When To Say Thanks

October 15, 2008       Michele Donohue      

When Greg Wilson, director of development of the Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great in Jenkintown, Pa., found a bulk mail container in his office he knew there was a problem.

The organization was sending its thank you letters to direct mail donors via bulk mail. They had been waiting until they had enough letters and then sending them all out at once in an attempt to save money.

The organization was not responding at all to gifts of $5 or less. “We reversed the practice about a year ago. There had been a minimum and we sent out our acknowledgements 3rd Class/Nonprofit Bulk,” said Wilson. “This was changed to all gifts are acknowledged within 24-48 hours of arriving in the development office and mailed with a First Class stamp. We have a donation break of $100 (most of our gifts are $20-$50) that receive an additional more personalized thank you.”

The question of when to acknowledge a gift via mail sparks some hot debates. When The NonProfit Times asked its e-letter subscribers if anyone had stopped acknowledging certain levels of direct mail gifts, the responses flooded in.

The responses ran 75 percent for answering every gift to 25 percent for those setting a limit as to when the gift would be acknowledged.

For Wilson, finding the mail container “was a huge catalyst. It gave me the evidence to move forward. I spread-sheeted it and showed it wasn’t going to hurt us to use First Class mail, a couple hundred dollars over the course of the year.”

Some organizations are trimming mailings to just a few times a year. Faith in Action of McHenry County, based in Crystal Lake, Ill., moved to a postcard thank-you from a letter and mails the thank-you four times a year. “We have decided to try and acknowledge on a quarterly basis instead of daily for the smaller gifts. We felt it was costing us more to process than it was in value. It remains to be seen if this will affect the gifts,” said Executive Director Rhonda Anderson.

Most of the email responses reminded that you never know where that next big donor will start with just five bucks and what constitutes a low-dollar donor varies by organization. Some organizations are capping their thank-you notes at specific donation amounts to cut postage expenses. But $5 is a pittance for some organizations and a boon for others, and organizations relying on low-dollar donors say they can’t cut out the thank-you. The top amount in the cutoffs in the responses to the email inquiry was less than $25.

The Masonic Home of Virginia, based in Richmond, set a minimum gift level at $5 in 2006 without any complaints. “We did this in response to suggestions from our donors. Prior to taking the step, we discussed the issue further with other donors. We had broad support for the decision,” said the organization’s CEO, James D. Cole.

Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy sends an acknowledgement for gifts at $5 or more, and said that using more than 10 percent of the gift on the thank you cost isn’t economical. “It seems very wasteful of resources to send a thank you every time someone gives $1 or $2. I have been here for 23 years and don’t recall ever getting a note from anyone who gave such a small amount asking for proof of their donation,” said Marilyn Borchardt, development director at the Oakland, Calif.-based organization. “Still, I have no way of knowing if someone who gave a small amount in the last year of their life might have put our organization in their will if we had thanked them for that small gift.”

OCCK, Inc., a Salina, Kan.-based nonprofit that helps people with mental and physical disabilities has so many smaller donors “that it just didn’t seem reasonable to do that,” said Phyllis Anderson about setting a thank-you cap. Anderson, community relations development director, said there have been a few surprises from those donors considered “low dollar” — from a several-thousand dollar bequest from a repeat $1-a-year donor, to a $2 monthly donor increasing to $100 monthly.

Anderson said that the thank-you also works as a donor cultivation tool, reminding donors about the organization’s good work. “We were able to maintain connections with people that we might not have otherwise have if we hadn’t made sure they weren’t in our mailing list and hearing from us periodically,” said Anderson, who tries to send acknowledgements within 48 hours. Anderson said elderly and business donors alike enjoy receiving thank-you notes, and it’s important to handwrite a personal note or letter for repeat donors. “Sometimes we really don’t know where those gifts are going to be coming from and people do surprise us,” said Anderson, who explained that OCCK wasn’t going to change their thank-you policy any time soon. “Those small donors are important to us…long-term looking at the big picture.”

According to Timothy Gresham, president and CEO of Prevent Blindness Mid-Atlantic in Richmond, Va., the acknow ledgement is “the right thing to do. No matter the size of their gift, they are providing a gift to support your program.” Gresham said his organization recognizes every gift — even sending a personalized letter to donor who gave only 25 cents.

“It’s crazy in a way to spend money, like we all do, prospecting and looking for new donors and then not take care of a donor once you have one,” said Gresham.

Gresham said his organization dealt with a $10 annual donor who grew to $50 — but the donor made a special request not to be mailed more than once a year. “I had no idea that he had the capacity to do that. It was a very nice surprise, but it taught me a very valuable lesson. I could have ignored his request or I could have not acknowledged that $10 gift and we would have never gotten that substantial gift.”

If someone cares enough to sit down and write a check “or fill out a reply form or get on the Internet to make a gift to us, then we owe it to them to thank them,” said Trisha Dunbar, development director of the Visiting Nurse Association based in Dallas.

Dunbar said that some people who are low-dollar donors now might grow in giving capacity in the coming years and by disregarding their gift now, they might forget about you later. “They remember that you thanked them when they could only give $5 – and now they can give $5,000 or $50,000.”

And thanking donors is not a one-time affair. Fundraisers try to keep thank-you messages fresh and personalized whenever possible. Joanne David, development director at Haven Hills in Canoga Park, Calif., writes a new thank-you form letter every month because she doesn’t want monthly donors to receive the repeat messages. “I want to send the same letter — but I’m not going to send the same letter,” joked David. Thank-you notes go out to all donors, and while low-dollar donations might not make the same impact as a large gift, David said each donation has to be dealt with respect.

“I have people who give me $1 or $3, and you have to know that’s really tough for them. It’s not like they give $3 to 1,000 organizations. They don’t. They give $3 to one, maybe two, organizations — and I think that’s a significant amount for them,” said David. “I think when you write a check to an agency, that’s a big deal because you have singled that agency out. Not to send them a thank-you note, at least, is just rude.”

Dunbar said every thank you comes across her desk, and before they go out she attaches a personalized Post-it to letters for repeat or high-dollar donors. Donors appreciate the extra attention and one man in his 80s covered his wall with all the special messages. “The same thing we would tell our nurses about our patients – treat them as though you were the patient and care for them the way you would like to be cared for. That is how I view our donors,” said Dunbar.

Another organization gave their donors a choice whether or not to be thanked after some donors said the acknowledgement was unnecessary. “We have a handful of people that told us ‘Please don’t send me an acknowledgment and keep the money for the animals,'” said Lin O’Bara, director of development and administration at Concord-Merrimack County SPCA (Concord-MCSPCA) in Penacook, N.H. “Anything you give money to, you would rather see it go directly to the cause than buying postage stamps or envelopes.”

After receiving that feedback, Concord-MCSPCA decided to add check boxes on its summer membership mailing allowing donors to opt-out of acknowledgements, to which O’Bara expected a 25 percent opt-out rate. But the mailings came back with 47 percent requesting no follow-up thank you, proof that some people would rather money go to programs, according to O’Bara. Concord-MCSPA also streamlined acknowledgments for in-kind donations by sending emails instead of postcards, with most donors opting out anyway. O’Bara said the organization’s newsletter is a great place to thank donors for support without mailing each person a letter.

“It’s a decision every time they write that check. I think that to craft a special letter every month gives you an opportunity to build a new relationship with the donor,” said David. “I think it is a lot of work but I also think that relationship building is the most important part of my job. That’s it — that’s fundraising.” NPT