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The First Step in Improving Your Acknowledgement Letters

Thoughtful, personal, and timely gift acknowledgement letters are the very core of donor relations and stewardship. They are a mandatory baseline activity that any organization, large or small, should be doing and doing really well. If you are doing nothing else in the donor relations space, acknowledgements will always be a top priority.

But why is it so hard for so many of us to get our arms around this seemingly simple activity? Working in complex and decentralized organizations, we know the pitfalls of inconsistent stewardship and donor communications and the impact they can have on a donor’s giving experience.

At the end of the day, we as donor relations and fundraising professionals are responsible for ensuring our donors are properly thanked and recognized for their giving. But where do we start if we know there are improvements to be made?

The first step is a full-blown acknowledgement audit of all parties across your organization or university that are generating thank you letters. (Btw, we are talking about thank you letters and NOT tax receipts. Two different communications that should not be combined.)

You are going to look to collect data on levels, types, signatories, turnaround time, etc. This comprehensive view will allow you to see trends including your strengths and areas for improvement. This work will be challenging and likely frustrating to get done, but will pay DIVIDENDS in the end. In the ideal world, acknowledgement audits should be completed every 5-7 years to ensure your recognition systems are sound.

Based on those audit results, you will need to develop best practices that can be rolled out to your various contributors. This will help bring some consistency to the donor’s experience and hopefully simplify and streamline processes for your team members. While this may vary by organization (slightly), here are 6 rules you should follow when developing your basic thank you letter standards:

  1. Tax receipts are different than acknowledgements and should be sent within 72 hours (3 business days) of the time of the gift

  2. Acknowledgement letters should be mailed no later than one week (5-7 business days) from the date of the gift

  3. You should thank every donor, for every gift, regardless of gift amount

  4. Gift amounts should NOT be included in your thank you letter (that’s what the tax receipt is for)

  5. Acknowledge the donor in the same manner in which they engaged with you – i.e. if they gave online, send them an email; if they sent in a check, mail a hard copy letter, etc.

  6. Update letter content at least twice per year (preferably quarterly)

In order to be able to execute these standards and meet these expectations, consistent definitions and levels will need to be created and rolled out. This will dictate what the thank you letter says, what it looks like, and who signs it from annual gifts all the way up to presidential $1M+ recognition.

There is so much more to cover in the acknowledgment letter space – this blog hopefully serves as food for thought and may be a good reminder to stop procrastinating that audit and take the first step in improving this critical component of our work!

Stay tuned for a future DRG webinar on how to complete an audit and overhaul your acknowledgement program – based on real life case studies from your peers!

This post was written by DRG Group member, Sarah Sims. Sarah is a consultant, speaker, and the Executive Director of Donor Relations at the University of Florida. 


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