Gratitude: An Art Form

I remember reading a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer from late summer 2012 describing President Obama’s seeming discomfort spending time with his campaign donors. His first social secretary, the stylish Desirée Rogers, was criticized for not doing enough to make patrons feel special. Mayer quoted a major Democratic donor complaining, “There’s been no thanks for anyone!...I don’t think they have a clue who I am. I don’t think they even know how much I gave.”

Unfortunately, presidential campaign donors aren’t the only ones who feel unacknowledged by the people and organizations they support. I hear this too often when I talk with philanthropists. As Laura Bush’s chief of staff, Anita McBride, told Mayer, “Donors are called on to do a lot. It doesn’t take a lot to say thank you.”

Actually, to say thank you well and with meaning does and should take a lot. Most all of, it takes intentionality, sincerity and true gratitude. In the world of fundraising, political, cultural or otherwise, stewardship (expressing appreciation) is as critical as solicitation (making the ask). If stewardship is handled in a ham-fisted way, or viewed and thus communicated to donors as a distasteful obligation, then you’ll end up like Desirée, needing to find another line of work. 

Writing a note of thanks takes only a few minutes out of your day. Just do it.

Writing a note of thanks takes only a few minutes out of your day. Just do it.

There’s an interesting upside to saying thanks, according to Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and the author of Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. People who mindfully adopt what he calls an “attitude of gratitude” are happier, healthier, have stronger, more resilient relationships, accomplish more, and feel more satisfied. I believe the same is true for organizations that show genuine appreciation for their people, including their supporters. (I wrote about giving recognition to staff in an earlier post.)

So how can you thank donors and make it really mean something? Here’s a quick list of eight ways to recognize the generosity of your benefactors infused with some heart:

  1. Acknowledgement letters – Even though these are required by the IRS for gifts of $250 or more, they don’t have to be perfunctory and boring. Keep your letters fresh and current, and use them to share information about upcoming activities or milestones achieved, plus send them within a few days after receiving a gift. Timeliness matters, and so does customization. I once encountered an organization that hadn’t changed its standard acknowledgement letter in a decade. That couldn’t have been terribly meaningful to the donors who gave annually over those 10 years…
  2. Thank you calls – You won’t believe how much donors are pleasantly surprised by simple phone calls to say thank you. Ask your senior team or a small, rotating cadre of trustees to make calls on a monthly basis to your top patrons, or to those who recently renewed or increased their giving. It’s a modest investment of time and goodwill that pays off in donor loyalty.
  3. Activity reports – These are primarily produced by grant officers who must regularly report to institutional funders on the use and impact of grant monies. The same approach can be adopted for trustees, individual donors and even lower level members, each of whom can be sent a personalized, year-end “this is what you helped to make possible” letter. Although there are varying schools of thought, to be truly in stewardship mode, you should never include a follow up ask with your thanks.
  4. Donor rosters – Whether via signage installed in your building or roll calls published in annual reports or quarterly e-news, listing your patrons (and spelling their names correctly) is another advantageous way to provide public recognition for their giving. It also communicates the vital role of philanthropy in your organization.
  5. Invitations to (free) exclusive programs and social events – Obama’s disgruntled donors were upset, according to Mayer’s sources, because he had been “reluctant to pose with them for photographs” at White House parties. Social gatherings – like receptions, private dinners, behind-the-scene tours or special performances – are some of the best ways to give extra care to your donors and get to know then in a more relaxed setting and festive environment. Don’t overlook the growing enthusiasm for candid selfies on social media, which benefit your donors and your organization.
  6. Occasional notes, emails, calls and birthday cards – Once a gift has been received and acknowledged, don’t make the mistake of only being in touch with your patrons when you need further assistance. Take the time to send them a handwritten note (on beautiful notecards) or an email with photos and an update about a program they supported, or call to share some news or ask an opinion – the same impulse you have reaching out to a friend. And sure, birthday greetings can feel a bit clichéd, but at least send them to your trustees!
  7. Appreciation events – Gathering for the sole purpose to say thanks can be as simple as breakfast and a talk or as elaborate as dinner and a performance. At the Guggenheim Museum, my staff and I launched an annual appreciation breakfast for funders. We assembled a PowerPoint presentation set to music with images of the various things that they had supported over the past year – basically everything at the museum. It was both eye opening and gratifying for the funders to see how much they had contributed to the lifeblood of the institution.
  8. Thank you videos – Truth be told, I think most of these are either pedestrian or kinda corny, but if you want to create and e-circulate an artful video for your donors, here’s some advice from fundraiser Adrian Allen.

Expressing gratitude should be a natural, heartfelt response to any donor who makes an investment in your organization. Inculcate stewardship into your DNA and you might just be the happier for it. Certainly, your donors will be. Honestly, there’s no magic to any of this. Be intentional. Be timely. Be creative. Make it relevant. Make it personal.