It goes without saying that thanking donors is a vital part of good donor stewardship. “You cannot thank donors enough” is a familiar mantra in the development world. When donors do not feel appreciated, the relationship is damaged and that could cause them to take their gifts elsewhere. The idea that one cannot thank donors enough is a good principle as far as it goes, but as with anything it can be overdone. Over-thanking comes with its own set of problems.

Consider the following donor, let’s call her Pam.  Pam is a loyal supporter and has given to your organization every year for the past three years. A solid relationship has been established and Pam feels connected to the cause. Pam receives a personalized thank-you note for each gift along with a receipt for tax purposes. Things are going well.

Over-thanking can create doubt in the mind of the donor as to the organization’s efficiency and use of resources.

Then a well meaning staff decides that they should be thanking donors more often and in multiple ways for each gift. So it is decided that Pam and all the other donors will now continue to receive the thank-you note and receipt, and in addition they will receive a note from a gift officer, a note from the president of the organization, plus two phone calls – one from a staff member and one from a member of the Board, to whom Pam has no real connection.

While this strategy is well intentioned there are fundamental problems with it, not the least of which is that it risks coming across as aggressive. Phone calls can often seem intrusive, even if they are to say thanks. Similarly, after a while notes stop being expressions of gratitude and become just more paper coming into the house.

Even worse, this strategy runs the risk of signaling disorganization among the staff. A string of rapid fire messages and communications could make it look like the staff is not clear about who is in charge of receiving gifts and thanking donors. Pam might start to wonder if the organization is running efficiently enough for her to continue giving. She also might wonder about how much of her money is being spent on all the paper and postage. Over-thanking can create doubt in the mind of the donor as to the organization’s efficiency and use of resources.

Thanking donors effectively means developing a carefully crafted donor recognition plan. It is important to decide in advance what a donor will receive from the organization when a gift is made, how many messages they will get, of what type, and who on staff will be responsible for coordinating the effort. That might sound like common sense, and it is, but I am amazed by the number of colleagues who tell me that no such plan exists at their organizations, and how haphazard their donor recognition effort is.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for how much to thank donors. Donors have different needs, and those must be taken into account when making decisions on how to recognize gifts. I’ll have more to say on developing a donor recognition plan in a later post. For now, it is worthwhile to reflect on how over-thanking, however good the intentions might be, can actually introduce problems in the donor relationship.

Question: How does your organization thank its donors, and how often does it review its donor recognition plan? Please leave a reply below.

Posted by Dr. Mark Zobel

Director of Annual Giving at Blackburn College

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