With tax season upon us, our thoughts (and probably a board meeting fundraising topic or two) turn to deductible charitable donations.
Do donors take advantage of tax benefits? Yes, some do.
Do donors give for tax reasons? No, most don’t.
This distinction is important and should shape how you ask and how you thank donors.
Start with how you ask:
Don’t lead with “we are a 501C3 organization…” Only accountants care about your tax status. When you talk about your organization, lead with how you change the world.
“We save lives…”
“We create jobs…”
“We make the world a more beautiful place…”
“Insert your organization’s mission here…” (If your mission statement mentions your tax status, put that at the top of your priority list to revise.)
From your website to social media posts to fundraising letters, look for anyplace you use “tax deductible” and substitute “world changing” for a more impactful appeal. Most people give money because they are asked, not because of how it impacts their taxes.
Continue when you say thanks*:
The IRS has specific requirements donation acknowledgments. However, there are no rules saying you have to use only that language – that’s the minimum required. Go beyond that with a sincere expression of how much the donation means and how it will change lives. Don’t be boring, this acknowledgement is the first building block to your next ask. Your nonprofit is doing important work – you’re making our community a better place to live! Show the donor that their gift matters in doing just that.
Tell a story.
Share a photo.
Share the joy you felt when the gift was received.
Taxes are an inevitable part of our lives and certainly a consideration in our work. However, they must be kept in perspective when we communicate with our donors and remember that we are inviting people to help us change the world, not help them with their taxes.
*This blog post should not be considered legal advice, so please speak to an attorney/CPA to make sure that your communications meet the legal requirements set forth by the IRS.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted to be a mystery shopper. It’s not just the shopping part – which I love to do – it’s the opportunity to give feedback on the customer experience.
We need to take time to think of our donors as customers – people who buy into our mission and the amazing work we’re doing to make our community a better place. Customers who we want to engage in our mission and become repeat customers. A great place to start is your online giving.
When is the last time you made an online gift to your organization? What about a gift from your mobile device? It’s probably not something you, your board members or your other staff members do on a regular basis.
Today, I challenge you to do a little mystery shopping of your own and make an online gift to your organization (bonus points if you try this from your mobile device). Here are some things to look for as you complete the process:
Could you easily find the ‘donate now’ button?
How many clicks did it take you to get to the actual give page?
Does your form ask for too much information that isn’t needed? (You probably need way less than you think.)
How easy was the process as a whole?
Were stories and pictures used on the give page to make you feel connected the mission? (This is a great place for a short case for support.)
Could you make a gift in memory or honor of someone (and get the proper recognition to the family or individual)?
Does the landing page after clicking ‘submit’ make you feel good about your giving? (It should NOT go to a blank page.)
Is the emailed receipt timely and accurate?
Did you receive some kind of communication afterwards?
Does someone in your organization pay attention to online gifts and make personal contact?
Were you added to the donor database?
How did the whole process make you feel? (Frustrated isn’t a good answer here.)
If you’re using your mobile device, could you complete the process in an easy way?(You shouldn’t have to contort your phone all around and zoom in and out.)
Once you complete your mystery shopping, make notes of the improvements that could be made. Don’t feel like you need to fix it all right away – use your findings to make changes as you can starting with the most crucial. Just don’t put them off forever; you don’t want to lose a gift because someone found your online giving process to be too much work.
Calling a prospective funder shouldn’t just be another phone call to quickly check off your to-do list. At the point of actually picking up the phone, you should be confident the funder is open to your communication (Call Me… Maybe: Determining If You Should Call a Foundation Prospect) and have spent time researching and preparing to make the call (Wait, Don’t Just Pick Up the Phone). Now (and hopefully only now) is the time to actually make the call.
Remember – this is not just any old call. This call could be the beginning or the beginning of the end of a great relationship with a funder for your organization.
Here are tips to make the most of the call.
Be Ready to Talk Now or Later
When you make the initial phone call, you may or may not get through. Be ready for either scenario. First, if you get through to the funder and they say, “Let’s talk now” be ready to go. This does not happen often, but you have to be ready for it every time. Conversely, if you get voice mail or talk to a gatekeeper, be ready to explain why you are calling and make an appointment to connect at a later time.
Location, Location, Location
One wonderful benefit of our modern, connected world is our ability to conduct business from anywhere – coffee shops, sporting events, and conferences. This however is not one of those times. Find a quiet, private place and make sure those around you know that you are not to be interrupted for the duration of the call.
Be Prompt and Respectful of Their Time
Place the call on time and be respectful of the time allowed for the call. If you asked the funder for 20 minutes, stick to that. When the allotted time has passed, you can ask if they are able to keep going, but be prepared for them to say “no” and conclude the call.
This might sound silly for a phone call, but it really matters. If you smile while you are talking, it will show in your voice. Practice this on a family member if you are skeptical. The smile in your voice projects a positive attitude and shows your enthusiasm.
Avoid the trap of being “all business” and not letting your passion come through during the conversation. Make an effort to find the inspiration that you need. Consider a photo of the ultimate beneficiary of the mission – that might be an animal that will be rescued or a child that will be educated.
You’re building a relationship and first impressions matter. Remember the little things:
• say please and thank you,
• don’t interrupt,
• listen carefully to their answers,
• speak in a clear voice.
Take Good Notes
This conversation is where you can ask for answers and clarification to the questions left unanswered by your research. As you ask your questions, take good notes. Make note of any questions the funder has of you and be sure to record any promises you make or any information you need to provide following the conversation. If you are asked a question you can’t answer, don’t panic and just be honest. Explain why you don’t have that information and offer to find out and follow up as soon as you can.
Ask for Clarity
If you are asked a question you don’t understand, speak up and ask for clarification. The nonprofit sector is filled with jargon and the funder might use terms you haven’t heard before, ask for a definition. Sometimes we are afraid to admit we don’t understand something for fear of making a bad impression. It’s much better to understand than to answer incorrectly on the application when the funder feels they told you what they wanted.
As you conclude the conversation, review anything you promised to provide and confirm your next steps. Hopefully, you have determined that they will consider your grant application so confirm the deadline. If you determine that a grant application is not appropriate, restate any follow-up action that is appropriate. No matter the outcome of the call, thank them for taking the time to talk to you.
A thank you/nice to meet you note is always appropriate to send after a call. If the funder requested information be sure to follow up and provide it within the agreed upon timeline. If someone else has the information, contact them immediately and confirm that the deadline is appropriate.
The funding community is smaller and more connected that most people think. So while it’s true that if you know one funder, you know one funder – they also talk and a good impression on one can translate to introductions and a good reputation among many funders. Taking the time to do your research about the funder’s process; researching what you can on your own while preparing; and making the most of your time while on the call can make a big difference not only on this particular opportunity but perhaps even more opportunities in the future.
The most important thing to remember: the contact you make with a potential funder can make or break your grant application before you write a single word.
That being said, prepare and prepare some more. Do your research on the funder and the person to whom you will be speaking. Think of this as you would a job interview. Just as you present your best self during an interview – for this conversation, you want to do the same for your organization. Here are five things to consider during your preparation.
Only Ask Questions You Couldn’t Find Through Research
Before you make a call, seek to find the answers to your questions using the funder’s website and third-party sites like GuideStar. If you use a phone call or meeting to ask questions that you could have answered with a little research, you will have wasted the funder’s time. That will make a terrible impression and likely have a negative effect on any future grant applications.
After doing your research, think of possible objections the funder might have to considering a grant request from your organization. I once met with a funder who assured me he would never fund an organization as large as mine. I quickly explained that the program actually benefited grass roots organizations that were the sweet spot for this funder. I was only ready for that because I had done my research and anticipated the objection.
Make the Most of Your Time
Go into this conversation knowing that this could be the only time you talk to the funder. Never think, “I’ll ask that next time” because there might not be a next time. Prepare thinking, “this might be my only shot” and make the most of your time while being respectful of their time.
Prepare an Elevator Speech
Don’t wing it. Even if you are good at extemporaneous speaking, this is not the time. Prepare a two-minute elevator speech that summarizes your organization and your request. End with, “Does this sound like something in which your foundation would have an interest in learning more about through a written proposal?” Once you ask the question, stop and listen carefully to their answer.
After preparing but before dialing: practice. Find someone outside your organization and practice your questions and elevator speech. Use a stopwatch and make sure you are getting it done in the time allotted.
This may seem like a lot of work to make a phone call, but you only get one chance to make a first impression. This could be the start of a long and worthy relationship for your organization – that alone makes it worth the effort.
Next time, we’ll talk about actually making the call and how to make the best impression possible in a short amount of time.
To contact or not to contact? That’s the million-dollar question (okay, let’s be realistic – the $40,000 question). You’ve identified a new private foundation that might fund your organization, so you want to make contact with them right away and tell them all the ways your organization is a great investment opportunity for them. Now’s the time to stop and make sure it’s the right thing to do.
Raising money from private foundations certainly has some things in common with other types of fundraising, but there are some major differences. One major difference is whether or not to contact a funder before submitting a grant application. The three steps below will help you determine the best course of action before you pick up the phone.
Before deciding to contact a prospective funder, determine if calling them is an appropriate option. You should consider these scenarios before picking up the phone.
When Not to Approach
They Ask You Not To
If the funder has specific instructions not to contact before applying, don’t! Each funder has their own specific process for receiving applications. Research the funder to determine if they are open to discussing your application before its submission.
You’re Not a Match
Don’t approach the funder if your project does not meet the criteria they have for funding. For instance, you might be within their program specifics but outside their geographic boundaries. Or your request for general operating support or capital campaign funding does not fit their type of giving.
They Have a Letter Of Intent/Introduction Process
In the vast majority of cases, if a funder has a Letter of Introduction or Letter of Intent process, they want that process to be the initial contact. Be considerate of the funder in this case. An LOI is a fairly simple document that will most often give the funder an opportunity to learn more about your organization than through a phone call. Be respectful of the funder’s time by making the LOI your first inquiry.
This may seem like overly simple advice, but many times in our enthusiasm for our cause we overlook the obvious.
When Approaching is Okay
They Accept Calls
As you do your funder research, pay attention to how they accept contact. Some funders are open to phone calls, some will have meetings, while others do not allow any contact before an application. If they state that they are willing, then you are safe to reach out.
You Are Connected
Foundations are staffed by people and people have connections. When you have identified a potential funder, review the list of their staff and board members. Show the list to your organization’s board members to see if they have any connections. If you identify a connection, ask them to reach out on behalf of your organization or to make an introduction.
You Have Specific Questions
Just because a funder will accept calls, don’t make the assumption that you should make the call. Only make the initial outreach if you are prepared and have specific questions. After you carefully review their published materials and their website, determine what additional information you need from them to complete your application. When you call, you want to make the best impression – so be prepared.
If you attempt to contact a potential funder and are not able to reach them or don’t receive a return phone call, take that as their way of saying, “we don’t want to have a conversation with you until you submit an application.”
Next time we’ll discuss what to do if you decide to move forward with making a call and share tips for preparing.
I believe that hand written notes should go to more than just donors. Consider these suggestions:
write to a donor who makes a significant gift, remember not just significant to your organization but significant to the donor. Even if the official thank you letter comes from someone else in your organization, send your appreciation for their generosity.
send a note to a donor who made a program accomplishment possible bonus: send a photo with the note for extra impact.
create a list of donors who have given for a significant number of years and send them occasion notes throughout the year.
send a note to someone you’ve identified as a prospective donor but haven’t been able to meet in person. Send a photo of something meaningful that demonstrates your mission in action.
write a note to a prospect who has indicated interest but you’ve had trouble getting a face to face meeting to follow up. Invite them again for a tour or a visit to your program.
send a note to every volunteer, eventually. Depending on the size of your volunteer workforce, this could be a monumental task. But make a list and get started with a few notes a week. You’ll get to everyone, eventually.
look for people who are helping you but you might not have classified them as an official volunteer. For instance, someone who provides valuable advice when you are planning a special event.
write a note to the people who report to you thanking them for a job well done. Appreciation should be expressed throughout the year, not just at annual review time, and a personal note is a gracious way to deliver it.
send a note to the staff in other departments who make your work possible. None of us could do what we do without the people in surrounding departments. Even if it’s part of their job descriptions, your colleagues will appreciate your appreciation.
write a note to your bosses recognizing their dedication. Don’t forget to thank up the chain of command, too.
This list is by no means comprehensive. Look around to discover who else will benefit from a sincere expression of your gratitude for their part in your success.
In my last blog post, I extolled the virtues of handwriting notes. (Click here to read that one) If I convinced you that writing notes is a good idea, you might be wondering “what should I write about?” I’ve got some ideas for you.
Appreciation for volunteering – many of your donors also volunteer for our organizations. Think about board members, event volunteers, program volunteers and all of the other unpaid labor that keep your nonprofit functioning.
Impact of a program a donor supported – because we are there everyday, we sometimes forget about the impact of our organizations, the magic that happens. The next time you see some of that magic, think of the donors whose gifts enabled that to happen. Write them a quick note to tell them about it. Bonus: enclose a picture with the note.
Celebrations – send a note for a donor’s birthday or anniversary. If you know they’ve accomplished something, send them a note of congratulations.
Condolences – if a donor has experienced a loss, send them a card expressing your concern.
Newsletter with a note – the next time your organization is sending a mass mailing newsletter, pull a few key donors off of the list and send theirs first class, in an envelope, with a personal note.
When you haven’t had personal contact in a while – if a donor has been out of touch or hard to reach, send them a quick note and tell them they are appreciated.
Writing notes is habit-forming. Once you get started, it will become more natural. Let me know if I missed any good reasons for a hand written note and I’ll add it to my list.
Is an e-mail holiday card the right way to go? My opinion on this is no and yes. Here’s what I mean:
NO – an e-card is not the right means of communication for your top donors and prospects. This group should be receiving a personal (hand-signed, hand-addressed) message from whoever in the organization has the closest relationship.
YES – an e-card is an excellent way to communicate with the larger audience of supporters (annual giving donors, alumni, volunteers). Use photos, artwork and whatever best demonstrates your mission. Use the holidays as a way to communicate with your social media audiences too – post, tweet, and all the other things you are doing.
Because development is about building relationships with individuals one at a time or large groups via mass communication – your message should focus on how the support of your donors changed the lives of your constituents and how much you appreciate them.
The challenge – and this is true with any development communications – is to make it meaningful to the donor and representative of your mission. As with many things, holiday e-cards have become pretty common. You have to make yours stand out. My favorite example of this is an e-card the College of William & Mary sent to donors and alumni a few years ago. They showcased students and used images that were meaningful to their audience. You can see the video portion of the message below.
Don’t let time be your excuse for not communicating with your donors and prospects. As I said in my last blog, it’s never too late. Send an e-card for the new year, Valentine’s Day, the start of a new semester or whatever fits with your organization’s culture and mission.
Why? Your organization’s supporters are like family: they want to see those pictures and hear those stories. Use the holidays to do that.
It’s happened again at my house: the lovely photo cards have arrived in plenty of time to get them out but the busyness of school programs, shopping and family activities have distracted me. My friends and family will tell you that our family card is rarely (OK, maybe never) received before December 25. One year it was mailed around January 4 – ugh! But I always mail them anyway because I’m so proud of my adorable children and know that their aunts and uncles want to see their photos.
So how late is too late for a holiday message from your nonprofit to your donors? NEVER!
A Thanksgiving message would have been great but it’s too late for that in 2015. So instead try a New Year’s card to thank donors for the great 2015 they made possible in the lives of your constituents. If you think mailboxes are too crowded at the end of the year, send a “welcome to 2016” message that arrives around January 4, the first Monday of the new year. A few years ago, one dear friend was running so late with her family Christmas cards that she dressed her kids up in beads and made it a “Happy Gasparilla” card. It’s a Tampa thing and I loved it! It stayed on my refrigerator most of the year. What’s going on in your organization that you can celebrate?
Some of you may be asking, ‘should we even send one?’ I say YES and here’s why: development is about building relationships and sending cards on special occasions is a natural relationship action. What about the idea of offending some of your audience? Don’t! You know your audience; pick a theme and message that reflects your organization and it won’t be offensive. Faith-based organizations have the leg up on this issue. They can celebrate their sacred holidays, but what about the rest of us? Pictures are the best way to communicate what we do so pick one great “money” shot that illustrates what you do and use an online ordering site like Shutterfly or Vista Print. If the card focuses on the good work you are doing, it won’t be offensive.
If I’ve convinced you this is a good idea, your next questions should be ‘who should get them and who should sign them?’ Send them to your board members, top donors, volunteers, vendors who give you generous discounts, and your organization’s friends. They should be hand signed by whoever knows the person best. What do I mean by hand signed? Signed by a human hand with a real pen. If you are sending too many to hand sign, you are sending too many. While you’ve got your pen out, they should be hand addressed. If you are sending too many to hand address, you are sending too many.
Does all of this sound too complicated? Don’t have the time to create a custom card? Then run to a drug store at lunch today, buy a box thank you notes and send them to the 20 most important donors to your organization. Write a note that says something like, “when you made a gift to us earlier this year, you didn’t know who your gift would help. Today I was reminded that it helped someone like…”
Your organization’s supporters are like family: they want to see those pictures and hear those stories. Use the holidays to do that.
Not every repaired donor relationship leads to a 5-figure gift but I know of at least one that did. A colleague listened to the concerns of the donor and worked within the organization to correct the problem. In an effort to reengage this donor, the fundraiser took her to lunch and was presented with a 5-figure gift. How did that happen?
Let’s look at the steps involved in repairing this relationship:
Keeping communication lines open: this can be as simple as continuing to send them stewardship reports, newsletters and other communications. Make sure that you mail often enough to keep their address current. Also, check with people throughout your organization to see who knows an unhappy donor and might be able to help you figure out why.
Listening to their concerns: many times an unhappy donor needs an opportunity to express their feelings to the organization. Listening without becoming defensive is challenging but worth the restraint. Something obviously has gone wrong. Listen with an open mind and find out where the breakdown has happened.
Admitting to mistakes and apologizing: we are not perfect nor are our organizations. Admit the mistake without throwing anyone under the proverbial bus and apologize. Determine if an apology needs to come from someone else in your organization and facilitate that if necessary.
Correcting the mistakes: this can take some time and may seem like a waste of time when there are goals to meet but don’t skip this step. In the case I heard about recently, the correction took months of coordination because it involved several parts of the organization. The development officer forged ahead – never knowing it would result in a gift – because it was the right thing to do. He knew that it was important to the donor.
The final step – and it’s really more of an ongoing process than a step – is to continue to communicate with the donor. There may never be an opportunity to ask for a gift again but you never know…for my friend, he didn’t have to ask. The donor was so pleased that the situation had been corrected that she made an additional gift without being asked.