It’s personal

Thank You Note

Thank You Note (Photo credit: rogercarr)

Picture this: you walk to your mailbox. Inside, you find an envelope with a return address you recognize. “Real mail!” you think.

You open that envelope first and in a hurry. Then you begin to feel confused. Disappointed.


“Dear Ms. LastName” it begins.

“Because I am a caring person, I have been wondering how you are.

I have been well. In fact, I have accomplished a great deal since we last spoke. Let me tell you all about what I have been doing.

My family is doing well. In fact, our community just recognized us as upstanding citizens of the year! We all enjoyed the ceremony. And of course, my children continue to excel in school and at their sports. As for me, I recently earned a big raise. Everything is grand!

Oh and thanks very much for that nice holiday gift.”


Not so excited now, right?

I hope you never really get a letter like that from a friend. But I’ll bet you get more than a few from nonprofits you support. Formal. All about them. A hurried “oh, yeah, thanks” and a sign-off. Information about taxes front and center.


It’s not hard to write a warm, personal, grateful letter. The trick is to remember it’s not about you. It’s not about your organization. It’s all about your donor. All of it.

Now think about the personal note you hoped you would open. Friendly, warm, even chatty. You’d be eager for news. You’d want to know your friend had been thinking of you. And you would have smiled to read she remembered something nice you’d done for her. You wouldn’t have dumped the note that should have been probably right in the recycling bin. You might have tucked into your nightstand drawer with a smile. You would have pulled it out and reread it a few times, because knowing you mattered made you feel wonderful.

That’s what you need to write.

Why bother? It’s just a form letter, anyway. Just the end of a transaction, right?

No. Really, truly, no.

You’re probably reading a lot about donor retention these days. That’s good – though a lot of the most successful fundraisers knew its importance all along. It’s never too late to get on board. Because the truth is that keeping your donors is all about how you make them feel. Tell them – and show them – they’re doing something wonderful. Make them feel like they matter. Treat them like you would a good friend. Read your letter out loud. If it doesn’t sound like something you’d be excited about receiving, start again. You’ve just taken a huge step toward keeping them around.

Well worth it to give some thought to that thank you letter, isn’t it?


I’ve written about thank you letters a few times, here and here.

Check out Lisa Sargent’s clinic on SOFII

Rory Green and the Agents of Good show you how it’s done here

And Pamela Grow even has a free e-book you need to download!




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I’ll admit it. When I want to relax, I’ll play games on my phone. (You too?)

These days, I’ve been playing with a simple game that’s like one my younger son was given as a little kid. It involves moving blocks around, one at a time, to free another block from the field.

What in the world does this have to do with fundraising? I’m not completely sure. But I do know that the same thoughts keep popping into my head while I’m working through the puzzles. I think there may be some lessons here for us.


If there’s only one piece you can move, then move it

Try not to let your ever-growing to-do list leave you paralyzed. Chances are you won’t get everything done that you know needs to be done. But if you don’t start, you’re guaranteed to fail. So make a move. Write a thank you note. Call a long-time donor. Write that appeal – and edit it later. Right now, just get started!


Sometimes you have to be willing to go back to move forward

Sometimes, the smartest move is to retrace some steps. Why didn’t that last email get much response? Is there a reason sponsors aren’t interested in your event? What could you do differently next time? You’re not moving backward. You’re learning. Do it.


Fresh eyes see things more clearly

Sometimes you have to walk away. After you’ve written that appeal is a great time for this. Don’t even think about re-reading it or editing it. Give yourself some time. So much gets clearer when you’re not focused on the immediate task!

I find I usually need to switch tasks as I go through the day. When I can’t look at another spreadsheet, I work on my next newsletter design. When I need creative inspiration, I stuff some envelopes. A different kind of concentration frees your mind.


Sometimes you just have to give up and go to the next one

That prospect you’ve been counting on for years. The one you’ve been sure would fall in love with your organization, if only you invited her to enough events or sent enough information? Sometimes, you have to move on. There’s no hard rule for when it’s time. But if you’re ignoring the donors who already care to chase the next big thing, you may be wasting your time.


Patience pays

On the other hand, patience is an under-valued asset. So long as you’re not ignoring the donors who love you now, keep working. Everyone I’ve talked to has a story about a foundation that finally awarded a grant after receiving 5 applications. Or the long-time small donor who suddenly finds the right program and becomes a major supporter. If you don’t have the patience to nurture those relationships, some will never blossom. Don’t give up too easily.


Keep the goal in sight

Stay in touch with your mission. Remember that your success isn’t really measured in dollars. It’s measured in the impact your donors have on the world through the work of your organization. It’s great to be able to report to your board that the last appeal is bringing in a record number of responses. Or that the event has already sold more tickets than last year. Go ahead, celebrate a little. But when you remember that one kid whose dreams have come true thanks to those donors and tickets, or one donor who tells you how much being involved has meant to him… that’s the real value.


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Stop thinking about money!



Image thanks to imelenchon


I was at a meeting the other day. A local foundation offered training about soliciting major donors. It was a small enough group that we had time to hash out a few hypothetical situations. A good session and well worth the hour or so.

As is often the case, a phrase was shared that stuck because it made so much sense. “Stop chasing dollars and start chasing relationships”. What a great way to put it!

I’ve continued to think about that as I read about donor retention. I shared a thought today with my colleagues that I’ll share with you.


What if we stopped focusing on what our donors can do for us and started focusing on what we can do for them?


It might sound glib, but I think it’s worth chewing on. 

First we need to learn what we they’d want us to do for them. Is it about fighting for a cause? Is it about being part of a community? Maybe they’d love networking opportunities. Or just to see first-hand that their gifts are working.

Learning what they want is key. And it’s not going to just walk itself into our database. Sure, we can glean a little about it by looking at behavior – what donors respond to, how much they’ve given to what appeal, etc. But the heart of the idea is that each donor is an individual. And we won’t have an answer to “what do they want from us?” unless we ask.

We can do that. Surveys are a good beginning. Thankathons are too. Conversations are even better. Sometimes, it’s a matter of listening well and then capturing the information that’s already being shared with people across our organizations.

But imagine if we took the time to understand what it is that donors really wish we could offer them!

I think for the organizations that find the ways to do this, it will be revolutionary.

Can I help you?

Hands clasped


I am not a scientist.

Mine is a brain made for metaphor, not molecules. But so long as I don’t need to crack a biology textbook, memorize the periodic table or dissect a frog, I’m willing to dip a toe in.

And one area I find fascinating is neuroscience. Why do we behave the way we do?

This intersects with fundraising, of course. Crack the code, figure out why your donors do what they do, and you’ll be much more successful, right?

That sounds calculating. But I don’t think it is. Our job is to connect donors to the changes they want to make in the world. Understanding the best way to do that is helpful.

So I was interested in an article I found from Louise Altman on her blog, The Intentional Workplace. She references a presentation made this summer. Stephen Porges, Ph.D., presented the following conclusions from his research:

• Compassion is a manifestation of our biological need to engage and bond with others
• Compassion is a component of our biological quest for “safety” in the proximity of others.


In other words, our urge to be helpful is hard-wired. It’s not consciously based on self-interest. We’re made to help.

Lovely thought!

I kept hunting. (Thank you, Google). And I learned that one of the mechanisms believed to be behind this is the vagus nerve. In a Scientific American article, Dacher Keltner, director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley explains:

The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. It activates different organs throughout the body (such as the heart, lungs, liver and digestive organs). When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music… The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to receptor networks for oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in trust and maternal bonding… People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.


But can those feelings be cultivated? Keltner thinks so.

• Experiences of reverence in nature or of being around those who are morally inspiring improves people’s sense of connection to one another and their sense of purpose.
• Meditating on a compassionate approach to others shifts resting brain activation to the left hemisphere, a region associated with happiness, and boosts immune functions.
• Talking about what we are thankful for—in classrooms, at the dinner table or in a diary—boosts happiness, social well-being and health.
• Devoting resources to others, rather than indulging a materialist desire, brings about lasting well-being.

And there we go – the answer is “yes”.

So what can we do to help connect our donors to their innate kindness? Tell stories that show someone being compassionate. Or stories that show someone who needs help. It takes some skill – you’re going for the sort of reaction mentioned above, the way you feel when moved by a beautiful piece of music.

If there was ever an argument for being emotional, this is it. Can you tell your stories that way?

It also explains why video is becoming so important. Suddenly, we can show, not just tell! Seeing compassion, seeing need makes it real.

I think that’s our calling. To spur in the imagination others’ natural caring response. It will make them happier. And it will make the world a nicer place. So show them someone they can help. Or tell how a person like them did something wonderfully compassionate. Make them feel helpful.

Then make it as easy as possible for them to act on that. Thank them – with lots of emotion – and reinforce the message.

And repeat.

Say it again!

repeating daisies


Today I found myself hunting for an idea I’d seen for a lapsed donor appeal. My search took me to some letters I’d written years ago.

I wrote the letters at my former organization. With a few years’ distance, I definitely found a few things I’d change. But one thing struck me – how consistent the messages were in every letter, over the years.

I might have shared a new story or added something timely. But the basic message about what donors’ gifts would do – why they should give – was pretty much the same over 7 years.

We had a very loyal donor base – with higher than 70% retention. The message I used was the message that resonated for them. You might think after years of reading it (in slightly different form), they’d tire of it. But as my youngest son used to say, “A little bit, but not so much”.

I’m not bragging. I had the advantage of an executive director who had been there forever. He knew many of our donors personally. So it was easier to get a grasp on a useful persona.

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s a lesson we sometimes ignore. We’ve heard it all before. We’ve written it all before. Can’t I please get a little creative here? Think carefully before you indulge that desire.

Jeff Brooks puts it well in this post:


In fact, repetition is one of the core traits of successful fundraising.

You keep asking again and again.

You keep asking for the same thing every time.

Within one message, you repeat the same ask several times.

Yes, it can get boring. But it’s going to take your donors a lot longer to get bored than it takes you. You read all the repetitions, paying full attention. Your donors miss most of your attempts to tell them the message, and those they do read, they read quickly, with half their mind thinking about other things.

So find the messaging that works. And dismiss your own boredom. Because we’re not our donors, and no matter how great your writing is, they’re not hanging on your every word.

(Also read what Jeff has to say here. And follow his link to Copyblogger here. As always, great stuff!)

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