Keeping the Glass Filled

More years ago than I’d care to admit, I spent four months as a Russian language exchange student in what was then the Soviet Union. One night I went to a hockey game – the local team against the Red Army team – and, as was customary at all public venues there, not only theaters or museums, we had to check our coats as we entered the arena.

After the game, I gave my coat check to the grizzled, WWII veteran (conspicuously bedecked with military ribbons), and he grumpily went off to get my coat. I was honestly out of money that night – not a single kopeck for a tip. Instead, after he handed me his coat, I offered a cheerful “Spasibo!” (Thank you!)

He looked at me, shook his head dismissively, and growled, “Spasibo, my friend, doesn’t fill the vodka glass!”

By contrast, in the nonprofit world, a good thank-you does help keep the glasses full. As fundraising guru and researcher Penelope Burk points out, it’s a lot more cost effective to keep a donor than to find a new one, and a big part of keeping donors is thanking them properly. Here are a few rules of thumb, some borrowed from Penelope, some from me, and most simply common sense:

  • Send the acknowledgement quickly. The thank-you should be back in the donor’s hands no later than a week’s time.
  • Address the letter correctly. You think I’m kidding, right? Address it correctly. And what is correct? If, when the donors sent the check or made the on-line donation, they say it’s from “Mary and Bill Johanson,” do be sure to thank Mary and Bill Johanson, and use the salutation “Dear Mary and Bill.” If your data base previously refers to them as “Mr. and Mrs. William Johanson,” or “William Johanson,” change the entry in your data base. The most recent correspondence trumps the data base information. They want to be called Mary and Bill. Call them Mary and Bill. (See my earlier post, “What’s in a Name?” , if you want to know how I really feel.) And do spell their names correctly. It’s “Johanson,” not “Johnson.”
  • An important corollary: Put the production of the thank-you note in the hands of a detail-oriented staff member.
  • Keep the letter brief: don’t include five long vignettes about the people being helped by the gift. The donor won’t read a long letter, and (frankly) the donor won’t care. It also looks packaged and impersonal – just the opposite of the tone you’re trying to set.
  • Let them know what the gift is going for. If it’s for the New Roof Fund, say so, and let the donor know how the campaign is going and when construction is due to begin. Connect their gift to the purpose, simply and quickly.
  • You have to insert the required IRS language – but don’t lead with it. That is, it’s a requirement to say that no goods or services were provided in exchange for this gift. Because the letter acts as official substantiation of the gift for tax purposes, and the government wants to make sure the money was a donation, rather than a payment for services, like tuition, those magic words are necessary. But you can bury that language in the last paragraph, and you can keep it colloquial by saying, “Of course,” before those bureaucratic words. Or you can simply put the official language in a P.S.
  • Sign the letter, using a blue pen. That way the donor knows someone actually signed the letter – that it’s not a photocopied signature.
  • That means, well, the letters should be hand-signed. That may not work at a huge organization, but people from huge organizations aren’t reading this blog.
  • Write a personal note, whether you know them or not. If you don’t know them, then simply write something like, “Thank you – we’re very appreciative!” If you know them, add something personal – wishing them well on their trip or their kid going to college or whatever. It’s okay to write, “Wow!” for an increased gift. Be personal!
  • Call them. Yes, call them. If it’s a large gift for your organization, or a new gift, or a gift from someone you know, or (especially) from someone you don’t – call and simply say thanks, you got the wonderful gift, you’re very grateful. If it’s a voice mail, leave a simple thank-you message. (Never mention amounts – a family member may pick up the message and find out something that he or she shouldn’t know.) If you reach a live person, apologize for the interruption (people in the email/social media age aren’t used to phone calls as they once were – that’s part of why the call has such impact), and, if they’re talkative, ask how they first heard of the organization. That can lead to a good conversation, and healthy relationship building.
  • Whatever you do, don’t include a request for more money. People hate that, and they should.

Doing well with thanking donors may not quite fill the vodka glass, but it may help you balance your budget and meet your mission. So say your thanks promptly, accurately, personally, and sincerely.

Here’s to your (fiscal) health!

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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