we felt compelled to elaborate on the importance of this subject and how non-profits should be incorporating donor recognition into their fundraising program.

thank-youNo two words have created as much consternation today for nonprofits as “thank you.” This is a topic that is always important, and punctuated during the difficult economic times when gifts may be more difficult to secure or when other pressures set varying priorities.

Donors at all levels and from all walks of life want to feel appreciated and be assured that their contributions are making an impact. While some may think that the time-worn mandate to express appreciation is almost “old news,” we are regularly shocked to learn about how many non-profits forget, or do not see the value, to say “thank you” when receiving charitable support from all sources… individuals, foundations, corporations . . . in fact, from all sources.

At a well-attended philanthropic community event last week that brought together 75 non-profit leaders with dozens of potential funders, we heard that that many groups are still not fully appreciating the value and utility of recognition. A partner from a prominent national law firm frankly discussed his experiences administering his firm’s significant charitable giving program (he talked candidly about how they make decisions and their plan for allocating charitable dollars in the coming year). Of everything that he detailed, the most telling piece of advice, and also the simplest, was the importance of writing a personal thank you letter once a gift is received. He noted with amazement that after going through thousands of files from his firm’s grantees over an extended period of time, he discovered only five thank you notes! He found this shortsighted and somewhat discourteous and felt compelled to share this lesson with others.

Let’s assume that you are thanking individuals quickly and appropriately. Does that practice extend to thanking foundation and business donors with the same speed and regularity? Understandably, for some non-profits, applying for foundation and corporate support may seem less personal than dealing with individual donors. That may be the case, but every non-profit must put into place a system that reflects appreciation for generosity and which formalizes charitable gifts at all levels and from all sources.

Funders do expect to hear back from the non-profit organizations that they have helped, in the traditional as well as creative ways, including:

  • Hand-written thank you notes: emails are starting to become “tired” so always say thank you in writing;
  • A personal phone call speaks volumes and will really convey your appreciation;
  • Update donors and funders on your agency’s immediate and long term progress and future plans. Send them an annual report that lists donors. Highlight different donors every year!
  • Sponsorships for events create opportunity: anything relating to an event, such as a program book or a published article about the activity, should be sent as a follow-up to the individual, foundation or corporation providing underwriting at any level.

Each of these suggestions is quick and simple, and is clearly among the easiest “best practices.” Often – as we witnessed the other day – non-profit representatives (professionals and volunteers) are not always following through completely. Just because the funder seems large, somewhat distant or anonymous in nature does not mean that an expression of gratitude is not seen as meaningful or appreciated.

Additionally, we often hear that “they are a foundation and they are required to give a percentage of their assets.” While that is true, foundation gifts, like those from individuals, are also driven by personal connections and relationships. When foundation funders face difficult choices, a simple gesture that frames your relationship with the funder can motivate or direct certain choices about giving priorities. (They almost always maintain files about each organization and every gift; future decisions about giving usually start with checking the files!)

Further, these easy steps set you apart from other agencies. It is no surprise that the five organizations that wrote those thank you notes to the law firm all received repeat grants the following year.

We recommend that you consider this easy suggestion and make donor recognition – of individuals AND institutions – a fundamental part of your fundraising program. Supporters and friends want to be informed and appreciated; make sure to continually recognize their efforts and not just preceding or following a contribution. Forging strong relationships will strengthen your organization and drive its growth and success. So pick up the phone today or write a note to let your donors know how thankful you are for their contributions and how they play a significant role in keeping your organization running.

Has your organization developed any meaningful or creative donor recognition opportunities? Do you have any similar stories that will shed even greater light onto the importance of this topic? If so, please feel free to share your experiences with us.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. EHL Consulting is one of 35 firms belonging to The Giving Institute, the organization that oversees the preparation and distribution of Giving USA. EHL Consulting works with dozens of non-profits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.