SOFII's Blog - interesting fundraising trends and ideas from around the world

SOFII is an online archive of fundraising best practice and creativity. It is filled with an ever expanding array of easily accessible exhibits, articles, videos, opinion pieces, hints and tips, book reviews and recommendations. The SOFII blog is a place for us to share some thoughts and ideas that might not have an obvious home on the SOFII website. It’s also a place for us to invite guest bloggers to share their views. If you’d like to contribute to our blog please get in touch with

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Common sense and effective fundraising

At Christmas and birthdays my mum used to make me write ‘thank you’ letters to everyone who had bought me a gift. I suspect that you may have gone though a similar exercise as a small child.
This means that ingrained into most of us is the belief that we should always thank someone for a gift. It’s common sense. It’s polite. It’s expected. And it’s the ‘right’ thing to do.
So I’ve been really interested in reading the recent blogs on the subject of thanking donors that challenges this conventional thinking.
If you have missed them then let me fill you in. It started with the findings of an Ipsos Reid study conducted for AFP Canada called, “What Canadian Donors Want”
One of the things the study told us was that 52% of respondents said that not receiving a thank you would not decrease the likelihood of giving in the future. 
This prompted Chuck English on his Marketing that works blog to ask, 
‘Does saying thank you really make a difference? Do you know of a research study that proves that thanking donors will lead to further or increased donations?
It turns out that there is no empirical evidence that directly confirms that thanking donors will lead to improved results.This was picked up by The Agitator in their “No- thank you” blog.
The only evidence that thanking donors increases gift levels came from Penelope Burke. Penelope’s experience shows that there are fundamentally two types of thank you; average and exceptional.
Receiving an average thank you letter makes no impact on future fundraising performance, however, when exceptional thank you correspondence is tested against the average, and the rate of renewal and average gift value is measured, exceptional letters far out-perform the average.
You can read more here in The Agitator OK thank you blog.
The very suggestion of not thanking donors has been too much for some fundraisers to bear. It goes against what most of us feel is ‘right’, or is common sense or even best practice. But that’s the point; it’s not about you. You are not your donor.  
Tom at The Agitator points out; ‘common sense’ might establish that donors are busy and will respond better to shorter letters. Or that $35 a year donors won’t make bequests. Common sense can often be, as in these two examples; wrong.
So when there is evidence that thanking some donors makes no difference at all should we not trust the data and bravely decide not to thank some donor segments? If we look objectively at the data we would conclude that its simply not good business sense to thank every donor.
Sean Triner, Director of Pareto Fundraising in Australia, and self confessed data junkie, concludes that, “If there is evidence that not thanking will increase the total charity net income, then the moral obligation is not to thank. You are not employed to be nice, you are employed to maximise your charity net income in the long term.”
Sean adds, “non transactional, anecdotal evidence is probably important for high value donors, so consider thanking top donors with a separate letter”
You can read more on this topic from Sean on the LinkedIn SOFII debate about thanking.
The challenge for fundraisers is to be open minded to the possibility that doing what we always do, because that is what we have always done, or simply because it is common sense, may not be the most effective fundraising strategy.
If you knew that not thanking certain donors was what they wanted, or that putting maximum effort into fewer targeted exceptional thank yous would improve your results, what would you do differently? Would you continue to keep doing what you have always done? Or would you be a bit braver and find a low risk way to test the evidence with your donors with the ambition of achieving better results?
Whatever you decide, there is one principle that applies to all your fundraising. There is no advantage in being average. If you are only going to be average, it’s probably not worth the effort.
What are your thoughts? 


  1. Catherine Clark15 May 2012 at 04:15

    When I'm not thanked after I've made a gift, I get very, very annoyed. If you took the time to ask me, then take the time to thank me. I do agree that the adknowledgement letter needs to be good, and I've sometimes worked with my charities to do just that when their letters missed the mark. The charity that I work for as development director never used to thank anyone and when I started doing just that, I received amazed and pleased letters back. We've gone from 8 donors to several hundred in just a couple of years, and the renewing donors have generally increased their gifts by 100% (£25-£50; £50-£100). I would not dare at this point to 'take the money and run'. If you treat your donors like ATM machines, you will get what you deserve. A caveat: we are going to thank people by e-mail -- personalised -- in future in order to save considerable amounts of money, and we'll let them know the reason AND give them the opportunity to request a paper acknowledgement.

  2. I agree, the thank you letter matters to me. It will increase the chances of donating again. If I dont get a thank you letter, I will donate elsewhere, an org that serves the particular cause I'm interested in supporting.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with the previous two comments. Whether or not a donor makes a subsequent gift to my organization or cause is completely beside the point. Particularly in this economy, where individual giving (amount and frequency) is diminished, *every* contribution should be acknowledged - graciously, immediately, and sincerely. A donor-centered fundraising strategy would require no less; it's not about extending thanks merely out of "history and/or habit" or "securing the next gift". Rather, thanking a donor for his/her contribution to *your* organization's mission (as opposed to any of the thousands of competing causes) honors their values, judgement, investment, and their belief in YOU. If that isn't worth a sincere and exceptional 'thank you', I would suggest considering an alternative career. Great article!

  4. The common sense and best practices most fundraisers follow, while common, are often not the best. There is very little research and empirical data to support most of what is recommended to do. I have often and repeatedly found value in breaking from fundraising tradition to go beyond best practices.

    Finding that thank you letters do not increase the rate of giving would not surprise me. On the other hand, there are business studies that show that asking customers what they want is a bad predictor of what their true needs and buying motivations. In short, customers do not know why they behave the way they do. I expect the same is true of donors and their own motivations.

    While an intriguing finding, fundraiser beware when interpreting and using any findings from studies. The real answer is often much more complex than a single study can reveal.

  5. The other question that needs to be asked is does an average thank you drive down the average donation. If an average thank you has a negative effect, then don't do it. If it has a neutral or positive effect, carry on as before.

  6. Kim Brengle, Individual Giving Officer, Historic New England25 May 2012 at 07:18

    I'm curious about the other 48% in that study. If 52% would not be affected by not receiving thanks (so no impact on their giving in either direction),that suggests that a significant number (the other 48%?) would be more likely to decrease their giving if not thanked. I'd be more inclined to retain those people--it sounds like a net gain to me.

  7. Thanking someone is such a great opportunity to communicate. Think - its one of the few times a donor might actually read everything you write.

    Yes they might not give there and then - but if you tell them a great story they will remember you. And if you are going to thank do it really well - if it looks like automated response (letter number 12 with a scanned signature) then sure it isn't going to have any impact as its no better than getting your bank statement. If it looks like a real genuine thank you then I think you might be pleasantly surprised (I've had people call me up they were so shocked to get a hand signed thank you).

    A story to illustrate. I was at a stand with FARM-Africa at an agricultural show. A woman made a beeline to the stand. So I said welcome and asked if she knows FARM-Africa? Her response was yes, in fact she had just given a donation and got this lovely thank you letter ... in fact she said staring wide eyed at my badge ... it was from you!

    I think the key measure isn't how much more a donor gives but what they say about you to their network. Increasingly thats how we make choices - from peer recommendation - that's why businesses are so focused on customer service. It's not about squeezing as much out of you - its about turning you into advocates. In which case a thank you should be in your strategy for achieving just that.

    At SolarAid I look out for stories to keep changing our thank you's. Make a donation right now and we might even send you a tea bag to have a brew whilst you read your letter.

  8. Thank you notes or other ways of saying thank you are part of establishing a relationship with donors, and that is more important than whether you write a thank you note or not. And if that is the objective (relationships), I think a call or hand written note is much more important (I realize that for large NPOs with a large number of small donors, that may not be possible). Birthday cards, Holiday Cards, invitations to a dinner, etc. would be a great way to say thank you to your larger donors (and mix in some potential donors or donors who have not renewed their annual gift).

  9. We should all remember an essential point - the Thank You note is an expression of gratitude.

    With so many NPO's in the world, donors now have a myriad of options available to them - what cause to support, ways to give, specific campaigns to fund (or not)and many more ways to get directly involved.

    More than ever before, a sincere and timely 'Thank You' is an action of respect and provides the donor an acknowledgment of their kindness and generosity in support of the 'mission'. At the risk of sounding unscientific about report findings and data,connecting with the donor via a thank you should not be viewed as just another factor in a long transactional thread or formula. A sincere word of gratitude may just be the living expression of service to others/for the greater good exemplified by you and your organization.

  10. Thanking our donors is very important to us but we do remember that there are many ways to thank someone. We use email, text, postcards, letters, personalised letters, letters signed by our CEO and we send out certificates to groups and businesses where they may be displayed to help raise awareness of the cause.
    Saying that not receiving a thank you would not influence someone not to give is a triple negative sentence expressing a rather negative idea.
    Furthermore, can you imagine not writing to say thank you for an in memorium donation - after all, those donors will never give you another penny but the people you write to thank, their relatives, might well do so and might even leave a legacy.

  11. Our organization has a tiered thank you system. Automated thank you letters, personalized thank you letters due to staff/donor relationships or gift types or notes, handwritten notes from our President and handwritten notes from our Board Members.

    Anecdotal information from some of our donors indicates we have become the primary charity due to our thank you process and the lack of an acknowledgement from other charities.

    The thank you note is also a time share additional information related to the donation or our activities. Even with empirical evidence to prove a lack of need for a thank you for a percentage of the population we would not discontinue our acknowledgment program.