Research | Learning to say thank you, the role of donor acknowledgements

publication date: Nov 20, 2018
author/source: Jen Shang, Adrian Sargeant, Kathryn Carpenter and Harriet Day

This research addresses four questions: how do fundraisers define acknowledgment programs? What purposes are served by acknowledgment programs? What are the biggest barriers that prevent fundraisers from designing and implementing a successful acknowledgment program? And how can we make acknowledgment programs more effective in fulfilling these purposes?

We discovered that fundraisers define acknowledgment programs by either the activities included in them or the purposes served by them. When defined by the included activities, every organization differs. But when defined by purposes served, they share the following common features:

  1. Level 1: An acknowledgment communication may serve as a receipt of a gift.
  2. Level 2: An acknowledgment communication may create a good feeling associated with any action a person takes for an organization.
  3. Level 3: An acknowledgment communication may generate measurable behavioral benefits in increasing giving.
  4. Level 4: An acknowledgment communication may generate measurable benefits in increasing the quality of a donor’s relationship with an organization.
  5. Level 5: An acknowledgment communication may appreciate the donors as people (not simply what they do for an organization).

Added benefit: Good thank-you’s charge the fundraising team and build a stronger philanthropic culture.

We organized these purposes into ascending levels to signify the sentiment of our expert interviewees that “If the donor does not feel adequately thanked, the acknowledgment has failed even though it may produce a second gift.” 

We interviewed 15 experts in acknowledgment communications on the following four topics:

  • How do fundraisers define acknowledgment programs?
  • What purposes are served by acknowledgment programs?
  • What are the biggest barriers that prevent fundraisers from designing and implementing a successful acknowledgment program?
  • How can we make acknowledgment programs more effective in fulfilling these purposes?

How do fundraisers define acknowledgment programs?

Our interviewees suggest that fundraisers define acknowledgment programs based on either the activities that they encompass, or by the purposes they serve. When defined by the former, there is no one-size-fits-all definition of what an acknowledgment program may mean for each organization. They may range from the writing and sending of thank-you notes, to exclusive communication programs based on donor value. The line between acknowledgment, stewardship, and cultivation can sometimes be blurred.

“We work often in higher ed., healthcare, sometimes faith-based organizations, multi- affiliate organizations, so those that have a national chapter and then chapters among those chapters. The stewardship programs across the board look different. There’s the standard receipt of your gift and acknowledgment of that. So the thank-you acknowledgment there: a receipt and acknowledgment program that’s written. Some organizations have a thank-you call program, so after a gift of a certain amount, you reach out and thank the donor for those gifts. Some actually have a robust stewardship program, so you’re not only thanking, but you’re also giving outcome reports to the donors that have contributed. Some have gala events that they actually invite people as an appreciation and they’re not intending to make an ask. I feel like it looks different depending on the organization and how they are going about fundraising.

It’s a blurry line between acknowledgment and appreciation and stewardship, but at some point you’re going to come around to asking them to give again. Then it stops becoming acknowledgment and starts becoming stewardship for the next gift.”

When defined this way, people tend to focus on answering the following questions as a way of improving their acknowledgment program:

How can we shorten the cycle of asks?

How can we increase the frequency of giving given the frequency of acknowledgment and stewardship?

How can we increase the total value of the gifts given the number of asks?

And how can we transform the way people experience the cycles of acknowledge-steward-asks and make the fundraising relationship more rewarding for donors?

What purposes are served by acknowledgment programs?

Some of our interviewees prefer not to define acknowledgment programs by the activities that comprise them, but by the purposes served by them: to thank people.

“I’m not sure if the really good fundraisers think of it as a program which is part of maybe a core reason for their success. I think fundraisers think of it as you gave us a gift and we must thank-you. Actually, the word must is in there. It’s not good manners not to thank a donor for a gift.”

Our interviewees shared the following purposes served by thank-you communications.

As a receipt of a gift it should be seamless and easy. This is a matter of hygiene in the design of the acknowledgment program. After people give, they should be thanked within 48 hours. Even if the organization has a really special thank-you pack that they want to send them in the following week, our interviewees indicated it is still necessary to do a prompt receipt of the gift.

Whenever affordable, most of our interviewees recommend personalized thank-you’s. However, a few did have anecdotal evidence that automated thank-you’s can be efficient and effective with individual donors giving less than $30.

“Some clients say e-receipts are the way to go, so they never have to touch a thing. The funny thing is, they’ve still retained their lower end donors. This is what I’m seeing.”

For donors giving above $200, it is generally suggested that organizations should make the investment to personalize them. Whenever possible, a hand-written signature, or a personal message from the CEO of the organization or its equivalent is recommended.

Some interviewees say that: “Even if it’s a real basic transactional kind of relationship, I think our job is to see whom we can take from that transactional level to a more involved and engaged level.”

It is not only about meeting the social expectations of reciprocity, i.e. I give you a gift and you thank me. It is also about making people feel the best about what they have done so that they can be most motivated to do it again, or even to do something better.

Naturally, how to create this good feeling may be different for high value versus low value donors, but most of our interviewees indicated that any thank-you communication must create value beyond what is merely meeting normative expectations.

For some this may be experienced as:

Level 1: An acknowledgment communication may serve as a receipt of a gift

Level 2: An acknowledgment communication may create a good feeling associated with any action a person takes for an organization. “Appreciated, acknowledged. Probably understood, because you want a conversation with them.” “I think it makes donors feel appreciated and valued and like they’re making a difference in the world, and they’re having an impact and making a difference on something that they care about ... typically the donations that people are making, especially the ones that are more significant to them financially, they’re really giving to things that they feel passionately about, and that they want to see some kind of change or outcome.

Really appreciating the person for doing that, that just makes you feel good. We want to do more of the things that make us feel good, so if nonprofits’ ultimate goals are to get people to be more engaged and more philanthropic and continue to give again and repeat this behavior, the better we can make people feel about it, the more likely they are to do it.”

“The primary purpose of an acknowledgment is to thank people, make them feel valued and make them delighted that they gave to you in the first place. Give them that experience all over again that they experienced in giving to you in the first place and then that way you’re encouraging them too, building a bond, and encouraging them to give to you again in the future.” “It’s not just thanking. It’s kind of loving me.”

The degree to which each thank-you communication can make people feel good inevitably varies. Our interviewees suggested that fundraisers should try to make their thank- you’s more “memorable, worthwhile, and fun for that person” because it is believed that if the thank-you’s can achieve these goals in the donors, then they’re far more likely to engage again.

Here is an example shared by one of our interviewees. This is how he remembered the thank-you:

“I’ll give you an example from my own personal experience as a donor to this small-ish charity. They’re not huge, but they do amazing work for their size. They work overseas with refugees. They’re trying to tackle a sex traffic boom in the US. They take on big problems even though they are a pretty small group.

Just out of the blue, in January, I got a postcard from them. It was personalized and it had a picture. It had a picture of a woman. She was turned away from the camera so you couldn’t tell who she was, but she was working with a horse, a beautiful horse. It was equine therapy for somebody who had been sex trafficked and now had been rescued and was trying to restore her life.

That was the photo and on the other side, the message was, “Dear Tom ...” It was all personalized. “I just want to thank-you. You are such a blessing.””

The postcard is attached in Figure 1. What is interesting to note is that the postcard actually did not say “you are such a blessing”, but that is how this card as a whole made our interviewee feel. That feeling is what Tom remembered. He remembered being thanked, and he remembered that he was a blessing to this individual who cannot bear to look him directly in the eye.

Figure1: Crisis Aid’s Example:

One reason why this thank-you was remembered so fondly is because it was “out of the blue”. It was a surprise. It did not meet expectations, it exceeded them. Several interviewees shared the power of exceeding expectations:

“I feel there have been a few occasions where I get what feels like a surprise, an unexpected little communication in the mail from them that is just really sweet.” “When you’re talking about granting a child’s heartfelt wish (by Make a Wish), those expectations are very high. We have to be really buttoned up and doing everything we can to deliver this exceptional experience. When it comes to wish granting, we do. And that is what we are aiming for in our fundraising communications too.”

Good thank-you’s should increase retention and donor life-time value. That was the consensus reached by our interviewees.

“The people who were the best at thanking were the people that were also the best at retaining donors and therefore increasing lifetime value.”

“Those who thank me really well are the people that I stick with as a donor. In fact, I even reach out to them every once in a while and say, “When is the last time I gave a gift to you?” It must be time again.”

We organized the purposes served by thank- you communications into levels, primarily because of the distinction our interviewees made between the third and the fourth level.

Level 4 is distinctive from the previous one because:

“If the donor does not feel adequately thanked, the acknowledgment has failed even though it may produce a second gift.”

Our interviewees think that thank-you communications should at the bare minimum increase the satisfaction, trust and commitment that donors experience in their relationship with an organization.

“I think you want them to feel valued and inspired, and confident and trusting, that they feel that they made the right decision in donating, and that they’re confident that their gift’s going to be used as they intended, and that it’s going to make a difference and have an impact.”

“Acknowledgement is kind of high. Gratitude is much more embracing and it is much more of a commitment on the side of the organization. If you call it acknowledgment, well I can have my assistant do that. If you call it gratitude, I have to jump in and be the one doing the hug. Yeah, go ahead, let’s do it!”

Over time, thank-you communications shape how donors define or feel about their relationships with organizations. Does the relationship feel like “ask, ask, and ask” or does the relationship feel like “ask, thanks, updates, ask, thanks, updates” or does the relationship feel like “ask, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, when will the ask come? I cannot wait to give to them again!!”. Creating the last feeling routinely may be perceived by some as a waste of donor resources. But creating this feeling by using out-of-the-blue, expectation- exceeding thank-you’s may just give a database a boost that it has never experienced before.

When considering whether doing so would be beneficial, our interviewees encourage fundraisers to reflect on the progression that donors experience as a donor to the organization.

Level 3: An acknowledgment communication may generate measurable behavioral benefits in increasing giving

Level 4: An acknowledgment communication may generate measurable benefits in increasing the quality of donors’ relationships with an organization

“Sure. When a donor first joins you, getting that second gift is the biggest challenge. Making people feel like they’re a part of you because the first gift for a lot of people is really just to test, they’re kind of testing the waters with you. They may have heard about you for the first time, and so something in your original contact with them struck a chord so they gave. You’ve really got to bring them along, and it’s this combination of thanking them and educating them. The first thing we want to make sure that they get is a very prompt thank-you, and that thank-you needs to be a very warm, engaging, human letter that makes them feel really good about what they did and is very clear about what their gift is accomplishing.

That needs to be followed then by a welcome pack, and that welcome pack should be a combination of welcoming and (in an engaging, storytelling manner), telling them a bit more about your organization. There’s a number of things that it needs to do. It needs to build trust in your organization, so you need to have social proof, like whether or not you belong to certain organizations, whether you’ve won awards, whether you’ve been around for a long time. Maybe an endorsement... Don’t necessarily go with famous people, but a well-known person that has a lot of gravitas that supports you and can kind of give you a testimonial.

Things like that are trust builders, really important. Telling them that your financials are open to them at any time, giving them an idea of how their money is spent. There’s the trust builders and then there’s the whole emotional part. The storytelling of how their donation has helped. That and the welcome pack is really important, and also setting the tone for what they can expect from you going forward. You’re setting an expectation and then you’ve got to meet it. That would be the main difference between a new donor and an existing donor

Then if you have a good donor comms and acknowledgment program in place, that new donor can go forward into your regular comms stream fairly quickly, particularly if you have really good newsletters that are doing very good report backs three or four times a year, then you’ll keep that person engaged. I consider that the first thank-you letter’s obviously,

“Welcome to our organization, we value you” and telling them what they did with it. Then the welcome pack following it just a couple of weeks later, it gives them more information, builds trust, and makes them feel really good again about the whole thing.”

Our interviewees warned against seeing the thank-you only as a necessary process. They told us it is not about using the same stale thank- you’s just to complete the task or attempting to be out-of-the-blue in quantity but not in quality. It is about sharing authentic and genuine gratitude.

This level of appreciation is deeper than other levels because it is not just about making people feel like their donation is valuable, inspiring and important, and it is not just about deepening the relationship that people have with the organization. It is also about thanking the people for being the real gift:

“I think of acknowledgment programs as all the work that nonprofits do, all the communication that they do, that can raise appreciation of their donors and their donors’ contributions, and the impact of those contributions. For me, one of the important features is that you’re not just recognizing donations, that you’re really appreciating the donors as people, and that it’s not just about their gifts.”

Level 5: An acknowledgment communication may appreciate the donors as people (not simply what they do for an organization).

“Now that I think about it, and I think about our style of thanking, ours is all about thanking the person. Like talking about what a wonderful thing they’ve done and your generosity and your heart and your graciousness. We thank the person, we mention the gift, but we thank the person.”

“Almost exactly what I would have said for acknowledgments meaning casting the doctor as the hero of the story, making the donor feel like they’re part of something and something important and that they’re part of a winning team, that they’re valued. That their role in ending childhood hunger or curing cancer or saving refugees is genuinely valued. Yeah, I think those are the key elements.”

When an organization develops an effective thank-you program, fundraisers feel better about their job:

“What I was really excited about, and it was just a simple thank-you card, it was solicitation, no ask. In those examples, I just want people to feel a deeper connection with the organization. I want it to feel like a more personalized touch. I think that’s why even having the volunteers come in and hand write these thank-you notes is really important.”

“Yes. If you find new and different ways to do it and something that’s true and unique, then it feels special and it’s more fun for us too.”

“Because we had a monthly private donor tour of our homeless center on Thursday mornings when the staff were in training and the center was closed down. We invited people all the time. What we found when we went out to visit them in person is that we walked into these little old ladies’ houses and they would have the invitation, because we made it look like a proper invitation, sitting up on their mantle. One said, “You know, I just don’t feel stable enough to come into City Century in a taxi anymore, but it’s so lovely to be invited.” That kind of stuff when you start factoring it in, that human element when you start factoring it into your fundraising, it can really guide your fundraising in a different direction. If you’re sitting back here looking at segments in a database and deciding what to do with them, it can end up being pretty cold.”

One of our interviewees said: “organizational egotism, sometimes thought of as organizational narcissism is a very, very powerful force and it’s a very powerful negative force in eliminating authentic relationships with donors.” Authentic relationships can charge fundraisers, not just donors.

“I don’t think it’s a semantic problem. I don’t know. I’d say it’s the orientation of nonprofits, at least of the ones that I work with most. I think it’s partially a resource issue, that it’s not prioritized. It’s not seen as important. I think people internally don’t recognize or understand the value in having a more sophisticated acknowledgment program. I think it’s partially a prioritization problem, and partially an education problem, that people don’t necessarily realize the value for all stakeholders in doing things differently.”

Also, we will use the term ‘thank-you communications’ instead of ‘acknowledgment communications’ to signify the shared attitude by our interviewees that any acknowledgment communication should be a thank-you message that can help an individual flourish in their journey of giving and their journey in life. As one of our interviewees said: “It’s not just thanking. It’s kind of loving me.”

The biggest barriers that prevent fundraisers from designing and implementing the best thank- you communications are:

1 The difficulty in convincing their organization to invest in thank-you’s.

2 The lack of quantitative evidence in measuring Level 4 and Level 5 of the benefit. This difficulty is exaggerated by the fact that there are no immediately measurable behavioral outcomes that one can use to show the immediate return for such investment.

We therefore conducted a set of six tests to gather evidence that will help fundraisers document what benefits can be delivered by thank-you communications (if any). The first three tests were designed to show how fundraisers can best thank donors at a different stage of their relationship with an organization. We learned that:

1 After people take a first action for an organization but before they become a donor, short but interactive thank-you’s that reaffirm their psychological well-being may double the degree to which they are willing to donate later on in comparison to thank-you’s that reaffirm what they think is important for an organization to do. So, from the very first action that any donors take for an organization, thank-you’s should focus on making donors’ feel good about their action.

2 In a database where the average number of gifts made by donors is three, a thank- you letter reaffirming the difference that their donations made increased average gifts by 60% without reducing response rate in comparison to a control group of donors who did not receive this thank-you communication. The renewal letter was sent four weeks after the thank-you letter.

3 In a database where the average number of gifts made by donors is 16, a thank-you letter reaffirming the wonderful relationship the donors have with the organization’s long- standing and beloved CEO is as effective as a thank-you letter reaffirming how wonderful the donor is as a person. These thank-you letters were more effective in comparison to a third group of donors who did not receive either communication. Both letters increased the response rate of the renewal letter sent four weeks after the thank-you by over 10% without reducing average gift size.

4 In all tests we collected further evidence that these communications made people feel better. We estimated that if these thank-you’s are done in a consistent and lively manner, organizations have the potential to increase the good-feeling in their database by a minimum of 20% over five years.

The mission of The Philanthropy Centre is to grow personally meaningful philanthropy around the world. Download the full research paper from The Philanthropy Centre.

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