Sincere and Effective Thank You Notes, Make Your Donors, Staff Members, Colleagues and Volunteers Smile

I recently read this article and loved it. The article offers great advice for thanking colleagues and staff members.

Below, I’ve borrowed and converted that advice (and added some additional thoughts) for writing the perfect thank you note to donors, board members and volunteers.

1. Make it personal. The thank you note is one more opportunity for starting or deepening a relationship. Research conducted by Penelope Burke and replicated by Blackbaud tells us that the most effective way to thank donors is by picking up the phone and calling. More effective than the handwritten note, which is next in line for personalization.

Whether you call, write or email, make sure your message includes most of the elements below.

2. Be specific. You know this is true. It feels nice when someone says thanks for a good job. It feels even better when they say, “Thanks, Sally, for navigating that tough conversation during the development committee meeting. You did it with integrity and still kept us on track.”

Thanking a donor should also be specific. “Thank you, Tom, for your generous gift of $15,000 to help your children achieve their full potential. The children you support will gain the skills they need to start kindergarten prepared and excited to learn.”

3. Offer praise. That’s what I tried to do with the example above. Make the donor and/or volunteer the hero. “You insights turned the meeting around.” “Your service inspires everyone around you to be a little bit better.” “Your idea jump started the brainstorming process. The ideas that flowed will make us stronger and more focused in 2018.”

4. Authenticity and sincerity count. Make sure you’re being truthful and are genuinely grateful. Have a smile on your face while you speak or write. You are sure to convey it.
5. Say something about the future. “Our plans for the new fiscal year are shaping up. We’d love to discuss them with you, get your insights. Over the next, few months we’re holding several “idea salons” (vision discussions, strategic plan reviews, program demonstrations). Please look for your invitation. We welcome your creativity (business savvy, straight talk).” Say what’s true.

If you’d like a resource for vision discussions and/or salons contact us:

6. Wish them well. “Until we next meet, I wish you all the best.” “Good luck with this year’s fishing trip.” “Please give Harry and your children my best.”

7. Consider including a small gift. “One of the children you support made this bookmark. I know how much you love to read. I hope you enjoy this token of our appreciation.” “We received this lovely note from one of our parents. I thought you would enjoy reading about the difference you are making from a parent’s point of view.”

8. Use the words “you” and “your” as often as possible. Research tells us that we love hearing our names and the words “you” and “your.” Sprinkle liberally.

Your January Major and Leadership Gifts To-Do List: 8 Steps to Take Now!

Perhaps you’ve just closed your fiscal year and this is the beginning of the New Year. Maybe you’re mid-way through. In either case, January presents opportunities for taking a hard look and making strategic changes in your major and leadership gifts program. Here are eight steps you can take over the course of January that will help make 2017 your best year ever.

1. Crunch Those Numbers
• First, of course, you are measuring your progress against goals.
• Then go deeper. What is working and why?
• Finally, look for opportunities disguised as problems. For example, if your realized table of gifts indicates poor performance at the $1,000 level but you’re doing great at $500, make a plan for inspiring all of those $500 donors to make a second gift to reach $1,000. Share the impact that a $1,000 investment brings. Ask a great donor to offer a challenge. Turn that problem into a success-opportunity.
• Don’t forget your e-scores. Which of your engagement activities are resulting in the most new gifts, donor retention and upgrades? Do more of those in the coming year, and drop or tweak the non-performers.

2. Steward Your 2016 Donors (Again)
• Start at the top of your realized table of gifts. What did you do in 2016 to make that donor say “WOW?” When did you do it?
• What creative and personalized impact experience and/or communication did you share and when?
• If it has been more than six months since you’ve provided an impact/outcome experience or communication, get going, starting from the top of the pyramid and moving down.
• Consider making February your stewardship month and getting everyone (board members, peers, and mission staff) involved. 28 days, 28 calls and visits per person. Celebrate on the last day.

3. Refresh Your Plan (or write your first plan)
• We know that having a sound development plan tops most everything else in terms of results. Visits without a plan are better than no visits, but with a plan, you are on your way to great year. Find more on planning here.
• Make sure your plan includes your realized table of gifts and a refreshed projected table of gifts. These are two old fashioned (yes) but indispensable tools. Everything old is tired. Just saying.

4. Solicit All Board Members Who Have Yet to Make Their Gift (If this is the beginning of your fiscal year, you want them on board EARLY. If this is mid-year, they need to give now, modeling the behavior you seek from others)
• Peer-to-peer is best. Who are your best givers, best solicitors? Ask them to ask the rest of the board. Not via email. Call or visit. Make it personal. Ask for an increased gift. “Please join me with an investment of…”
• If you solicit them by email or snail mail, how will they learn to solicit others in a warm, personal manner?

5. Maximize Your Upcoming Events
• Spring event season is only months away. What is your “turn-out” strategy? How are you ensuring high donor retention by getting all who came in the last two years to return? What is your donor acquisition plan? What strategic initiatives or “moves” are you planning for those in attendance? Who is responsible for getting your ED or key volunteers around the room, making introductions, asking strategic questions, and sharing key points?
• Most important, what is your follow-up plan? Not just getting the thank you notes out. What are you doing to engage attendees and those who declined post the event?

For more on making data-driven event decisions, check out this blog post and webinar.

6. Spend Time Planning Your Calendar
• Whom do you need to visit over the next three to six months? Where are they? What alternative dates can you offer so that you are sure to get on their calendars?
• What days are you crossing off for donor visits each month?
• What days are you setting aside for developing donor strategies?
• What time are you marking each week for making appointments and follow-up calls?

7. Take Care of You
• Your professional development, morale, and health matter. Build in recovery time. Be sure to take the vacation days that your organization offers.
• Consider crossing off one day a month as an “admin” day for catching up on things, reading the articles you were saving, organizing, and strategic thinking.

8. Celebrate
• Philanthropy is a joyful experience. Giving, and helping others do the same, adds to the quality of our lives and the lives we touch with our generosity. It wouldn’t happen for your organization without you and your team.
• Say thank you. Celebrate. Feel good about all you are doing to make your community, country, and our shared world a better place. For more reinforcement, read this great post from Lynne Wester.

4 Steps You Can Take NOW to Strengthen Major Donor Engagement

Major Donor Engagement

Strategic engagement leads to increased investment. We all know this. Yet, we often offer a too small selection of ways to engage our major donors and potential donors.

  1. Help us fundraise
  2. Attend an event (fundraising, alumni, cultivation, stewardship luncheon)
  3. Take a tour
  4. Join our board (or a committee)
  5. Meet with me

That’s often it.

We shoehorn our donors into one of these five boxes. Some fit nicely, but for others, none of the above lights a fire. Even worse, they fail to move the potential donor closer to an inspired, joyful and generous, “Yes.”

Our goal, however, is to tap into all of our donors’ personal capital – human, intellectual, network, and financial. We want them to be “All In.” Women demand it. Men respond to it. Millennials love it. Gen Xers and Boomers, like most men, give more even though they say they don’t have time or don’t need it. People of color like being part of a larger group who are also involved.

It doesn’t matter who you are. Asking for more than money and contacts makes one feel valued. When we tailor that engagement to interests and skill sets, we have a winning formula.

Step One: Assess your current major donor engagement options.

Involvement and engagement are not the same. A major donor engagement opportunity is interactive, two-way, flexible, taps into emotions, intellect, and skills and requires ACTION. A tour, for example, can be either involvement or wonderful engagement. You can walk people through, talk at them, answer questions. OR, you can open by asking the major donors a question taking involvement up a level to engagement.

“You are going to see a lot of our work first hand over the next hour. At the end of the tour, we’d like to discuss your responses and recommendations. What did you find most compelling? What were your impressions of our effectiveness? What are some of your takeaways?

In addition, it is sustainable by your office. It isn’t busy work but rather MEANINGFUL AND PRODUCTIVE. For example, if every time that certain committee meets you are scratching your head about what to do with them, this is not a good major donor engagement activity. They know it isn’t important and you know it.

Finally, a good suite of major donor engagement options has variety. Some need to be highly personal like hosting a small “consultation” gathering in one’s home with the CEO and other major donors. Others should be longer term like heading a task force or serving on a committee.

Bring your team together. Define engagement so everyone understands the difference between involvement and engagement. Provide easels, flip charts and markers. Stand around each flip chart in groups of five or six. Then, ask which of our current major donor engagement opportunities meet the criteria. Write them all down on the first page of the flip chart. Which almost meet them and could if we just tweaked them (like the tour example above)? That’s page two. For page three, ask which don’t even come close and we should stop doing them. Have the teams report; discuss why they put some opportunities on one page or the other. Come to agreement.

Step Two: Brainstorm New Major Donor Engagement Opportunities

Using the same brainstorming technique, think about what you would like to add. Start by telling your team to remove constraints from their minds. Don’t start with, “we tried that and it didn’t work,” or “we can’t afford that.” Instead, dream big. Report out and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of some of the new ideas. Make sure they meet the criteria.

Karen Blog SmartArt - August 2016

Step Three: Create your new suite of major donor engagement opportunities

Here is one way to organization the brainstorming results:

High Impact

  • Can be tailored to the needs and desires of the major donor
  • Highly interactive and steeped in mission
  • Taps into intellect and skills
  • Meaningful and productive
  • Sustainable

Harder to Maintain or Get Started: Requires budget approval, or more help from outside your office, coordination and time

High Impact

  • Can be tailored to the needs and desires of the major donor
  • Highly interactive and steeped in mission
  • Taps into intellect and skills
  • Meaningful and productive
  • Sustainable

Easy to Implement:  Already doing it well or only needs minor tweaking, easy to add

Lower Impact

  • Isn’t mission infused and hard to do so
  • Mostly presentation, no room for conversation
  • Not really needed by staff, more on the “busy work” side

Harder to Maintain or Get Started: Requires budget approval, or more help from outside your office, coordination and time

Lower Impact

  • Isn’t mission infused and hard to do so
  • Mostly presentation, no room for conversation
  • Not really needed by staff, more on the “busy work” side

Easy to Implement: Already doing it well or only needs minor tweaking, easy to add

Step Four: Take Action

  1. Act on High Impact and Easy to Implement
  2. Plan for High Impact Harder to Implement
  3. Improve the Lower Impact Easy to Implement or drop
  4. Drop Lower Impact Harder to Implement

December Major Gift Countdown for Success

December-2015-Calendar-Images-3 (002) You are so busy! December is packed with work and personal obligations. The key? Set priorities.

  1. This week, (December 1-4), list every $1,000+ donor and prospective donor yet to make a gift. Moving from the top down, assign someone to make a personal call. At the very top of the list, if possible, invite for coffee.  Try not to rely on email. Pick up the phone! If $1,000 is too low because you have too many donors at the level, go to $2,500 or $5,000. If $1,000 is too high, start at $250 or $500. Whatever your situation, work the top of your pyramid.
  2. Next week, (December 7-11), list every donor who gave you $1,000+ in the last six months. If you’re a small shop, Every $1,000+ gift n 2015. Big shop with too many donors at that level, move up the pyramid and/or make the time frame shorter. Call. Say thank you again. Specify the difference he, she, the family, the foundation, the company made.  Get help with these calls. Everyone on the team can make a call a day. Mission staff and board members can call. Students, clients. “I hope you received our holiday card. Just wanted to add my voice. We appreciate all you’ve done to help (the people or cause you serve). Your investments have made a significant difference. Thank you.”
  3. Week three, (December 14-17), finish your calls and cards by Thursday. If you’re behind, save some to wish a Happy New Year the first week of January.
  4. Week three, (December 14-17), review the data you want collected for January assessment and planning. Ouch. It’s been all fun up until now. Closing and thanking. But we have to hit the ground running January 4. At a minimum:
    • Retention rates for all $1,000+ (ideally for all gifts of every size). New donors, donors giving for 2-4 years, donors giving 5 plus years. If you’re able, do it by giving program — monthly donors, direct mail, phone, board solicitations and so forth.
    • Upgrade rates. Percentage of donors who were asked to increase and said yes. Percentage who upgraded without a specific request.
    • Yes rates. Percentage of yeses to requests; percentage of yeses to 85% or more of the amount requested at the $1,000+ levels.
    • Progress against goals. How are you doing?
    • Check out this free recorded webinar on metrics.
Throughout the month, remember to take care of yourself. Try to find time to exercise, even if it’s only a quick walk at lunch time, or walking during phone calls. Keep in mind that office and donor holiday parties are working events. Either don’t drink or nurse a glass. Covey QuoteAre you good at power napping? Put your feet up above your heart (on a desk for example). Close your eyes for 20 minutes before an event.
And say, “No thank you.” It’s okay. No matter the request or requestor. You are a December major gift priority. For more on saying no, check out this blog post.

Don’t Tell The Story Before You’ve Heard It

imagesDuring a recent client visit I was talking to the VP for Advancement about major gift strategy and the importance of truly understanding donor motivations and values.  She told me that when she meets with major donor prospects she tries to ask as many questions as she can, and in her words: “I try not to tell the story before I’ve heard it.”  What a great phrase!  So many times in an effort to come up with an effective cultivation strategy we make all kinds of assumptions and speculations about our donors.  Does any of the below sound familiar?

“Our research shows that she gives to the local Boys and Girls Club.  Children must be her biggest cause and we don’t work with children so she’s not a good prospect for us.”

“He’s the CEO of his own manufacturing company so he’ll probably want to work on the finance committee.”

“She created an endowed scholarship for her university.  Scholarships aren’t our main priority but it seems like that is what she likes to do.”

The reality is that in each of this cases, based on the information provided, we know very little about our donors in terms of their values, giving preferences, and how they might wish to engage and give to our own institution.  About ten years ago if you were able to look at my own giving history you’d see that I gave to quite a few organizations that helped people with disabilities.  Is this my main philanthropic priority?  Not really.  Did I give to those cause because a friend asked me to and it was his philanthropic priority?  Yes.

The only way to truly know what a donor’s priorities are, what their values are, and what their priorities are within your own institution is to ask the donor directly.

“I know that you are an ardent supporter of the Boys and Girls Club.  Are children a philanthropic priority for you?  What are your other priorities?”

“With your business background we’d love to have you involved with our finance committee but tell us, how do you best like to be engaged with the organizations you work with?  What was your best volunteer experience and why?”

“What was your motivation in donating an endowed scholarship to your university?”

Asking strategic questions will give you the most accurate information from which to design an effective cultivation strategy.  It will also result in a far more satisfying experience for your potential donor.  Finally, asking strategic questions will also set a tone of open dialogue and information sharing.

If you find that you are speculating and filling in information that is based on anything other than what you’ve heard directly from the donor, stop, realize that you don’t truly know the answer to the question you are asking, and make a point of asking it the next time you meet with your potential donor.  The results will be a far more interesting story than the one you’ve made up in your head.


A Relationship Lesson from Lemurs

Last month was my friend Chris’ birthday. Chris has a love of lemurs and his wife started a campaign on to give him a day trip to a lemur center.  I don’t particularly share Chris’ fascination with lemurs andlemurs it wouldn’t be my choice of birthday of celebrations, but I contributed. In fact, as I look back, I realize that I have given several gifts in the past few months to a variety of things that my friends were raising money for.

Through sites like GoFundMe and Kickstarter, I had supported friends in the achievement of things that were important to them, both professionally and personally, but none of them were tied to a not-for-profit organization. I won’t get a tax write-off for these gifts and I don’t care, because I was giving purely because I believed in their individual causes or dreams, the achievement of something special for people that are special to me.

Here at the Osborne Group, we often talk about the “Rights”. Having the RIGHT person ask for the RIGHT amount of money for the RIGHT purpose at the RIGHT time. My experience over the past few months has left me contemplating one of those rights in particular, and that is the RIGHT person.

I hear from a lot of development professionals that are frustrated by the lack of response from current and prospective donors. We’ve all been there, donors that won’t return phone calls or reply to emails (even ones that don’t ask for money) or asks that we felt incredibly prepared for, but just fell flat. It can feel like you’re continuously running into a brick wall when trying to engage people who seem to be interested and supportive of your cause, but are consistently unresponsive.

As you dissect the mystery of why you can’t seem to move forward with a prospect, I encourage you to take a lesson from the lemurs. Instead of focusing on HOW you are reaching out or WHAT you are trying to engage them in, take a moment to focus on the WHO. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • As you conduct research on prospects, employ peer screening with board members, staff and volunteers to find out potential connections and relationships
  • Utilize those connections when making your donor engagement plans to determine the best roles for everyone to play in the process
  • If there are several people connected to the same prospect, take a team approach – determine each person’s strengths and deploy them when most appropriate
  • The WHO isn’t just about making the ask, but is also about making sure the RIGHT people are involved in engaging prospects and delivering personal, high-impact stewardship
  • When in doubt, ask someone who knows. Don’t try to guess what a prospect wants or why they might be unresponsive, ask for advice from people who know them. Even board members or volunteers that are reluctant to get involved with engaging or asking a prospect directly will usually be happy to offer up advice on how to best move forward.

Whether you’re running a Friends Asking Friends campaign online or developing a major gift prospect, the WHO is a critical component of success. While increased personal fundraising might be seen as more competition for dollars, let’s instead look at it as a learning opportunity to figure how we best take their example to harness the power of relationships in our own endeavors.

The Foundation Screening List

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 11.24.46 AMI want to talk briefly about an important but underutilized development tool: the foundation screening list.  When we are first beginning our development careers everything we learn about foundations implies that they are pure meritocracies.  Have a good organization with a good project, write a good proposal and you’ll have as good a shot at getting funding as anyone else.  And to some extent this is true.  If you aren’t a well run organization and you don’t have a good project you probably won’t get funding.  But the reality is that you will be competing against many other meritorious organizations and not everyone one will get funded.  So, how do you stand out from the crowd?

The reality is the business of successful foundation funding is very much a “who you know” business.  I’m not saying that there is any sort of cronyism involved.  But I am saying that your ideas are more likely to be heard if you know the decision makers involved and have had a chance to talk over your work in detail.  I am saying that knowing trustees counts for a lot more than knowing program officers.  And I am saying that trustees and program officers knowing you and believing in your leadership and your ability to deliver on the promises of your proposal is critical.

So, a really valuable exercise for any organization is to know who you know on foundation boards and staffs.  How do we find this out?  The foundation screening list.

The foundation screening list is a packet of foundations (up to 25) likely to fund your organization based on their stated mission and its relevance to yours.  Each foundation gets it own page and on each page, triple or quadruple spaced, you’ll list every trustee and program officer.  If it is a large foundation then just list the relevant program officer.  You can see a sample layout here.

Now, what do we do with foundation screening list once we have one?  Sit down with your staff, your board and other volunteers, friends and anyone else willing to listen to you.  Ask them to flip through the list and see if they know anyone.  Ask them to write in the margins who they know and any important information about them.  Ask them if there is any foundation or anyone not on the list that they would be willing to contact.

Ask them if they’d be willing to help set up a meeting with anyone they know.

Over time you should get a pretty good catalog of who knows who and hopefully have people setting up meetings on your behalf.  Record everything in your database.

Major Gift Lessons From My Grandsons

roundcube.intermediaI’ve had the privilege of speaking all over the world to groups as large as 900. Certainly, my adrenaline would pump. But never once did I feel nervous or worried. That is until my grandson asked me to speak to his second grade class.

“Grammie,” he asked, his face in a serious frown, “do you want me to give you some advice?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

“First, be sure to tell stories.” He gave me an encouraging nod. “You’re good at that.”

Storytelling, as you know, is at the heart of major gift work. Stories that invite questions, engagement and action. As gift officers, we all know how important this is. But are we making it easy for our board members, top donors, champions and influencers to tell our story? One way to make it easier is to have short videos available, under three or four minutes. Your volunteers can have them on their tablets and mobile devices. Make sure they know where to find them on your website. Professional videos like this one works well.

But amateur video is also effective. YouTube has provided us with a high tolerance for amateur video. Use your smart phone to capture your program staff at work or recipients sharing the change in their lives. And don’t forget the importance of making your fiscal story come alive.

The purpose of the story is to invite strategic conversations, not to pitch and sell. Which leads me to his next piece of good advice.

“Be sure to ask us lots of questions. Kids like that.”

We talk a lot about listening and asking questions but are they generative and/or strategic? Have you asked your donors some of these powerful questions? The first three are from Michelle Clarke. They work well at a vision meeting, strategic planning session, high-level donor meeting after your CEO has shared his or her BIG IDEAS.
1. What had real meaning for you from what you’ve heard? What surprised you? What challenged you?

2. What’s missing from this picture so far? What is it we’re not seeing? About what do we need more clarity?

3. What’s been your major learning, insight or discovery so far?

The next few questions, probe for more understanding about your donor’s motivations and values.

1. What do you expect from the charitable organizations in which you are involved?

2. What do you value most about your relationships with the organizations and institutions you support?

3. What values underpin your philanthropic choices?

If you would like a list of strategic and generative donor questions (updated for 2015) and tailored for your type of organization, contact me at

His third piece of advice was, “Don’t embarrass me.” Enough said!

I have a second grandson, aged three. He also knows something about major gift work. We were opening presents this Christmas. Trucks, helicopters, building blocks, and Thomas the Tank Engine trains and tracks. After opening each present, he said thank you and fell to playing with it. We had to move him to the next toy because he was so absorbed.

Every time he visits, we always read stories, which he loves. So also under the tree were three new books wrapped in Christmas paper. As we moved him from his new train and he tore the paper away he said, “Grammie I like books but they are not a good present.”

Reminder. Everyone is different. What we think is wonderful stewardship may not work for someone one else. Books for some are perfect but clearly not for all.

You have to tailor major gift stewardship and engagement. Canned doesn’t work even if it’s lovely.