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Is this a Blog or a Rant?

I’ll admit it. I tend to be a difficult donor. It’s not that I am an unusually bad person. I don’t constantly ask for favors, request premiums, or bug development officers at institutions to which my wife and I contribute. I do, however tend to be critical when I see fundraising operations fail miserably in their treatment of donors.

Yesterday, March 1, we received an acknowledgement for a $500 gift that my wife and I made to a Chicago-area animal-care organization. It was a nice note, although admittedly it was pre-printed, and I really doubt if the CEO signed it, since she knows us, but referred to us as Mr. Brandt and Dr. Holland. But hey—this was only a $500 gift—probably not worthy of much more personal attention, right?

The gift for which we were being thanked was made before year end! That’s right. It took this organization a full two-monthsto acknowledge our end-of-year contribution.

Frankly, I think that is shameful.

As consultants, we regularly evaluate gift acknowledgement procedures at client institutions. Obviously, this was not a client of ours!  If it were, we would have advised them long-ago that there was no possible reasonable explanation for taking 60-plus-days to acknowledge an annual contribution. The only explanation I can imagine is that this organization does not want to be bothered by contributions of this size.

When I was vice president for development at Lake Forest College, we let the clerical staff in the development office off on New Year’s Eve. Pretty generous, eh!  What nice bosses. One of us (often me), however, would arrive by 10:00 am on that day, to open our mail. Why? Because we knew that there were going to be numerous end-of-year contributions in the mail on that day. Like my wife and I, many of our donors at Lake Forest (and, I dare say, many of your donors as well) wait until the very last minute to make their year-end contributions. We wanted to be there to open the envelopes, answer the phone should a broker be calling seeking last minute gifting instructions, frankly just to see how our work over the previous months was paying off.

Once we opened the envelopes, we started writing gift acknowledgements—thank-you letters—to each and every last-minute donor. Our goal was to get a letter out to every contributor before the end of the day. Large gifts got even more attention. Our president was available to call or drop a note to a significant contributor before he went off to his New Year’s Eve party.

Those were the good old days. Today, my wife and I occasionally have to call an organization to which we contribute, asking for a gift acknowledgement for our taxes. Can you imagine? If philanthropy is about relationships, these organizations are failing in their responsibility to further a relationship with these two donors.

At this end-of-year, we experienced a variety of acknowledgement techniques, as I am sure you did as well. One really stood out for me. My wife, a passionate animal lover, contributes generously to a foundation that funds wildlife preservation in Africa and the American West. Basically, she helps to support two individuals, a husband and wife, who work every day out in the field, trying to protect elephants, wolves, bears. Our gift this year was acknowledged within a week by a member of the foundation’s staff, in a warm and friendly letter that recognized our continued support and told us a bit about the foundation’s activities. It was perfectly acceptable, and we felt adequately thanked. A week ago, however, we received a two-page personal note, handwritten, from one of the two individuals that her gift supports.  It brought us up-to-date on their activities, it reminded us how important our support is to their efforts, and it thanked us again and again for our contribution. It was not really necessary, but it sure made me want to contribute to that foundation again as soon as possible.

My feelings yesterday were different. I suspect that we will re-direct our contribution to that organization to one that is not indifferent to our annual support.

If you run a development office, let me urge you to evaluate your gift acknowledgement procedures immediately. There are a number of ways to properly acknowledge contributions from your annual donors. A printed card two-months after the fact is not one of them!

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