The subject of receipts and acknowledgments comes up many times a week on discussion boards, list servs and other development forums. So I decided to give you my definitive perspective, my opinion on the receipt and acknowledgment issue. Again, this is a blog and is my opinion but I speak with donors quite frequently and will add anecdotes as needed to further my argument.
A receipt is a systematized document prepared in a mechanical and transactional way that allows the donor to use it for tax or other business purposes. It MAY (read should) have language of gratitude on it, but in no means should supplant or replace a proper thank you letter aka. Acknowledgment. Think of it this way, you're at a restaurant and you get the bill for dinner, you pay it and are left with a receipt. It may have nice language on it like "thanks for your business" or "see you soon" but it is a receipt for a transaction and people keep it for their records. Here is the receipt I helped design at NYU-Poly, note the thank you language and the pretty visuals, on the back is the donor bill of rights for proper information and stewardship to donors but at its core it is a receipt for a transaction, and in no way is it meant to supplant a proper thank you letter or email. The reason it is beautiful and not so dry is because if this is the one thing they keep from their donation, I want it to be branded and have visual impact along with pertinent information.
An acknowledgment is a thank you note, albeit on nice stationery with an official seal most of the time, it boils down to a thank you note. Thank you notes should NEVER have the amounts listed in them anywhere. The core reason I don't believe that a thank you note and receipt should be combined comes from the old Emily Post ideals my mother instilled in me. For example, when you receive a gift, you thank you note should NOT read: "Dear Grandmother, I just received your Birthday present and am thrilled. The blonde blue eyed Cabbage Patch doll, currently valued at $49.99 retail, is great and I am sure I will play with it and think of you. Thank you for thinking of me.” Doesn’t sound quite right now does it? That's because it’s not! Note here it also DOESN'T sound right in the note to ask for another gift, "Grandmother, I also have a great need for some Rainbow Brite dolls, something I know you understand and are passionate about." gag. But how many times have I received a receipt or thank you letter from a philanthropic organization with another ask. It's sad, and sounds desperate, kind of like a single girl in Manhattan (ahem), don't do it.
Why am I harping on this? Because so often we get it wrong. Donors now more than ever are giving small test gifts to see how your organization will treat them; I hear it time and time again. Send them just a receipt and you can plan on being ignored by them the next time around. EVERY gift, no matter the amount, deserves a thank you, no matter the form, in addition to their receipt.
This past week I was fortunate enough to attend a donor panel and we asked them about acknowledgments and receipts. Their answer was resounding and clear, send a receipt because they need it for accountants and such but they also expect a thank you. At higher levels, the interesting fact was that they didn't mind a template letter, they don't expect campus presidents to hand write all of their notes and are savvy enough to know we write them anyway. Why they did note as meaningful and desired is at the bottom of the template letter if the VP, President, etc. just jotted them a short note saying hello or thank you. This is what they want and what they need. Frankly, as much as we toil over our letters and stress over their wording and length, the tragic truth remains; they end up in the trash. I'm still looking for the donor who keeps all of my hard written acknowledgment template letters in a hand carved box next to his or her bed and rereads them nightly or so. It just doesn't happen in the real world, but they all keep the receipts, spend some more time and energy there to make sure they convey information in a meaningful and responsible way. Receipts are focused on a particular transaction or gift, while acknowledgments are focused on the donor.
So the moral of the story is that much like stewardship and donor relations, the words receipt and acknowledgment are not interchangeable. If they were, they'd be the same word. If you need help with your acknowledgments, check out the great acknowledgment swap here, and get your templates ready for this year's swap, scheduled for next month.
As always I welcome your thoughts and opinions.