This could this be your year of writing thank you letters

Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, Notes on Nonprofits

Over the past six weeks, I have facilitated almost a dozen online webinars and workshops with nonprofit leaders around the state. Most have focused on crisis fundraising and the need to adjust revenue plans as a result of COVID-19. During each session, I have addressed the need to communicate with and appreciate donors in meaningful ways.

The need to retain donors is not new but the importance of donor stewardship is starting to get the attention it deserves.

Donor stewardship can be confused with other steps that begin after a donation is made. Acknowledging a donation begins with a letter or receipt to let donors know the gift was received and organization was happy to receive it. Appreciation is an extra step such as a phone call or hand-written note that goes beyond the standard thank you letter.

Public recognition lets other people know about a gift which may include inviting a donor to say a few words at an event, publicly presenting a plaque or other gift, or featuring the donor’s story in a newsletter. Donor stewardship encompasses all these things and reporting on how their gift made a difference before asking them to give again.

Years ago, I read a book by John Kralik titled, “365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed my Life.” At the start of the book, John’s life is at a terrible low and after receiving a thoughtful thank you note, he decides to start writing a daily thank you to various people in his life.

John’s book is not about fundraising, but it is one of my favorite resources when it comes to stewardship. I love how John describes the best thank you as one that “will stir in the recipients’ heart the knowledge that their gesture was truly appreciated and even inspire the desire to give again, knowing that they will be thanked and appreciated.”

Good thank you letters are heart-felt, authentic, and written with passion. Too often, thank you letters sound like they were written by a robot, with little or no personalization, lots of jargon, and more about the organization than the person who made the gift. Hint: the donor should be the star of their thank you letter.

Earlier this week, I read a story about Gina Hamadey, and what she calls her “thank you letter year.” Gina is a wife, mother of two, and owner of a small consulting business. She organized a fundraiser and took the time to write a hand-written note to each donor.

She had 31 notes in this first batch, got hooked, and decided to expand and categorize her thank you notes. The next month she focused on her neighbors and then moved on to friends, doctors, career mentors, and parenting role models.

In subsequent months, she sent notes to her husband, siblings, in-laws, and parents. Over time, Gina said, “I found that doing so changed the fundamental dynamics of these relationships in small but impactful ways.”

As soon as I read this my fundraising light turned on. Executive Directors and fundraising staff could adopt a similar approach and write notes to various groups of donors, board members, volunteers, sponsors, in-kind supporters, elected officials, staff, peers, mentors, and so on. In one year, the impact would be profound; no masks or social distancing required.

Gina’s tips for writing a better thank you note including not buying fancy cards or worrying about making them perfect. Personal attention, not perfection, is the goal. Don’t fret if you have messy handwriting. Do speak from the heart and spend a minute or two focusing on the recipient before you start writing.

One of my favorite tips is to start the note with the word “you.” Examples include: “You were so thoughtful to remember our seniors with your gift.” “You made our day and helped our teachers get the supplies they need for every student.” “You are one of the most important reasons our orchestra is thriving.”

Another option is BOY which means “because of you.”

Now more than ever, people are making time to give and receive kindness and doing so in many creative ways. I hope this is not a temporary trend but something that continues after the coronavirus crisis is over.

I hope writing thank you notes becomes a bigger part of everyone’s everyday life. In the closing lines of John Kralik’s book he says, “Writing thank you notes is a good thing to do and makes the world a better place. It also made me a better man.” It will also make you a better fundraiser.

Notes on Nonprofits is written and edited by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting, and Kelly Otte, MPA, who is on sabbatical. Send your comments and questions to [email protected].

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