Thursday, July 26, 2012

You say "tomato" I say "tomato" - Why Receipts and Acknowledgments Are NOT Interchangeable

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.


 

14 comments:

  1. Thank you for a great post. Very helpful. For donors that give monthly, do you send acknowledgements monthly? How do you steward those donors?

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    1. No, we send them once a year. If they give monthly, like I do at many places, the only want one receipt and one acknowledgment per year.

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    2. And do you send them based on when they started giving or do you send them all out at the same time each year? For example, if John started giving in March and Sally started giving in June do you receipt them for years to come in those months or do you start there and then move to calendar year end? Thanks for your help with this!

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    3. Nope, we always send them calendar year end. The donors like it because it helps for tax time!

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  2. We've always (i'm giggling as I write the phrase) sent out receipts with each gift even when fulfilling a pledge. I've battled for once / year because how many pieces of paper do you need and tried to turn our acknowledgment into more of a communication piece than just a "thank you" so the donor feels more engaged and learns a new piece of info about the organization.
    These are definitely two separate items but you're right, a lot of organizations interchange. I do put both in one envelope - should I re-think?

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    Replies
    1. I would rethink. Combining into one might save US money, but does it send the wrong message to donors. Once per year is adequate, you might want to check out some of the monthly giving surveys that note this and study best practices so you can eliminate the waste.

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  3. Spot on! Acknowledgements deepen the relationship with the donor; receipts go to the accountant. Don't forget to include the check number.

    Z

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  4. I am being asked to include a cc to deans and department heads on the donor's acknowledgement letters as an internal method of advising university personnel when new gifts have been received.

    Seems like this is a big faux-pas...making the acknowledgement letter multi-purpose by using it as an internal tool. Am I wrong to think this diminishes the impact of the thank you?

    Your thoughts?

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    1. Absolutely! no good- especially since the donor will see it!

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    2. I think our donors would think us wasteful if we sent two mailings...a receipt and a thank you note. Would it be okay to send the two in one mailing rather than two since money is so tight??? Do you hold onto the practice that every gift, no matter how small receives a thank you?

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    3. We're a small nonprofit. It seems that both a receipt for a mailed check and then another thank you would come across as excessive use of time and funds. Our one letterhead comprised 99% of thanking with specific mentions about how the funds are put to use and one small mention of the donation amount feels right. Other approaches? We're essentially a 1-person shop with freelance admin assistance.

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  5. Really great, helpful piece - although I am not sure about the "single girl in Manhattan" reference. Ick.

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  6. I know this post is old(er), but can you share what data you have to support your assertions? A small focus group is great feedback, but suffers from group think. A survey is better, but people respond what you want them to hear instead of what they actually do (just ask Hillary). I guess I am looking for real data from a true A/B test that shows sending acknowledgements separately from receipts is a good move.

    I.e., I believe you when you say that 'Donors prefer' this, but if the cost, or lost revenue doesn't support the argument, then why make one donor happy when 1.x are comfortable and also give more money?

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    Replies
    1. Jon we have tons of data in Penelope Burk's studies and surveys we do with donors

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