Determining the Best Way to Thank Donors

Posted on 04/28/2019

Every individual donor has their own preference for how they would like to interact with—and be treated by—the organizations they support. While some might prefer to get a call from a student, others would rather receive letters or emails. And many donors, especially major donors, appreciate the ability to have personal interactions and meetings with gift officers.

The quandary is that annual giving programs are typically tasked with communicating with large audiences. Teams need to leverage economies of scale to reach large alumni, parent, and friend audiences—sometimes targeting hundreds of thousands of households with a single mail piece. Even with advanced segmentation and a sophisticated ask ladder, it’s difficult to create an experience that feels tailor-made for the donor.

Despite these challenges, donors need to believe that their institutions value them as individuals, and not just an individual in a sea of supporters. This is especially important after they have made a gift. At the heart of good fundraising and stewardship is the concept of being “donor-centric,” or putting the donor first: anticipating how donors would like to be asked, which vehicle they’d like to give through, and how they’d like to be acknowledged for their gift. Unfortunately, it can be hard to predict exactly where a donor’s preferences lie.

University of California Santa Cruz addressed this issue head-on by simply asking donors how they’d like to be thanked for their gift on the institution’s giving day. Donors were given the choice to be thanked via email, a personalized video, a note in the mail, or a phone call. The options were listed in a drop-down field on their giving form.

This was their first time offering stewardship options, so UC Santa Cruz staff members weren’t sure what to expect or which choice would be the most popular. The donor volume was high, as their giving day brought in over 7,000 donors. They were hoping they had enough staff and students lined up to fulfill the requests as they came in. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of donors (74 percent) chose to be thanked via email, which was the easiest of the four choices to fulfill, since emails can be deployed to the masses. Personalized videos and handwritten notes via mail were the runners-up in terms of popularity, garnering 11 percent and 13 percent of the selections, respectively. Perhaps surprisingly, only 1 percent of donors wished to receive calls thanking them for their gift. Nearly all of these stewardship touches were deployed day-of, with handwritten notes being sent throughout the remainder of the week.

First utilized on their giving day in February 2019, this innovative idea was met with overwhelmingly positive responses from donors across all populations—alumni, parents, friends, and faculty/staff members. Next year, the UC Santa Cruz team is considering adding a text thank you to the list of options.

In annual giving, there will always be the challenge of how to best communicate with large audiences. Identifying strategic opportunities to ask for and—even more critically—act upon donor feedback can demonstrate that your institution is committed to developing a personal relationship with each constituent. And the more you make individual donors feel appreciated in a personal way, the more successful your efforts are likely to be.

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