Though it seems like Christmas was only last week, we are, in fact, coming up on Valentine's Day shortly.  For many charities, early January is also fiscal year-end and a time where the gift processing managers are hurrying to record and receipt and account for a rush of donations that were made at the end of December so that the books can be closed from the previous year.

It got me thinking about the similarity between a donation pledge card and a Valentine's Day card. They're both small, they're usually an odd size, and they're both an expression of love. Let's pause for a moment and talk about the expression of love part; that person chose to skip buying a Starbucks coffee, pass up a chance to pad their retirement account, included you on the list of Christmas and birthday presents they plan to buy this year - it's possible to imagine any number of situations, but the point is that that little card is what they used to express their love for your work and their financial sacrifice in doing so. 

But sometimes, it can seem like the relationship between donors and their charities are a one-way love affair!

From the charity perspective, maybe it's time to focus on saying, "I love you" back to donors this Valentine's Day! 

There are a bunch of good discussions happening right now about writing better thank-you letters. My addition to the conversation would be to think about writing these from a "love letter" or "love song" perspective. Skip the impersonal and start with "I" or "we" and make the tone about "you're awesome, I admire everything about you, and without you, life would not be as bright for me..." - of course the tone would be tied into the core mission of the organization.

Gail Perry has a great tip sheet on "How to Craft a Killer Thank You Letter" here.

An example of something that didn't work for me this week was the letter I received from one charity where I'm a monthly donor. It had a somewhat apologetic tone, but it was basically a bill letting me know that they would be automatically increasing my monthly direct withdrawal unless I wrote in to opt-out. There was no BRE included. The worst part? I still haven't received a donation receipt for my 2011 contributions or a thank you letter or phone call.

Kinda left me feeling like our relationship is pretty transactional and not like I want to take this date home to meet my mom or dad!

Ask Better?

One idea that I had is to pick a small group - your volunteers, your board members, 25 of your first-time donors - and to send them a Valentine this year. If it's a bit of a less-formal group, maybe you could even use a set of those cards that kids usually exchange at school. Otherwise, maybe a plain note card with your logo and a heart surrounding it on the front?

Dear Ron, 

Sending our love and gratitude to you - thank you for choosing to be a volunteer with us. Life wouldn't be as rosy without you!

Happy Valentine's Day, 

Julia at Save the Unicorns Intl
Though I've worked for many years with large universities, I have also gotten to know a lot of small charities and non-profits, which is the most common agency size in Canada.

Sometimes, as donors, rather than fundraisers, we get the opportunity to support a small operation that is exceptional. For me, this year, that group is the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Kingston, more generally known as "Vinnie's."

The story is that last December, I realized that the entire giving season had gone by without having made the time to support a food program in my community. I suspected that some of these organizations would be in need of cash donations rather than goods in order to purchase essential items that rarely get donated. I decided (fairly randomly) to call up Vinnie's for the first time and make a gift.

What was probably not atypical of a small operation is that Vinnie's only employs 1.5 staff members. One person runs the warehouse, food pantry and all the administration and the other half-time person cooks the lunches and manages the kitchen. There really isn't a website, there aren't a lot of fancy things like online giving or twitter and the location is in the wrong part of town.

So, where's the magic?

In early January, a thank you letter arrived. It was hand-addressed, it included my daughter's name, it had a personalized message, it was hand-signed, it was four pages long and the most recent newsletter was enclosed. Moreover, it contained an invite to come by for a visit any time.

I took them up on the offer for a visit. I also realized about that time that I'd unwittingly reserved a book at the library called "A Year of Living Generously" that described the author, Larry Scanlan's, volunteer involvement there a year prior. The "50-cent" tour, as they described it was eye-opening, humbling, welcoming and world-changing. I became hooked and joined the fundraising volunteer committee.

The letter I received stood out for me among the many electronically signed, impersonal and even entirely absent thank you letters from other, much larger and better-staffed organizations I supported last year. This was the only one that did a great job of telling me specifically how my support made life better for others. It also got me through their door for the first time. What I saw that first day made me feel an incredible desire to do more. 

Sometimes seeing is believing and I know that when it comes to charities, believing is at the heart of giving.

Things are going well. Our capital campaign launch started out with an open house and support is coming in to help with badly needed building repairs. I think the success is based on the personal outreach to others via those that volunteer there. Thelma, who helps out in the kitchen each day, shared how Vinnie's is her family and how the experience has changed her personally. Most of the room was teary-eyed by the end.

For fundraisers: Does your thank you letter compel your donors to engage further via a personal invitation to look and even step inside your work? Does it help to make them feel that they are a part of your effort to create a better future in a tangible way? Are you telling a story that touches others?

For donors: Giving may not (always) be about receiving recognition, but thank you letters are about helping you to feel like a partner in the mission. It's important to consider the role you wish to play through your giving and whether the relationship being built with you by the agencies you support is the right fit for you.

So many good articles and posts have passed by on my desk today that I thought I would share some of the best ones.

Giving from the Heart

Sometimes, affordability is a big question we have to ask ourselves as donors when contemplating a gift to charity. The answer always seems to come from a place where we balance our human passions and our material needs in some magical dance to come up with a dollar figure that feels comfortable.

I saw this astounding article today about a homeless man who is supporting a single mother and her child after she experienced a job loss. For me, it was proof that when we decide to help others, the motivating factor has more to do with our hearts and our desire to help than our actual financial ability.

I criticize myself frequently because my giving is rarely a "stretch" for my family financially and this story is going to force me to ask more serious questions about whether I can do more to help others. As a fundraiser, it reminds me that reaching my supporters in a way that creates passion in their hearts is the number one priority.

Please and Thank You

I participated last week in a twitter conference called Small Non-Profit Chat (#smNPchat) on Donor Accountability. A good summary of the conversation appeared here. Transparency and accountability were strongly linked with the idea of stewardship; it is important to share information about the impact of each donor's investment in your organization and that engagement has to continue beyond simply asking and move toward creating a "stakeholder" role for supporters.

Today, Michael Rosen posted some great thoughts on stewardship in relation to legacy gifts that really reinforce the notion that even in lean financial times, charities and non-profits cannot afford to neglect that personal thank-you.

Fortune Telling for Fundraisers?

Sometimes in the rush to ensure that your charity can meet current operating needs, the idea of investing in a Gift Planning program to raise future gifts may seem foolhardy. The question about expected ROI is a natural one for any board member or director being asked to consider investing in this type of program.

In my view, the answer is sort of like reading into a crystal ball. If your organization has a pretty good track record of legacies coming in and a reasonably sized list of those who have committed gifts (I'm talking at least 15-20 names), then it might be possible to make some good guesses and assume that moving from a passive to an active program will improve the situation. Harder to do without data or  track record at all.

The better question, from my perspective, is not about ROI but on possible opportunity loss. Good Works Co. in Ottawa is a full-service charity consultancy that frequently conducts polls to assess interest and capacity among Canadians for making legacy gifts. Their 2010 Legacy Poll results are available here and here.

There has been much concern during the economic downturn about falling donation revenue across North America. What these studies show is a trend that mirrors the early 1940s where current giving revenue suffered, but legacy gifts continued to increase. More importantly, the studies illustrate that the time is right to talk to Canadians about charitable bequests and that the potential funds available for charities are staggering.

The good news here is that sometimes, simply learning how to broach the subject is all you need...

Look forward to giving more, becoming more thankful and offering new opportunities for others to help together with you!
I read some good news this morning. 

A recent research report published in
The NonProfit Times suggests that 55% of Generation Y (1981-91) Canadians give to charity and that on average, they give $325 (I'm assuming this is annually). The total works out to a total of about $800 million in gifts from this group.

Not bad considering this is $800 million from people who have been in the workforce for less than ten years and many of whom are paying off student loans and saving up for their first homes!

The way I look at this, though this Gen Y group still represents the least engaged market segment overall, those donors who fall into the 55% may be more passionate about giving since it's not as prevalent among their peers as in the case with older population segments. These people are choosing to do something that 45% of their peers choose not to do.

The problem is that most donor recognition circles start well above the $325 donor mark. Often, special events are offered to $1,000+ annual donors. A hand-signed letter from the ED or CEO or President is reserved for "leadership gifts" (translate: larger than $325). Lunch dates with the Director of Development are limited to major gift donors. 

Maybe it's time to stop thinking about our top donors in terms of dollar values? 

Fraser Green recently tweeted, "if i see one more donor report pic with guys in suits fondling a GIANT CHEQUE i'm gonna hurl - what about gary's $50? doesn't he matter?"

What about taking a look at that Gen Y donor list and reaching out personally to the top 10% - the ones who have made at least 2 gifts in 5 years, the ones that are monthly supporters? It may be early to talk about bequests and legacy gifts, but the special touch from you now is going to make your organization top of mind when the smart Gen Y people are making wills to protect their new families and homes.

I get a personalized, hand-signed thank you letter from 2 of the 10-12 charities my family supports annually. Guess which two are in our estate plans?

© 2011-2012 Christina Attard. All Rights Reserved