by: Jason Rogers & Mandy Pearce

If you are reading this, you are likely working in a fundraising capacity for a nonprofit organization. If that is the case, you understand how valuable each donor is.

If you don’t understand how valuable each donor is, let me help clear it up: They are the most valuable part of your organization.

As a fundraising professional, it’s likely that your primary focus is on acquiring new donors to grow your donor base and increase your organization’s capacity. New donors are extremely important, but did you know that the average donor retention rate for nonprofits in the US was 45.5% in 2017? Simply stated, that means that for every 100 donors your organization has, 54.5% of them will not give a gift in the following 12 months. Yikes!

So, the obvious question is, why? There are several reasons, but we are going to focus on one. THE one.

Background

According to a study conducted by IMPACTS Research , the number one reason – by a wide margin – that donors didn’t give after the initial gift was that they were not thanked for that gift. As development professionals, we have to concern ourselves with the sustainability of the organization, not just the short-term gains. In fundraising, sustainability is directly related to your ability to build relationships. We don’t simply want to thank these donors; we want to appreciate them.

Imagine walking to your mailbox. You see the usual stack – ads, bills, credit card solicitations, and an envelope with your name and address written on it. In pen. By a HUMAN. Which one of those are you going to look at first? Of course, you’re going to open the one personally addressed to you by another human. It’s 2019; no one handwrites anything! Handwritten notes are opened at such a greater rate; you’ve probably noticed that many printers are now creating templates that look like they are handwritten in pen. Why is it so important for the envelope to appear handwritten? Probably because of incredible data like this: Handwritten mail has an open rate of 99%! Ninety. Nine. Percent.

Okay, back to donor retention. When you receive a donation, your organization probably has some sort of form letter that is emailed or mailed to the donor acknowledging the gift. There is nothing wrong with that; many people keep those (along with year-end giving summaries) for their records. However, there is nothing personal about a form letter. If you are satisfied with retaining less than half of your donors each year, a form letter alone will do the trick!

In my first year as a development professional, I realized quickly that while my organization was doing some amazing work in the community, donors had been largely ignored for the last several years. People were still giving, but it was because they truly believed in the mission of the organization, or they had some sort of tie to it, not because they felt appreciated, valued, and informed. Our donor relation strategy needed overhauled. Some of those strategies were long-term adjustments, but there were other ways that I could make an immediate difference. I committed to sending a handwritten thank you for every donation I received. Yep, every one.

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Getting Started

The first thing that I would recommend is to have customized thank-you cards made. Generic thank-you cards are cheaper and still effective, but this is a great opportunity to market your organization at a relatively low cost. Talk to the vendor that your organization uses for your printing needs and ask them to design a card for you. You’ll be amazed at how professional a branded thank-you card will look!

Next, come up with a plan. If you are a small organization, you can retroactively send handwritten thank-you notes to all of your current donors while simultaneously thanking each new donor as they come on board. If you are a large organization, I would recommend researching your top 50-100 donors over the last two years and handwriting a thank-you note for their continued support. In addition to your top donors, my challenge to you would be to handwrite a note for every single donation that is made for at least the first 6 months. I know what you’re thinking; my organization gets hundreds of donations every single month/year, how can I possibly do that. Well, that’s an awesome problem to have! Let’s keep those donors engaged and informed!

Here’s the good news – you’re not in this alone. Designate some handwriting duties to your co-workers and board members. Ask each of them if they can write 5 or 10 handwritten thank-you cards each week or month and then provide them a template and list of donors. You can also create your list and have addresses, cards, envelopes and suggested messages ready at board meetings and knock a bunch out at once. This is a great way to get board members engaged in the fundraising process too! Be sure to plan ahead after major fundraising events, or at times of the year when you know lots of gifts come in, like the end of year or during a direct mail appeal. You can plan thank-a-thons where a group of staff, board or volunteers come together to make calls and say thank-you, or handwrite notes. You can control these times by planning ahead and asking for help. If all else fails, keep a stash at home and write them when you are watching reruns of Grey’s Anatomy or Monday Night Football. This is important, people!

Content
Keep the content simple. You want it to be personal but informative.
  • Opening: Greet the donor. Introduce yourself if you don’t know them yet. If you do know them, tell them that it was great to hear from them again.
  • Body: Thank them and be sure to tell them what impact their donation is making (i.e., “Your donation of $100 allows us to provide monthly groceries for 5 families”). It is critical that they understand that their gift is making a difference! You can also tell them how their gifts ‘will be’ used. (i.e. Your gift of $100 will allow us to provide a month’s worth of warm meals to someone in need in our community.)
  • Closing: Thank them for their support and for being passionate about your organization’s mission and sign your name.
That’s really it. This isn’t rocket science; it’s taking time to tell someone that they matter to you. You will also want to follow up later and let the donor know how their dollars were used. In the initial thank-you, they learned how their dollars would or could be used. Be sure to let them know the impact of their dollars as well.
Feedback
If you’ve never tried handwriting notes before, you will be blown away at the responses that you receive. I’ve had notes handwritten back to me thanking me for thanking them! I’ve developed close relationships with donors in different states who feel like family friends now. But my favorite story of all was a phone call that I received from a man whose family had been long-time supporters of our organization. He said, “I just wanted to thank you for sending that note. My wife read it and immediately started crying. We had no idea how much of a difference our donations were making until we read your note.”

Can you believe that?

Thank you notes are the ultimate “win-win.” You are going to feel great for thanking the supporters who are allowing your organization to thrive. They are going to feel personally connected to you and your organization in a way that they haven’t before. Commit yourself to building a foundation of personal relationships, and you will see your donor retention rate climb to new heights, and your organization’s capacity to accomplish its mission increase dramatically.

Oh, and prepare to be thanked for thanking others.