April may be the cruelest month, but November – with Veterans Day, National Philanthropy Day®, and Thanksgiving – may just be the most appreciative.
Years ago, gift processing was a large part of my job, especially at the end of the year. Back then, part of me always dreaded this time of year – as the amount of daylight got ever shorter, the length of my working hours got ever longer. And while my co-workers were using their remaining vacation time for last minute errands, I was rolling mine over into the New Year. And yet, even though I was doing a lot of data entry, booking all those year-end gifts, I also got to do one of the most special things we can do in fundraising. I got to thank people – a lot of people.
I’ve used this quote before, but I never get tired of it. A colleague at one of my favorite organizations says that gift processing should really be called “gift stewardship.” Indeed, stewardship and gratitude often begin long before a gift is made, and continue with properly booking the gift, but they come to fruition in the thank you letter. And letter it should be. A thank you on the landing page after an online gift is submitted, an automated email, or even a printed receipt will bring efficiencies to your process, but how different do they make you from Amazon? Those automated acknowledgements are simply too transactional. They are just too much about the tax language and not nearly enough about the donor’s very personal philanthropy or aspirations. To my mind nothing beats a real letter for expressing gratitude and building the relationship.
So take a pause after you run the acknowledgement mail merge. Think of this moment as an opportunity. You’ve probably already customized your merge template to allow you to segment your acknowledgments so that your text is matched to donor intent. And once your file is output to the word processing program, you will make sure the right name or nickname is in the salutation, the gift amount and allocation are correct, and that there are no typos or weird merge effects. But you should also take this opportunity to make the letters more personal. Longstanding donors? Add a word or phrase which recognizes and appreciates their loyalty and faith in what you do. New donors? Thank them for deciding to place their trust in you to help them achieve their vision.
A letter offers an additional opportunity that no electronic communication ever can. You can add a handwritten note. Back in my gift processing days, I attached a sticky note to the letters with little nuggets about the donors (“donor since ’95,” “3rd gift this year,” “father was a trustee,” “missed the gala for the 1st time in 7 years.”). This gave the agency’s president, who signed all of our acknowledgements, a quick reminder whenever there was something special to acknowledge in a handwritten note.
In the last few weeks I’ve come full circle, back to writing thank you letters, this time to help steward my client’s scholarship donors. And I’m thankful that, once again, as the days grow shorter and colder, and friends and families gather closer, I get to use my time to thank others.