The Weekend Briefing

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Marge would place the stack of thank-you letters to be signed on the top left corner of my desk.  Two or three times a year she would smile and say, “Our friend sent us another big gift again.”
I knew exactly what she meant. We had a donor who, a few times a year, would send us a gift of $2. When the gifts started, we were certain this donor was making a negative comment. Who sends $2?
Then we started to imagine, maybe our donor is giving the same gift to 57 other causes? It wouldn’t be hard to accumulate that many gift appeals, that’s for sure.
Or maybe $2 was all this donor could afford? Didn’t matter. He received a personalized, hand-signed letter of thanks with a handwritten note at the bottom right-hand corner of the page, just like every other donor did.
Because you never know.
You never know when that “fill-in visit” you schedule for your Florida trip turns out to be a mega-prospect.
You never know when you’re going to receive an enthusiastic “Yes, we would be delighted to make that gift!”
You never know when a never-donor is going to leave you a million dollars in her will.
We never know. And yet we do know. All those things happen.
When Marge would set the stack of letters on my desk and point out “Mr. $2 Donor,” either she or I would grin and say, “We’re in his will. We just know it!”
Being respectful of every gift is the right thing to do but it’s also the smart thing to do. If we WERE in Mr. $2’s will but he felt our disdain for his occasional gifts, would we remain in his will? Doubtful at best.
Prospect research and donor analytics is all about looking for the most likely prospective donors and where we should best allocate our scarce time. I get it.
But if we don’t create space for the mustard seed, we preclude any opportunity for the magic of philanthropy to take place.
That mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, grows into the largest of plants. “O, that couple were felt poorly treated by the last president. We should forget about them.” Really? Did they tell the organization they didn’t believe in the mission any longer? Or was it that someone made them feel small? That’s about making amends. Happens all the time in relationships.
Intentionally leave a little space, in your trips, your schedule of visits, your communications, for serendipity. For luck. For magic to happen.
Give it a chance.
I was reading something last week about best practice in donor communication and thought, “What IS the best donor communication?”
Two things. May surprise you. Not so much the effort to acquire the donor or get the gift.
The effort to acknowledge the gift and make the donor feel appreciated.
The thank-you letter, and the handwritten note.  Those are the two most impactful components of donor communication. By a mile.
Most donors expect to be disappointed in how they are thanked for their gift. It’s true. If your donors are delighted with the way their gifts are acknowledged, I salute you. The majority of donors don’t feel that way.
Let’s shock them.
The standard thank-you letter is the most challenging letter you’ll write all year. Of course you need a fresh letter each year, but how can you say thank you in a new, sincere way?
Tell a story. Just like you did in the appeal letter. A more concise story, to be sure, but one that tells the donor how their gift will be used and the impact the gift will have. Save room for that personal note at the bottom, starting with the donor’s name. 5-6 words is all!  Just to let the donor know you stopped for a moment to think about them and to say thanks.
And watch your donor retention grow.
Have you ever received a handwritten note in the mail? On a notecard or smaller sized letterhead? With a handwritten envelope and a live stamp?
It is always the first piece of mail to be opened. It is never tossed out immediately but is usually shown to someone.  “Look, how nice is this?!”
The effort you make to reach out, to say something kind, the time you gave to writing the note, are remembered for a very long time.
In my book, the handwritten note is by far the most impactful donor communication there is.
Trust me on this. If you want to transform your work, write two handwritten notes a day, five days a week, for the balance of 2020.
You will be astounded by the results. I promise you.
Have a good week, my friends.
Rob Cummings coaches gift officers, consults on capital campaigns and helps nonprofit organizations build strong, sustainable fundraising programs. You can reach him at

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