Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Best Practices: Acknowledgments

Another fabulous guest post by friend, mentor and colleague, Debbie Meyers!

Whether you’re creating, enhancing or reviewing youracknowledgment protocol, the process is often overwhelming. All the questions that buzz around our heads!

Who should sign the letters? At what level? Hand sign or machine sign? Does it need to be a letter? Do we acknowledge pledges? Do we treat corporate gifts differently from individuals– because, really, does the Australian Chicken Council (real life example) find a letter from our president meaningful?

Our standard go-to solution is to benchmark our peers. Often we have no choice – our well-meaning but sometimes less-than-imaginative decision-makers require us to see what our “aspirational and inspirational” (don’t ya just love a good buzz phrase?!) peers are doing.

Benchmarking, as I’ve noted before, has its limitations. And for acknowledgments in particular, I would say benchmarking is irrelevant. What is relevant are a number of factors that can help guide you toward a reasonable system.

Climb up to the top of the mountain and look out over your institutionGet a firm grasp of the big picture that is uniquely your institution. What do you see? Ask yourself:

What does you institution consider a major gift?
If your president is signing letters for $2,000 gifts to the annual fund and your major gift level starts at $100,000, something’s off. It’s not that $2,000 gifts aren’t important. They are. I would LOVE for someone to give me $2,000!! And they should be acknowledged.

But having your organization’s leader sign letters for gifts at too low of a level can create a negative perception aboutyour organization and sense of entitlement among lower-level donors. If everyone is special, no one is special.Moreover, a form letter from the president with a digital signature is practically meaningless and borders on junk mail. So how do you know where to draw the line? Check your data –

How many gifts at which levels does your institution receive over a year?
You can’t blindly set up levels for acknowledgments without knowing how many letters you’re talking about. You need context. If your president has only enough time to hand write 10 cards a week, then see at what level those topten are. Then ask:

What kind of leader and staff resources do you have?
Does your chancellor enjoy handwriting notes? Is yourpresident willing to devote the time it takes to write the number of thank-you’s you want? Will your CEO sit on letters until they’re hopelessly out of date? Do you have adequate staff to carefully research each gift and donor to craft a letter that will get framed and hung on a wall? Or do you have one person whose duties include 50 things, among them presidential correspondence?

 Are other departments also doing acknowledgments?
Find out if other departments, colleges, schools or units within your organization are sending letters, to whom and under what conditions. That information will help you avoid holes in the overall process.

Armed with big picture information, let’s look at a more detailed plan by plugging in these factors:
gift amount – identify the natural groupings, breaks and cutoffs.
gift type – choose what you’ll acknowledge: cash, pledges, pledge payments, on-line gifts.
gift allocation – find out which are already being acknowledged or those needing to be covered centrally.
donor affiliation  label the groups receiving special or different treatment, like VIPs, trustees, major donors, first-time donors and corporations/foundations.
medium  determine your delivery method: email, phone call, hand-signed form letter, electronic signature form letter, individualized hand-signed letter, handwritten note

Then add in two key guiding principles:
The best acknowledgments come from the person/entity benefiting most directly from the gift.
Acknowledgments are an institutional response to a gift. To be effective, they must be timely, accurate and sincere.

Acknowledgments are an art and a science. The science of timeliness and accuracy are mechanical functions that you will iron out with your IT and data management colleagues. The art of sincerity comes through not only in the language, which should be refreshed frequently, but through the person signing the letter. A thank-you from a person who has little to no connection to the gift will not be as sincere as one from someone who directly benefits from it.

Considering your criteria factors and guiding principles, you’re ready to create a grid or hierarchy for your acknowledgments.

Start at the top.
Given the volume of letters, your resources and leader’s availability, determine who will get a leadership acknowledgment. For instance, a board member who gives $5,000 will probably qualify because of affiliation, even though you set the dollar level at $100,000. Document any criteria that make sense for your institution and your top leader. Then, for everything else…

Divide and conquer.
A staff of two cannot effectively manage sending out 10,000 letters a year. So weigh and balance a reasonable workload, playing off quality vs. quantity, which often translates into timeliness vs. personalization. Which is better – a timely and accurate form letter, or an eloquent personalized letter that arrives a month after the gift is made? Figure out where you want to draw your line in the sand.

Then find the holes for allocation. Who would acknowledge $10,000 unrestricted gifts (no dean, not high enough for the president)? Can you eliminate on-line gifts under a certain threshold by simply replying with an electronic acknowledgment? (Yes, you can and should.)

Many institutions have the VP for development sign second-tier gifts. Depending on your staff resources and how strongly our VP feels about it, you may want to re-think that strategy. At a university, for example, if thebusiness school dean acknowledges gifts of $1,000 and higher, and your president acknowledges $50,000 and up, you can be reasonably confident that the $10,000 business school donor will get a letter from the business dean and really could care less (in many cases) about a form letter from a VP for advancement, whose job it is to raise moneyand has no direct stake in the welfare of the business school. (See Guiding Principal #1.)

The process and rules are not going to be the same for every institution. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, no one is you-er than you.Using the information and theory you gain through this process, you should be able to create a meaningful, effective acknowledgment system that would make even Penelope Burk proud!

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