The fifth tenet of the Donor’s Bill of Rights:
“…to receive appropriate acknowledgement
and recognition.”
(other tenets here…)

It ought to go without saying. When someone offers you something, and you accept it, you say, “thank you.” It’s just common sense, and yet it never ceases to amaze me how uncommon common sense has become. Sadly, many nonprofits act like pigs at the proverbial trough, greedily snorting up all the resources donors put in front of them without ever acknowledging the generosity of their gifts.

A case in point…

I teach an undergraduate course in philanthropy where the primary class project requires the students to act as though they are on the board of a fictional nonprofit foundation. A $2,000 gift from an anonymous donor allows the students to make real grants to other nonprofit organizations. They are tasked with making prudential judgements about how and where to award the funds by the end of the semester. The project involves students directly in the work of philanthropy, and along the way we discuss various tactics to optimize their giving. “Responsible philanthropy” is a key theme of the course.

One semester, the students decided to split the money two ways. They awarded $500 to an organization that specializes in agricultural development in Central America, and $1500 to an organization that operates a suicide crisis hotline. The students did careful research on both organizations and everything appeared to be in order. They received a kind note of thanks from the agricultural organization, but the crisis hotline organization made no acknowledgement of the gift whatsoever. None. Nada. Zip. Not even a tax receipt letter! We know they received the funds, because they cashed our check.

To not acknowledge donors fairly and properly for the gifts they make is simply unacceptable and, as it happens, perilous for an organization insofar as it places repeat gifts in jeopardy. Donors are people too, and they need to feel as though their contributions matter, and that the organization values them.

All of this is easily solved by developing a comprehensive stewardship plan that covers everything—from A to Z—with regard to donor stewardship…

  • When gifts are received, what machinery gets set in motion?
    • How are thank-you notes and receipt letters generated?
    • Who is responsible for generating them?
    • Who is responsible for signing them?
    • Who is responsible for physically seeing to it that they get in the mail?
    • Does the nature of the gift require any special handling, and who makes that determination?
  • Is there a donor recognition plan for various levels of giving?
  • Is there a consistent set of design standards for plaques commemorating named gifts?
    • Are there predetermined sizes and dimensions that correspond to certain sizes of gifts?
    • Are there consistent guidelines for the materials used in construction and can those guidelines be shared easily with vendors.
  • How are gifts-in-kind handled?
  • How does the development staff get notified of gifts, and is there a plan in place for following up?

These are just a few of the things a stewardship plan should cover. The point is not to be overly rigid; there could be instances where the nature of the gift requires creative deviation from the plan. Rather, the point is to be intentional and consistent about how, when, and to what extent donors receive the recognition and thanks they deserve.

My students gave $1500 to a charity that provides crisis intervention services. Surely an organization doing such important work cannot afford to play it fast and loose with thanking their benefactors. It is worth pondering… if people stop giving to the organization simply because they were never thanked, and the organization runs out of funds and has to shut down, and those services are no longer available, what terrible human consequences might ensue?

Failure to thank and acknowledge donors for their generous support is not only a violation of a donor’s rights, in some instances it could actually be a matter of life and death.

Question: Can you give examples when you observed an organization dropping the proverbial ball with respect to donor stewardship? Leave a reply below.

*See more Donor Bill of Rights-related posts here...

Posted by Mark Zobel, Ph.D., C.F.R.M., C.F.R.E.

Executive Director for Philanthropy and Stewardship, and Adjunct Professor of Philanthropy at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois

One Comment

  1. […] Don’t be Like Pigs at the Trough, Say “Thank You” To Donors […]

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