March 20, 2003

Smaller Charities Need Creativity and Care When Recognizing Donors

Phil Schumacher still recalls his first day on the job at the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation, in La Crosse, Wis. During a meeting with his board's chairman that day in 1987, an elderly woman came into the group's lobby and handed the receptionist a $2 donation. When the chairman -- a vascular surgeon -- saw the woman, he quickly donned his lab coat over his scrubs, and went out to greet her.

"Madame," he said, "I'm Adolf Gundersen, and I'd like to personally thank you for your gift and to assure you that it will used in the most appropriate fashion."

The lesson couldn't be missed, says Mr. Schumacher, who now serves as the foundation's executive director and as vice chairman for membership of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. "Dr. Gunderson came back to me and said, 'The most important thing you'll do here is say thank you.'"

Just about every charity leader or fund raiser knows the importance of thanking donors -- not just as an expression of appreciation and good manners, but as a way of building relationships.

"Done well, recognition can encourage future gifts and continued involvement, whether through volunteering or being an ambassador for the organization in the community, " says Shari Fox, who this month left her job as president of the Beech Acres Foundation, a resource center for families in Cincinnati. "It also helps encourage gifts from others. When people see that friends think it's important enough to support, they might reconsider."

When it comes to thanking donors, small and medium-size organizations may not have the resources or opportunities for elaborate expressions of gratitude. However, with a little creativity and research, say leaders and fund raisers at smaller organizations, acknowledging donors doesn't have to mean increased staff time or expenditures. In many cases, charity leaders say, less may truly mean more.

Before recognizing donors publicly, it's crucial to make certain that they wantto be thanked, says Mary Hobart, chief development office for the American Radio Relay League, a national association of amateur radio operators, in Newington, Conn.

Even gestures as common and seemingly benign as listing names in newsletters or annual reports should be cleared first with donors. At the league, all donors of $1,000 or more are given the option to be recognized in the organization's annual report, says Ms. Hobart. She sends donors letters asking their permission, she says, because "I want it in their handwriting." If she hasn't received a reply two weeks before her deadline, she calls donors. If she can't reach them, she lists their donations anonymously.

Unwanted recognition can quell the giving spirit, says Michael N. Fischer, assistant vice president for gift-planning services of the Lutheran Church Extension Fund, which provides loans and services in support of the Lutheran Church's Missouri synod, in St. Louis. . "Some donors are very humble and modest," he says. "Here's where fund raisers need to know the donors with whom they're working."

Donors are not often motivated by recognition. According to a 2000 survey by the National Committee on Planned Giving, a professional association in Indianapolis, the two most important factors in the decision to make a gift are the desire to support the charity and the ultimate use of the gift by the charity. In fact, according the survey, only one-third of donors informed their charities of their bequests, and the most common reason cited for remaining silent (by 53 percent of respondents) was not wanting attention.

Reflecting Donors' Values

About five years ago, Mr. Schumacher ran a series of focus groups for his employer, the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation. He learned a lot about what donors really want from the charities they support.

"What we heard from people who run businesses is that they have shelves in the basement loaded with plaques and certificates," he says. "The clear message they gave us is that a personalized message from someone of consequence in the organization is the best recognition."

Recognition should reflect the values of donors, who like to know how their gifts are being used, says Mr. Schumacher. Sometimes, he says, after a meeting about research or programs underwritten by donors, he or his colleagues will call a donor and say something like, "'I just came out of a meeting, and I wanted to tell you that the research you've funded in part with your gift is really making great things happen...." This sort of feedback, he says, pleases supporters. "I don't think they want a great deal of detail, but it provides an opportunity to complete the circle, to say to a benefactor, 'Here's what you've allowed us to do,'" he says. "Hopefully it will encourage them to make the next gift at the same level, or even higher."

Many donors are "very sensitive to how much we're spending on them," says Ms. Fox. A recent Donor Expectations Survey by the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance found that two-thirds of Americans think no more than 20 percent of a charity's spending should be devoted to fund raising. Beech Acres sponsors an annual parenting conference that relies heavily on corporate sponsorship. As a thank you after the conference, the organization used to give a framed poster, a plaque, or a photo collage to sponsors who had donated a certain amount of money. "We heard that they didn't want it," recalls Ms. Fox. "They appreciated it, but they didn't want us spending our money on that. So we stopped doing it."

What Donors Want

There's a big difference between acknowledgment and recognition of gifts, says Penelope Burk, a fund-raising consultant in Toronto and Chicago who works with nonprofit clients and is author of Thanks! A Guide to Donor-Centered Fundraising (Burk & Associates, 2000). Acknowledgment is important, she says, and should be prompt -- meaning that a gift should be acknowledged within two weeks of the donation check's date. According to a survey that her company released in 2000 of Canadian donors, 78 percent of donors said they would probably or definitely give again to a charity that provided them with prompt, personal acknowledgments, followed with a meaningful update on the program they helped support. (Ms. Burk has conducted a similar study of American donors, and she plans to release the results in May.)

She cautions against soliciting gifts in the body of thank-you notes -- 61 percent of respondents in her Canadian survey said they've received such requests, and 81 percent of that segment said they're offended when it happens.

When in doubt about what donors want, just ask, says Brian A. Shoup, president of the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, in Albuquerque, a support group for a historic rail system in New Mexico and Colorado. "We invite folks to let us know of their concerns," he says. "People have opinions they're more than willing to share with you."

The group occasionally makes phone calls and sends letters to donors sharing information and seeking comment about how donated money is spent, and Mr. Shoup intends to create a plan to regularly solicit donor feedback. "If you ask your donors questions," he says, "you might get some surprising answers."

When Ms. Hobart joined the American Radio Relay League in 2001, one of the first things she did was survey active members about their motivations for joining, for giving, and the types of membership benefits and donor recognition they'd like to receive. Their answers led Ms. Hobart and colleagues to craft the Diamond Club, a tiered recognition program based on annual contributions. Introductory league members receive such benefits such as certificates, pins, and car decals. All members receive QST, the organization's monthly magazine, but donors of $500 or more get it sent it them via first-class mail, while donors of $1,000 or more receive the magazine via overnight courier along with a handwritten note of thanks from Ms. Hobart. Donors who give $5,000 or more receive a bound volume of the year's issues of QST -- in recognition of the fact that many ham-radio enthusiasts collect the magazine.

The club is just six months old but already has some 500 members, a number that Ms. Hobart expects to double by year's end. She intends to tweak the recognition program over time based on member feedback, which she plans to solicit with the help of volunteers and electronic mailing lists.

"Clearly the Diamond Club resonates with our particular donors -- it's not just something we pulled out of the sky," she says. "The premise here is you ask your donors [what they want]. Otherwise, you're throwing good money after bad."

Details are important in any tiered donor-recognition program, she says, especially careful data entry. Donor names must be spelled correctly and supporters should be listed in all instances -- in annual reports, newsletters, on organization Web sites -- as they want to be listed. For instance, says Ms. Hobart, her group's members often want to be recognized by their ham-radio call sign only. Some donors may want "Dr. and Mr." or "Dr. and Mrs.," while others may prefer the name of a family foundation instead of individual names.

The Common Denominator

No matter what their size, all gifts should be acknowledged equally, says Ms. Burk. "Donors generally give as generously as they can, given the information they have available to them and their financial situation," she says. Singling out those who give a lot can be embarrassing to the donors, she says.

Charities also run the risk of having smaller donors feel they're not doing enough or aren't appreciated. Ms. Hobart says she did receive a little such negative feedback when the Diamond Club was started, but not since. "Most of the members have said it's about time the organization started doing this, and they're thrilled that it's been done in a classy, proper, professional way," she says. "They're happy with the benefits."

The key to recognizing supporters, say charity leaders, is being specific. Recognition can be as simple as remembering to say "thank you" as a volunteer walks out the door, says Jane S. Kornblut, executive director of Volunteer Fairfax, in Virginia. For donors, it also can include such informal but meaningful gestures as taking them out to lunch or sending an e-mail message or handwritten note.

There's no need to bombard them with appreciation, says Ms. Burk. Communicate when there's something specific to tell them about how their money is being used, and do so sincerely. "You won't go wrong if you keep reminding yourself why you're doing this -- to retain the donor," she says. "You can send them a pin, or phone them up and tell them what you did with their gift. But I guarantee it's the latter that's going to get them to give again."