An “ask” in a thank you? It depends…

January 22, 2017

An email recently landed in my inbox, and it was all about the “ask.” As I’m sure you can imagine, it wasn’t the first email I’ve ever received about it, and it surely won’t be the last. The “ask” is such a nuanced thing, and it lives in a gray area, which is often the case when there’s no “one size fits all” approach for doing something the right way. Richinda wrote:

Good morning Pamela,

I hope you are well and Happy new Year.
Thank you for your continued emails and support to me. I really appreciate and try to read every one.

I read somewhere last year (and I cannot for the life of me find the article) that you should never send ANYTHING out, without an ask or at least a response card. I am writing my thank you letter for our annual tax receipts (we are in Canada) and I wondered if it would be appropriate to add in a response card? I don’t think an ask in the receipts is a good idea. You?

I’m not sure what article Richinda is referencing here, but overall, I’m in agreement.

But, here’s the thing, Richinda: for many years, I’ve advocated strongly against the practice of including a reply envelope in a thank you letter, and I’ve backed this stance up by referencing Lisa Sargent’s sage advice. Lisa is a fundraising copywriter and donor communications specialist. Quite frankly she has results that most direct response agencies can only dream of, and she’s been my go-to resource on all things stewardship for years.

The heart of the matter is this: our overriding goal as smart fundraisers is to create lifetime donor relationships.

Lisa makes the sound argument that making an ask within a thank you letter has the ability to damage donor loyalty, and it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. A thank you letter should be just that. Nothing less, nothing more. Reach out to your donors from a place of gratitude, and they’ll respond.

Again, there is no magic formula for the “ask;” no “one size fits all approach. You’re going to implement different processes for your new donors than for your major gift donors, or your long-time donors who’ve been making small gifts. In my Basics & More courses, I recommend creating a unique process that’s tailored to building long-term relationships with your new donors. After all, it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, so you’ll want to strike while the iron is hot and reach out to them right away.

Here’s what a sample plan might look like:

1. A thank you call. A study by the UK firm Pell & Bales found that thank you calls reduced donor attrition by a third. In his book, Retention Fundraising: The New Art and Science of Keeping Your Donors for Life, Roger Craver notes, “Overall, donors who have been phoned for one reason or another (it doesn’t seem to matter) show retention rates 15 percent higher than those who haven’t been contacted.”

My colleague, Tammy Zonker, says, “The most recent Penelope Burk survey (sneak peek) indicates 91% of respondents said thank you calls are their #1 preferred method of gift recognition.”

2. A snail-mailed thank you letter going out within 48 hours (regardless of how the gift was made). You say an email is good enough for an online gift? Think again. As Stephen Covey says (which I’ve preached for years): remember to keep the end in mind. As fundraisers, we’re looking to build lifetime relationships, and that means taking the extra time to make it personal. Everything is done by email these days, so don’t get lost in the shuffle. The written word generates more impact not despite fast track communications, but because of them. Besides, I don’t think your legacy society members came in the door via email thank yous, did they? Your organization’s thank you letter is the important first step in creating loyal donors who’ll stay with you for the long haul.

Does yours have all 10 essentials? It should. Check them out!And don’t forget to download our thank you letter template and add it to your arsenal of tools. This oh-so swipe-able template will help you inject your letters with donor love.

3. Following up within those first six weeks with an ask. Marketers call it the “honeymoon phase.” Six weeks is an ideal window of time, but what about the execution of your ask? Get creative and test things out to see what sticks, what resonates most. My suggestion? Try a followup welcome kit, like this marvelous one from Mercy Corps, which includes a BRE and a soft ask.

Try a phone call, too. Some donors may prefer it. Yes, different types of donors demand different approaches, but it goes even further than that, because every individual donor is different. Each person has their preferences, likes and dislikes, and stuff that makes them tick. Your job is to figure out what those preferences are. And every organization is unique in their communication processes, but every organization needs to have the systems in place to communicate with optimal efficiency. Summed up in a few words…

Your job is to know your donor.

It’s not hard to see why the “ask” falls into a gray area. It lives within the realm of donor communication, which in itself is very nuanced. But knowing your donor goes a long way, pointing you in the direction of long-term sustainability. This knowing is at the very crux of every Basics & More course.

So…back to Richinda’s question. She notes that she’s sending out your thank you letters for annual tax receipts. Her long-time donors might appreciate having an extra envelope for giving purposes. How many fundraisers have seen gifts come in using a coded envelope from five, even 10 years ago?

Test it. Track the results.

Take it one step further. Send a third of those donors a reply envelope along with the tax receipt letter, and track the results.

Fundraising is both an art and a science, and all good scientists (and artists) regularly test.

Remember, building lifetime donor relationships isn’t just your job and your goal. It should be your nonprofit’s way of life.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Richinda Bates January 23, 2017 at 9:27 am

WOW! Didn’t expect that one. 🙂

The “I read somewhere last year (and I cannot for the life of me find the article) that you should never send ANYTHING out, without an ask or at least a response card.” was not on your site…it was somewhere else.

Thank you for your help!

Howard January 26, 2017 at 3:29 pm

The bottom line is that you need to keep data on anything you do. Data rarely lies.

If you are in fundraising and don’t capture actionable data with a solid game plan on data based actions you are way behind the competition.

Pamela Grow June 20, 2017 at 9:46 pm

Data rarely lies. Absolutely. Thanks, Howard.

Denisa L Casement September 21, 2018 at 9:28 am

I just clicked through from another of Pam’s terrific posts.

I agree, data doesn’t lie. But many times we track and strategize short term metrics. This is a perfect example. A short term metric of how many people send a gift when you ask in a TY, vs. when you don’t ask, is a short sighted metric. Retention is strongly impacted by the Ask/Thank/Report cycle. A 2nd overt ask before the donor has received a warm thank you and a bountiful and flattering report back, will impact retention. Many times our reductive methods of measuring one element do not adequately measure the entire donor experience. And it’s that overall donor experience that will determine Life Time Value… the ultimate metric.

Having said that… popping a rely envelope into a very warm and human thank you letter seems to be interpreted as a convenience rather than an ask. It’s a good compromise. If you really want them to give pop in a small, extra piece that tells a story about the change they are bringing to the world. An extra shot of “you’re amazing, look what you’ve done” is more likely to inspire another gift and improve retention than an overt ask.

Pamela Grow September 27, 2018 at 7:24 am

I couldn’t agree more! We all want these black and white “do this, don’t do that” answers – when the answer is usually it depends. What are your donors telling you? Are you LISTENING?

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