3. The Honor of Thanking Donors

gratitude podcast
the intentional fundraiser podcast


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About this episode

Gratitude. Here we are at the end of December. How crazy is that? This year is flying by!

We just celebrated Thanksgiving here in the U.S. not long ago.

You’ve likely have been giving thanks for the joy and blessings in your life through your own traditions. You’ve gathered with family and friends (maybe in-person, maybe via Zoom). And you’ve likely eaten way more incredible food than you intended! I confess I did. 😊

While the American Thanksgiving with some version of its Norman Rockwell-esque turkey dinner may be how you celebrate the holiday - people all around the world gather to give thanks each Autumn. Like us in North America, some nations even declare it an official holiday. Traditions and histories may differ from country to country, but gratitude and celebration are universal values. 



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You may have your own traditions and practices at your nonprofit organization to celebrate thankfulness and gratitude for your donors. You’ve hopefully held or are planning a thank-a-thon. Or you’re systematically calling to thank your most generous and most loyal supporters.  

  • You’ve reminded them that they are not just giving money but truly changing lives. 
  • You’ve conveyed how grateful you really are for them, strategically using some of Dr. Jen Shang’s identity-based nine moral adjectives: kind, caring, compassionate, helpful, friendly, fair, hard-working, generous, and honest.
  • Of course, Jen is co-founder of the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy and the world’s ONLY Philanthropic Psychologist.
  • She purports, using these nine moral adjectives as we thank our donors, deeply connects with the donor’s identity of self – how they want to show up in the world. How they create congruence with who they say they are – and the actions they take in alignment with that identity. In our case, giving is the action congruent with kind, caring, generous, compassionate…
  • Perhaps some of your Board Members or Development Committee Members joined in the gratitude fun by making calls. Whether you talked with supporters LIVE on the phone or left a warm, sincere voicemail, or even sent a handwritten note or text – you did it!! BRAVO! 

I TRULY want to congratulate you on whatever actions you took to thank your donors and share the impact of their giving. While every nonprofit organization presumably aspires to meaningfully thank supporters, not every organization does. They just don’t! 

I’m currently in a $5,000 pledge with one organization, to whom I’ve contributed more than $20,000 in lifetime giving. I’m a monthly donor to nearly a dozen other organizations and have been for five or more consecutive years now. And I give several more modest gifts to other organizations every year. I don’t consider myself a major donor. But I do consider myself a loyal donor to many. 

  • So far this holiday season, I’ve not received any thank-you calls. 
  • No handwritten notes or holiday cards yet. 
  • I did receive one really great personalized thank-you video message from an ED earlier in the Fall. She sent the gratitude video within an hour of me giving an online gift to her great arts organization.
  • Aside from that, it’s generally been a little disappointing. Not that I gave for the recognition, but as a fundraising professional, I know the importance of gratitude. Even so, I get it. Fundraising can be a pressure cooker. 

Whether it’s because of time constraints, lack of resources, a mindset issue, or simply lacking an organizational culture of philanthropy. For a great majority of nonprofit organizations, expressing effective gratitude just does not happen. And donor retention rates reflect it!

Let’s talk about gratitude and why it’s important to your fundraising success and sustainability. Dare I say, it may be THE MOST important tool in your fundraising success and sustainability toolkit. 


JANUARY 2020 Article, “Thank you calls show no impact on giving.”

Now, I know there are some gratitude nay-sayers. I, too, read the January 2020 article by Senior Editor Dan Parks in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The article’s headline read, “Thank you calls show no impact on giving.” 

I was keynoting the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference in San Diego this Fall and heard another speaker reference this article. So, it’s still a conversation, nearly two years after it was published.

If you read the article yourself, you’ll recall he reveals the findings of a study conducted by Anya Samek, a behavioral economist at the University of Southern California, and Chuck Longfield, the former Chief Scientist for Blackbaud (he’s retired since the article was published in early 2020).

The study involved 70 public television stations and one large national nonprofit that provided information on a half-million donors who made their first contribution to these organizations sometime between 2011 and 2016. 

The researchers randomly assigned some of the donors to get calls thanking them for their gifts and discussing impact (Group A). The remainder of the donors didn’t get calls (Group B). 

The results: Donor responses were monitored between 1 and 5 years after the thank-you calls were made. The research found Group A thank you calls made no impact on future giving, regardless of the amount of the initial gift. The gift renewals rates were the same between those who received a thank-you call and Group B - those who did NOT receive a thank-you call. 

On the surface, this is really disheartening news! How could our gratitude cause NOT make a difference? 

This is a great example of how you CANNOT rely on headlines or simply skim articles – or draw conclusions and make decisions based on surface information. In this case…. Quantitative data on A/B testing on the correlation between thank-you calls and donor retention.

If you dig deeper into the research findings, you’ll find clues about the qualitative determinants that throw a fair amount of shade on the research conclusions. Now, I am not a researcher. But I have been a fundraiser for more than 20 years, trained and led teams to raise more than a half-BILLION dollars, including a $27.1M gift. So what I lack in scientific acumen, I like to think I make-up in street-cred. And even Anya Samek, one of the researchers in this study, said, “I report what I see. We have to discuss the data.”

So what are some of the qualitative determinants of an effective gratitude call? And what are the attributes of a QUALITY thank-you call?


The 1st Qualitative determinant is that Callers must have an authentic passion and connection to the organization. Whether they be staff or volunteer callers – usually some combination of both. The person smiling and dialing has to care about the cause and know the impact donors make when they contribute. They should have a story or two they can tell. Ideally, they’ve witnessed the mission at work first-hand. They should be able to answer basic questions about the organization, the current needs, and challenges of those your mission serves. And now, how you’ve been navigating the pandemic. 

The author of the Chronicle article makes the statement, “Given that it costs about $1 per call to outsource the (thank you call) task, financially stretched nonprofits need to know whether the call helps.”


If your gratitude is a task to be outsourced to a third-party phone bank …..

If your in-house or volunteer callers approach thanking donors as a check-box to-do assignment….

If any of the above clearly is “reading” from a script…. Rather than speaking from the heart informed by a few bullet points…..

DON’T EVEN BOTHER. You’ll undoubtedly get the same results this study reported – or worse.

Would you consider outsourcing thank you calls or notes to people in your personal life? 

  • Maybe for the gifts you received at your wedding? 
  • What about your birthday gifts? 
  • How about your Christmas or Hannukah gifts – want to outsource those thank you notes and calls? 

“Dear Grandma, Tammy really enjoyed the new cappuccino machine you gave her for her birthday. Thanks for being so incredibly thoughtful. I’m sure she’s frothing up a storm right now. Gratefully, all of us in the Zonker Family.”

I know I sound ridiculous. But so is outsourcing thank you calls and magically expecting to build authentic relationships with your donors. Relationships that retain your donors and upgrade gift values over time. Relationships that connect and compel donors to continue giving long after you’re gone. 

You can tell I get a little fired up on this issue. I hope you do too!


The second Qualitative Determinant of an effective gratitude call is the relationship or perceived status of the caller. Best case, the caller is someone the donor already knows and has a great relationship with. 

If that’s not possible, you can assign calls to willing callers. The larger the gift amount or lifetime giving total or number of years of consecutive giving (you define the criteria), the higher-up in the organization the caller should be. A Board Member, your Executive Director or CEO, your Chief Philanthropy Officer. You’re aiming for the donor to feel special. To be seen and deeply appreciated. 

The third determinant of an effective gratitude call is thanking the donor for something specific.  

In recent years, behavioral scientists and researchers have been making connections between the internal experience of gratitude and the external practice of altruism. They’ve identified a correlation between being meaningfully thanked and increased selfless concern about the well-being of others.

To go a step further, the research indicates that being thanked for a specific action or result has a deeper and longer-lasting impact than a general “thanks for all you do” gratitude statement.

And it makes sense. We want to be “seen” for our unique identity, our passion, and specific acts of kindness. We’re back to the nine moral adjectives that Dr. Jen Shang introduced to use, aren’t we? Our identity is kind, caring, compassionate, helpful, friendly, fair, hard-working, generous, and honest people. 

So an effective gratitude call or even voicemail would mention something specific about the donor and the difference they make. I remember calling a Board Member at The Children’s Center in Detroit, where I previously served as Chief Philanthropy Officer for nine years. 

His name was Les. Les was a retired University Professor, a widower, with grown children who lived out-of-state. Despite chronic health issues, Les always showed up. Board meetings. Fundraising Events. Wherever he was needed. He would even give a significantly more elderly board member round-trip transportation to board meetings and key events. And, of course, every single year, he took pride in giving a financial gift that was personally significant to him. He always made a point of handing it to me, looking me in the eye, and saying he wished it could be more. Mind you, he was very generous.

My call went something like this, “Les, I’m calling to thank you.” He’d chuckle and say, “Thank me? For what?” 

“How much time do you have” I joked. “I’m thanking you for the care and compassion you show for our children and families. You really do have a heart for them. You support them with your generous contributions throughout the year, but you also support them (and us) with your presence. 

You attend every fundraising event. It’s always a delight to look up and see you passing through registration with your navy pin-striped suit and a big smile. 

You almost never miss a board meeting. 

You always take my calls, 

and we can always count on you to ask the tough questions. 

The questions that make us a better, stronger, more accountable organization. 

That really makes you special in my book, Les!

He would humbly deflect my acknowledgment, but I know it was meaningful to him. Would it have been easier and faster to say, “Thanks for all you do, Les?” Yes, of course, but it wouldn’t have created the same feeling. 

And to tell you the truth, it did me as much good to reflect on all the ways Les gives – as it did for him to be thanked for all the ways he gave.

Les passed more than a year ago. I’m grateful that we didn’t miss an opportunity to tell him how special he was to us. And to acknowledge his incredible humanity. There’s no appropriate shortcut for that. 

Let’s talk about how to thank donors during a pandemic.

What are the most effective ways to thank donors during times of crisis? 

Coronavirus, Delta variant, Omicron variant….and the predicted long line of variants to come. As the U.S. CDC (Center for Disease Control) tells us, this pandemic is not over. 

As if leading a nonprofit organization and raising money wasn’t challenging enough… it looks like there will be no “easy button” on the horizon for this pandemic. 

That’s okay. We didn’t sign-up for easy street. We signed up to change and save lives. Here are the best guidelines for fundraising success and retaining donors in these unpredictable times: 

You guessed it - #1 thank donors promptly, sincerely, and accurately!

Promptly typically means within 48 hours. Accurately means right name or names, salutation, address, gift amount, restriction designations if the gift is restricted. Warm, friendly, donor-centric, using some of those nine moral adjectives I keep talking about. Not a transactional IRS gift receipt – although it serves that purpose as well. 

#2 Report back on the impact of the donor’s gift. What progress is being made? You likely made an ask for an urgent need in your year-end appeal. Report back in a week or two. Share a success story or milestone success micro-story. 

If you know gift acknowledgment letter processing is delayed (beyond your typical 48 hours) due to hybrid or remote work schedules, explain that honestly and sincerely in the letter. Consider getting permission from your donor to email their gift acknowledgment letter versus relying on the postal service. This will expedite getting that letter into the donor’s hands.

Insert a well-timed thank you phone call between the time the gift is made online or entered into the database (aka your daily gift report) and when the letter gets mailed to the donor.

#3 Over-communicate with vulnerability. When people don’t hear from you, they often think the worst because we humans are wired for a negative bias. Even if you don’t have all the answers, let your supports know where your organization stands. 

Let them know how you’ve adapted to continue providing much-needed services. Let them know if you’re unable to offer some services, programs, performances…. Whatever the case may be. And let them know your plans for recovery and restoration of service provision – with their continued support. I was on a conference panel with my friend Clay Buck recently, and he referenced fundraising copywriter and donor communications expert Lisa Sargent. When you don’t have all the answers, she says, “Say the bravest and truest thing that you can.”

#4 Keep donors at the center of your attention. Our donors are experiencing a pandemic too. Be sensitive to what may be going on in their lives, and yet many keep giving to you. Be understanding if their gift value decreased, or for some… even lapsed. Keep in touch with them anyway. It sends a clear message, “You are more than a contribution to us. We value you as a person/couple/family.” And believe me, when they bounce back financially, they will remember which nonprofits stayed in touch and showed that they cared about them – beyond their giving.

As Jen Shang says, “Love your donors as people, not just as a source of contributions.”

I want to close today’s podcast with a story that inspired me. 

I was doing my weekly grocery shopping, and my cart was full. 

We do a lot of cooking and rarely eat out.

I’m placing my items on the conveyer belt… fruits and vegetables, eggs, dry pasta, Paw Patrol yogurt….

I notice the older gentleman bagging my groceries. I wondered if this was a second or third career for him… something to keep him occupied a few hours a week in his retirement, to put a little extra cash in his pocket.

He’s taking exceptionally great care to bag like items together. To ensure fragile items are protected. 

I thanked him for the obvious care was taking… and how I really appreciate him! What he said nearly made me cry. 

He said it’s my pleasure. It’s an honor to bag up the food you’ll prepare for your family. I can just picture you around the table, eating and celebrating the holidays. 

WOW. It moves me now just thinking about him. 

What if we all took on that mindset. What if taking a “task” like thanking donors felt like an honor. “it’s an honor to thank you for generously giving your hard-earned money to make a difference for someone you may never even meet. There are a lot of things you could do with your money, and you chose to change a life. Thank YOU!”


Subscribe to this podcast

Also, if you haven’t done so already, subscribe to the podcast. I’m adding a bunch of bonus episodes to the feed and, if you’re not following, there’s a good chance you’ll miss out. Subscribe now!



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