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
A very popular topic in fundraising circles these days has been the infamous "Millennial Generation" or "Gen Y" and how they are changing the donation game. 

I recently attended a Millennial Donor Summit which was presented as a fully virtual conference. Delegates could interact live with one another and with presenters through video and chat functions. 

Today, AFP dedicated a full newsletter to addressing this very issue.

But, why does it matter and what does it all mean?

There seem to be some unspoken fears about this new generation of donors that the conversation is trying to address:
  • How can/should charities reach out through social media - a tool most of us still don't understand?
  • Will those seemingly detached hoards who float about all day connected to an iPod ever become engaged in their communities?
  • What will happen to us all if they are not as philanthropic as other generations?

What is emerging from this huge conversation is that though millennials like to communicate via online media and that while Google might be the first point of interaction with a non-profit or charity, there is little that differentiates them from donors belonging to an older demographic. 

Millennials also like to be connected with in a personal way, to be engaged and to be given a chance to become passionate, to be involved, to be asked for gifts and to be offered information about the impact of their participation.

From my perspective, now is the right time to be reaching out to members of this new generation of donors and offering opportunities for meaningful involvement and exceptional stewardship. My guest blog post yesterday at The Fundraising Coach website makes the suggestion that we need to start re-thinking the old rule of measuring engagement by donation-dollar values. 

What will this look like when it arrives via text message!

Our most engaged younger donors often fall below the "stewardship radar" because the dollar value of their support can be lower than our wealthiest donors. However, it makes sense to begin investing now in these individuals who are thought-leaders for their own generation if we hope to build a philanthropic culture for the future. 

Nothing new, just a need to take the time to offer a personal touch, to step out from behind your website and say "thanks" or offer an invitation to visit, volunteer, join the board...

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.

© 2011-2012 Christina Attard. All Rights Reserved