10 min read

Donors give to you out of no obligation. That deserves a prompt and personal thank you.

When it comes to giving—and planning—gratitude for donations, perhaps the guiding spirit for nonprofit leaders should be the one exhibited by George M. Cohan of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” fame, who is said to have nightly concluded his “Four Cohans” vaudeville act by deliberately and graciously telling the audience “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”

So many thank yous! Too many, perhaps? Or, perhaps not. In addition to being heartfelt, strategized, and scheduled, gratitude should also be abundant. It should be the stuff of sweat. And hand cramps.

Speaking from experience: As the once-publisher of National Review magazine, I inherited the institution’s half-century tradition of asking subscribers to also be donors (National Review was not a nonprofit . . . it was just never profitable). The essence of the “fund appeal,” penned annually by founder William F. Buckley Jr., was to portray National Review as a place of intimacy and a mutual cause that transcended being a mere journal. Being ever short on cash, Buckley invited its readers, through their support, into a band of brothers (and sisters), to keep NR in the fight (standing, in Buckley’s famous phrase, “athwart history, yelling stop”). Each letter, printed on quality paper, was long, a cavalcade of Buckley’s thoughts and observations. And it was personalized.

Year after year, the chord was always struck. The money flowed. It was indeed vital.

And here is something else about Bill Buckley that is quite related to fundraising: He was an inveterate letter- and note-writer. His biographer, Alvin Felzenberg, has argued Buckley may have written more letters than any other American, ever. What motivated this? In part, it was his passion for extending thanks (not surprising given that one of his more popular books was titled Gratitude). As the magazine’s honcho, Bill never failed to individually thank the magazine’s writers for . . . writing. Now-cherished smaller, index-sized cards, by the many thousands, were mailed over the decades, with Buckley’s red-pen scratchings (after a bit of deciphering) failing to hide his heartfelt appreciation for this essay or that review.

Pre-internet, these small devices became used throughout NR, for all sorts of external communications. Many of the old Royal manual typewriters that infested the old headquarters had their tabs and margins set to prefer the 3 ½ by 5 ½ inches, ready for the cards and their messages of goodwill, invective, congratulations, solicitation, and . . . thanks.

As for donors, standard-sized letters of gratitude, personalized, printed on Buckley’s NR letterhead, and signed by the Boss, were sent in response to fund-appeal contributors. These standard, formal declarations of gratitude were followed, several months later, by donors receiving a mailing (a #3 “jiffy bag”) containing a book, typically one Bill had written in the prior year, and a very small, classy card that declared the enclosed to be an “exiguous token” of appreciation for generosity. These books were mailed to anyone who had sent NR $100 or more. It proved quite a logistical operation (thousands of books shipped in, that many mailed out—inserted, addressee labels slapped on, postage applied, lugged in big bags to the local post office, all carried out by one lonely guy in the NR mail room), but it had to be done. Tangible gratitude was the Buckley way, and therefore, the NR way.

And so it remained, even as this commitment to determined gratitude took on alterations and invited expansion, all brought about by the internet, which provided institutions a new and immediate platform for soliciting financial help.

As fundraising efforts took to the ether, the gratitude habit and hallmark established by Buckley evolved at NR into an even greater investment in time and effort. The knowledge that comes with immediacy—mere seconds after Mrs. Jones made that $2,500 donation, the fact can be known to you—in turn demanded its own prompt responsiveness.

During (not after, during) an online fundraising campaign—dubbed “webathons” at National Review—those overseeing the progress of real-time giving were religious about constantly checking the donation database, especially at the crack of dawn, to eyeball overnight contributions.

This well-nigh-religious oversight created a sense of immediate duty that was manifested by sending short-and-sweet individual emails thanking those high-end donors (a subjective category, but NR chose $500 or more as "major"). The immediacy was based on the long-held position that someone who digs deep to send noteworthy support merits being contacted promptly, and deserves to know within minutes, if possible, that 1. NR is cognizant of what the donor had done, that we were 2. jazzed and 3. appreciative, and 4. we wanted you to know that, 5. right away.

Having seen the donation update report, as publisher, I would (immediately, if not sooner) dash off a short. heartfelt, familiarity-tinged note to the donor. The email’s subject line might read “Momma Mia!” or “Mackerels of Holiness!”—you want the email opened after all. Copied was National Review’s editor (Rich Lowry). The email text was off the cuff—“Dave, don’t think we didn’t see this tremendous gift. One thousand bucks . . . Da*n! You rock! You always do. Rich, didja see this?!”—which would prompt, within a short time, a REPLY ALL from Rich, the organization’s true leader, that seconded the gratitude: “Dave thanks very much. Means a lot.”

That the aforementioned “Dave” was recognized, immediately, and directly by the editor, who was now accessible, and conversant if requested, meant a lot—to Dave.

This duty of appreciating never became humdrum. Institutionally, there was a powerful sense that no one owed NR a dime, nor that anyone had a moral obligation to donate; that every contribution was a decision of opportunity cost, and was selfless; and that given all the help-us-fight rhetoric, it is natural response that, when you stand at the barricades (bayonets fixed!) seeking camaraderie, you recognize it and praise it when it happens.

At National Review, we were into being appreciative.

Keeping track of giving in real-time also allowed NR to read the comments that many donors (about one in five) sent along with their online contribution. Anecdotal in the collective, these comments could nevertheless give some sense to NR of where its supporters stood on topics and writers. But many of the comments were begging to be used—repurposed, if you will—to help promote the ongoing webinar—they told of passionate personal tales, remembering the first time they had read the magazine, how it inspired them, stories about meeting NR’s founder, William F. Buckley, their favorite writers, and more. Typically, every other day we wrote and posted on the NR home page a decent-sized webathon update that strung together numerous such comments, hopeful that they would inspire others to donate.

As the webathon forged ahead, so did the thanking. During the course of the campaign, group emails (not personalized) expressing appreciation were sent, and about 10 days after the campaign ended, when all the bucks were counted (not unimportant: about 15 percent of donations came by check, much of it lagging after the “last day”) a final email, a note of appreciation and a tally of results, was sent to all who gave, informing them how many gave, and how much was given. A slice from one, through which NR’s philosophy is evident:

Over six days, close to $70,000 was raised . . . which may be the wrong way to put this. It implies we at NR “raised” it. That we achieved something through our diligence and hard work. Well, there’s truth to that, but—the prevailing and looming fact is we received what you gave. And what you gave selflessly, without having an iota of obligation.

These are the buy-in facts that donors—now comrades, now part of the band of brothers and sisters—deserve to know (and like to know). After all, they were solicited (We’re seeking to raise $70,000 and we need you . . .) to be part of a time-limited, goal-setting campaign.

When the webathons concluded, the work related to it had far to go. To all who gave, for those with home addresses (no, not every donor parts with that information) a longer letter, typically from the editor, would be mailed.

Done, no? No. This is where the hand cramps come in. Every donor who gave over $500, for whom NR had a mailing address (if none was entered at the time of donation, as often happens, NR tracked the email to the subscription list, assuming correctly in many cases that there was a significant overlap), received a hand-written note from me. Following the Buckley model, it came on a card of decent stock, smallish, sent in a small, hand-addressed envelope, licked shut, and adorned with a patriotic stamp—precisely the kind of postal missive that will always be opened. On the card was my name, position, email address, and cell phone number—donors had to be afforded access. The note, each one written (neat handwriting!) in ballpoint, might read something like this

Dear Dave, I had meant to write sooner because a gift so generous as yours deserved an immediate response. Don’t take my tardiness (I really am sorry) as an indication that we are anything but thrilled by your selflessness. I know I speak for all my colleagues when I tell you that what you have done is of material benefit, yep, but it also proves very inspiring—we cherish the camaraderie. Thanks very much, and God’s blessings on you and yours, Jack

In the aftermath of a webathon, this verbiage, or some version of it, would be written hundreds of times. In the course of a year, thousands. Fun? No. Achy? Yes. Time-consuming? Yes, but you find ways or make the time to do it.

Meaningful? Yes—but why?

Because the heartfelt, personal, and pen-smudged execution of saying thanks is deserved for those who give that amount considered a lot. Handwritten thank-yous may seem quaint, a decree of bygone etiquette—but the authority, Emily Post, makes the case for it remaining contemporary:

There is simply nothing as personal as a handwritten note. In a stack of bills and flyers, it's a treasure in a sealed packet, full of promise and potential. It is a visceral reminder of someone far away.

They are an opportunity for us to connect to the people in our lives in a meaningful way. In an increasingly informal digital world, continuing to pull out pen and paper is a way to distinguish yourself. The handwritten thank-you note speaks volumes simply as a medium and sends the message that you care enough to invest yourself personally in acknowledging another.

Handwritten notes still have a personality, warmth and, when needed, gravitas that computer screens don't. And questions of appropriateness aside, people still enjoy opening them. More than anything, that tells me they have lasting value. So, send a little joy someone's way.

Besides being instigators of happiness, the old-school-intimate efforts are a means of creating or deepening a relationship with the donor. The handwritten note—one with more than a short, bland phrase—in the hand-addressed envelope stands out in 2023.

Heck, it stood out in 1993. Maybe even 1923.

There is also a surprise consequence: The NR thank-yous on occasion were replied to with more donations (once, a $10,000 check), thereby setting off another round of gratitude-making (scorekeeping: a thank-you in response to the cash-attached thank-you which responded to the thank-you for the original donation).

The envelope-addressing hand-writing grind (and it is that, given the volume of notes our criteria mandated) in its way also familiarizes the leadership of an organization with the name and whereabouts of donors. You get to know the frequent fliers (I am always writing this guy . . . I think he gives $1,000 every time we run a campaign, or Hey, he’s in St. Louis and I am there the end of the month, maybe I should call him . . .). It is worthwhile to know the names and places of your always-there comrades!

But wait, there’s more: Despite formal printed and handwritten cards of thanks having been mailed, to keep alive the Buckley tradition of sending a gift in return for a donation (the standard was $100 or more), NR would print a small quality paperback book—for example, the “Collected National Review Writings of Whittaker Chambers”—that was intellectual, interesting, representative of NR (more so than a mug or a tee shirt) and easily and cheaply mailed.

Of course, accompanying each book was a handsome, pre-printed “exiguous token” note, like this one by Rich Lowry from a few years back:

Decades ago our founder, William F. Buckley Jr., established the tradition of the “exiguous token.” He believed it imperative to express both personal and institutional appreciation, via an actual item (the “token”), to those good people who supported National Review, thereby allowing it to continue to function, to fight, to “stand athwart history.” In fact, Bill contended he owned the magazine as a steward, on behalf of those very people—who obviously include . . . you. Suffice it to say NR embraces Bill’s principles, ways, and abiding conviction that gratitude is a fundamentally important thing. So, grateful for your kindness to NR, I hope you will accept the enclosed, a signed copy of my recent book, as a token, albeit exiguous, of our thanks, and of my own thanks, for your generosity to this institution, which remains in the fight because of your selflessness.

Was this all worth it—cards, letters, emails, books? The answer is evident in the continued existence of a publication—approaching its seventh decade—that has never once experienced an operating budget profit, and has never had a sugar daddy or billionaire owner. What National Review did have, though, were many donors who deserved—and received—gratitude that was fulsome and plentiful. Their continued buy-in to the transcendent idea that NR was a vital cause—one which, through their donation, now very much included them—is the thing that has enabled the magazine to remain operative and consequential.

Are NR’s ways and means in donor responsiveness a blueprint for success for other entities? In part, yes. Asking rhetorically: Aren’t the donors of any nonprofit entitled to the same or similar treatment—or, aren’t they entitled to something more than one run-of-the-mill, served-up-cold, smells-of-afterthought “thanks”?

From my own experience at National Review, which I acknowledge is a unique place with long-standing and hard-to-replicate traditions, there are some practical activities or mindsets that should prove of broader use for any nonprofit that needs to up its game with donors.

Don’t Put It Off. OK, you are struggling with bandwidth and manpower. But that is not reason to relegate thanking donors to the bottom of a priority list. Create the habit of thanking donors as part of your regular work week—and factor in that time especially when there is an upcoming online campaign, or an annual mailing. Try to perform some type of gratitude engagement as soon to the time of the donation as possible.

Real-Time Matters. If your organization is holding an online-giving campaign, stay on top of the donations during the effort, so you can gather information which will trigger your sending a quick email of appreciation to those who give at or above a level you find important.

Check Records Regularly Anyway. If you are not holding an online campaign, check the giving records weekly anyway—someone might have just sent a big donation independent of any formal effort. Some people receive a direct-mail request for support and give through the website at an unexpected time. If their gift has a lot of zeros before the decimal point, you need to know that, and they deserve a prompt note of thanks.

Make Nice Reply Cards. Have thank-you cards made (with appropriate envelopes—they have to fit!). You can design one that looks classy and still includes your name and title, an email address, the nonprofit’s web address, and of course the organization’s name. And have nice stamps on hand too!

Do More than Dash Off a Thank You. Gird your loins. Have a printout of names, addresses, maybe even donation amounts (though stating it in your message is not vital). You, yes you, hand address each envelope (No stickers! No personal printer!). Make sure you use a pen that doesn’t leak. Take an extra minute for each note and write a message that says something more than the basic Thanks so much! Sincerely, Jack.

Allow (and Repurpose) Donor Comments. If you have an online fundraising campaign, permit donor comments, and then consider using some of them to supplement the campaign, in the hopes that new donors might inspire future ones.

If you made it thus far, to the end, all there is left for me to do is to say this: Thank you.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about thanking: Reflections from years of thank-yous”

  1. LynnAnne Eddington says:

    Recently I was thinking “Gratitude was Gone” but now I’m inspired to return to my previous love of sending handwritten notes.
    Thank you Jack

  2. Max Harris says:

    Nice post, and I heartily agree.….One way to kind of marry the personalizing and the systemizing (by bringing to bear some automation to the handwritten note component) is provided by Thankster for Nonprofits (Thankster.com). Our solution allows you to send cards that use handwriting at greater scale (perhaps for your smaller donors). It’s done online, but you can still have the notes be in your own handwriting, and you can use your own imagery on the cover or inside, and merge fields in the body, for even greater personalization. And you can often integrate with software you already use.

    While pen to paper by your hand is the best, our product allows you to thank more donors in a way that usually wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *