Thanking Donors in Personal Ways

Posted on 11/01/2021

Every individual donor has their own “personal” preference for how they would like to interact with—and be treated by—the organizations they support. While some might prefer to get a call from a student, others would rather receive a letter or email. And many donors, especially major donors, appreciate having personal interactions and meetings with staff or institutional leaders.

The challenge for annual giving programs comes in communicating with large populations. They need to leverage economies of scale to reach a lot of alumni, parents, and friends as part of one campaign—sometimes targeting hundreds of thousands of households with a single mail piece. Even with advanced segmentation and technology, it’s difficult to create an experience that feels tailor-made for the donor.

Donors need to believe that their institution values them as individuals—and not as just another drop in the bucket of supporters. This is especially important when thanking donors for their gifts, which is one of the most important aspects of a donor’s overall experience. With this in mind, here are eight tips for thanking donors in a personal way. 

  1. Be prompt. Seize the day. The more time that goes by between when a gift is received and when a thank-you message is sent out, the less personal it will feel.  
  2. Call them by name. Dale Carnegie said, “There is no sweeter sound to one’s ear than the sound of his name.” And it’s true. Just be sure to get it right and spell it right. Know when it’s okay to be casual (“Hi John”) and when it’s appropriate to be formal (“Dear Mr. Smith”).
  3. Pick the right messenger. It’s often who is saying thank you that matters more than the message itself. Try to segment your communications to align the audience with a voice that they will find recognizable and relevant.
  4. Mirror their behavior. If a donor sends in a paper check, make sure they get a paper letter back. If they give in response to a phone solicitation, make sure they get a thank-you call soon after. And so on.
  5. Send them a video. Don’t worry if the production isn’t Hollywood quality. A simple and sincere message from a student, faculty member, staff member, or volunteer recorded on a phone and sent by email or text can be a powerful tool.
  6. Pick up a pen. In a digital world, a handwritten note can be one of the most effective ways to make a gratitude message stand out and feel authentic.
  7. Ask what they prefer. Don’t guess, and don’t try to read their mind. Conduct a simple survey and have them tell you how they want to be thanked. Asking people about their preferences can be a form of stewardship in and of itself.
  8. Keep it simple. The worst thing you can do is to try to over-segment or over-personalize. It increases the likelihood of error, and overdoing it can come across as fake or even creepy. 

In annual giving, there will always be the challenge of how to best communicate with large audiences. But thanking donors in personal ways will convey that your institution is committed to developing a lasting relationship with them. The more you make donors feel appreciated as individuals today, the more successful your fundraising efforts will be in the long run.

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