The Dismal Results of My Online Giving Experiment

Or, Can a Girl Get a Thank-You Note, Please?

Back on November 24, 2008, I cashed in a bunch of credit card miles through Capital One’s No Hassle Giving Site, converting them into cash gifts to charities. Capital One partnered with Network for Good to deliver the donations to the charities. I specifically selected 12 national charities that I had not previously contributed to, but whose missions I support, in order to see what the communications response would be to my $25 gift. On the form, I opted-in to share my contact information with the charities and provided both email and mailing addresses. I called it the “What I Got When I Gave” experiment.

I’ve been waiting all this time to report back on the experiment in hopes that the results would change, but they haven’t. It’s pitiful. Of the 12 national charities I gave to, only four — a measly 33% — acknowledged the gift in any way. (I also gave to three regional charities where I live and the percentage was the same – only 1 of the 3 acknowledged the gift.)

The fastest response came from National Public Radio, which sent me an email thank-you note addressed to “Dear Friend” on December 10. Personalization would have been nice, but at least they get the Gold Star for timeliness. I haven’t received any other communication from NPR since.

interplasthankyouThe next three all came within a day of each other, on January 6-7, 2009. Both Interplast and The Alliance for Climate Protection sent paper thank-you letters, addressed to me personally.

The Alliance mentioned receiving the gift through Network for Good on December 15, which would have been Network for Good’s next payment distribution day after my gift. Given the holidays, I have no problem with the date I received the letter. It was a standard form thank-you letter – nothing stand-out about it, but adequate.

Interplast’s thank-you letter was great. I’m a big fan of their blog because of their effective storytelling, and the thank-you letter does the same thing. Instead of a bunch of generic successes (which are better than none at all, I guess), they tell me a story and include before and after pictures! I’m constantly telling people to include pictures in thank you notes (see here and here), so I’m glad to see a nonprofit doing it well. Way to go, Interplast!

I haven’t received any additional communication from either Interplast or the Alliance for Climate Protection since the thank-you letters.

St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital didn’t send a thank-you note, but they did add me to their Hopeline email newsletter list and I’ve received the January and February 2009 editions.

I’m obviously really disappointed in not hearing a peep from the other eight. But, ever the supporter of nonprofits, I have come up with several potential reasons (uh, excuses) why this may be the case:

  • $25 is chump change to them and doesn’t merit acknowledgment. I know there is significant debate out there about what you do with low-dollar donors. I hoped that $25 was high enough to generate some kind of response, but apparently not.
  • Since I cashed in miles, they don’t think it’s a “real” gift (even though Network for Good sent them real money).
  • It was the holidays and the gift fell through the cracks.
  • Giving through Network for Good is not their preferred means of receiving online gifts — they’d prefer to get them through their own website — so they are not set up to acknowledge gifts like mine.
  • The post office and/or Gmail’s spam filter ate their thank-you notes.

Do any of these hold water with you?

You may also be wondering what I was really expecting. I think each charity should have acknowledged the gift either via email or in print. Either one or both is acceptable, given that it was an online gift. Since I supplied my email address, I would have been fine being added to an e-newsletter list. Or, they could have strongly encouraged me to join a list in the thank-you note (or subscribe to a blog), with very explicit instructions for how to do that and a motivating description for why I would want to. So, none of the four who responded knocked it out of the park for me, but they all get kudos for responding at all.

Right about now, you are probably dying to know who the other 8 organizations are. I’m really torn about naming names, because as I said at the top, I really do believe in the missions of every single one of them and I would hate for their inclusion in this post to tarnish them in any way. So I’m not printing them here, at least not right now. But I definitely thought about it . . . C’mon, people, can’t a girl get a thank you note?!?

What do you think? Do these results surprise you or not?  Are any of the rationales for no response legitimate? What would your group have done with a $25 donation from out of nowhere? Please leave a comment and let’s talk about it!

3/12/09 Update: Here is my follow-up post: Saying Thanks Even When It’s Inconvenient or Time-Consuming

3/13/09 Update: The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “Prospecting” section picked up this post. Read more comments there.

  • Sandy Rees

    Sigh. I’m not surprised by your results, though I wish it were different. I think you’re probably right that national organizations might see $25 as too small to bother with, but technology today is too easy to work with. How hard is it to acknowledge an online gift through email?? I hope these organizations read your blog post and decide to change their ways!

    Sandy Rees
    Fundraising Coach

  • Beth Kanter

    Here’s what the Sharing Foundation does for any gift, even $5!

    I personally thank as many people as I could via my blog, email, message on FB for any campaign. And, I had the kids in Cambodia make this special thank you

    We write personalized thank you notes and send in the snail mail. This is a pet peeve of our founder, Dr. Nancy Hendrie.

    Here’s the thing, yes it is time consuming. But you never know what will happen from those $10, $25 gifts — I’ve had several 5-digit gifts come from donors who initially gave $10 and were thanked with a personal thank and treated like royalty.

  • Rachel Pena

    I personally print a postcard for every donation we receive (that includes contact information, of course)… I figure that if it is enough to cover a quarter of an 8.5×11 page and $0.27 stamp and have some left over, it deserves a thank you. However, now you’ve got me brainstorming ways to make the postcards more personal.

  • Judi Sohn

    I’m not sure you’re being fair. It’s not about the $25, or that it comes from “nowhere.”

    Have you considered that part of the problem might be with Network for Good? They don’t make it as easy as they could for organizations to track/acknowledge gifts that come through them.

    Our organization will send a paper thank you within a week for a $2 cash gift, but fall behind on NFG donations because they require the nonprofit to log in to their website to get donor details, and the export file they provide is not very database-friendly. For example, the name of the donor is in a single field, and their address is in a single field as well. It takes a bit of work in Excel to take their data and make it usable. For the volume of donations we get through NFG (not a lot) and the amount of work it takes to import into our database so we can send out letters and work the donors into our community, it’s something we do in batches while we acknowledge check and online donations within days.

    If you really want to test, send the same organizations a gift through their website or write them a check. Maybe even make it half the amount you gave through NFG. I bet you anything the results would be very different.

    Don’t get me wrong, we’re grateful for every cent we get from any source. And we love that we can get support through a variety of wonderful companies like NFG. But please don’t assume that organizations have a ready-built system for dealing with these oddly-formatted donations. It’s not as simple as it looks.

  • Roger Carr

    Hi Kivi,

    Thanks for reporting out the results of your experiment. I remember when you were trying to decide how to divide the funds for the donations. It is very sad to read the results you received. Especially during this time when the economy isn’t our friend. There have been many articles and blog posts written recently to emphasize it is more important than ever to thank donors (and then thank them again). I hope your experiment is a wake up call to those organizations that need it.

  • Kathryn Elsayed

    Sorry to say that Thank You notes are a thing of the past! That takes manners, which are disappearing at a rapid rate. Not being rude myself, I just have just noticed this personally even when it came to giving “friends” birthday presents. No mention of even if they liked it! So, if you expect a charity to do other than grab the money, look for ones that are personal, small and run by real people, not computers.

    Sorry to hear you are down from the experience. I believe that one should not expect anything, then when you get something, your both surprised, and thrilled!

  • Harlan Dalluge

    A fundraising expert, a personal friend of mine, sent $100 contributions to five national charitable groups as year-end contributions. He had one immediate thank you (Teen Challenge), one late printed non-personal thank you and three no responses. He was upset–as you expressed–so called two national offices to complain. Both blew it with impersonal excuses and still no thank you responses. He called me from his Palm Springs home (I now live in Kentucky) to express his frustration and to blow off steam. This friend was co-owner of “Fundraising Associates” in San Francisco that raised millions of dollars for churches, hospitals, universities, etc…so well aware of the huge mistake these organizations are making. He now has a new list of recipients for his charitable contributions.

  • Adam

    I do think that thank you notes are simply proper etiquette but are becoming a relic of the past.

    Recently, I’ve seen groups express “thanks” to all the donors from the week/month in one complete blog post. This is a great way to at least acknowledge all of the donors in the past month while not being consumed by writing personal notes.

  • Maya Lynn

    I agree with Judi that, although we appreciate Network for Good and the fact that it makes online donations possible, we receive few NFG donations and are unaware of the contribution until a week or two afterwards. Furthermore, we are a four-person staff managing over 100 volunteers. We, too, write our thank-yous in batches. We would like to be able to be more timely, and we are working on that, but each staff member has about four different job descriptions that we are juggling at any one time. Your points are apt, Kivi — timely acknowledgments are important, but when it comes to a choice between meeting a major grant deadline and getting the thank-you out immediately, the sole person responsible for both jobs has to make a choice. This is the trade-off of keeping our administrative costs very very low so that 88 percent of funding goes to direct services.

  • Maureen

    I work for an organization that puts acknowledging gifts of any size (last year we had gifts ranging from $3.00 to $3 million) as its first priority. A gift of any size gets a personalized gift acknowledgment with a handwritten note with a 24-48 hour turn around. I think what the ‘big boys’ have forgotten is that all of these gifts, however small, come from human beings who care about their cause. They forget that for some people a $25 gift is a huge gesture. The good news for the smaller, local groups is that it leaves plenty of room to distinguish yourself from the crowd and keep the dollars flowing your way.

  • http://NA Susan Hamilton

    I think it’s interesting that none of the organizations you mentioned in your article have responded to you. Very sad!
    I donated money in the name of several relatives as gifts; they have so much they didn’t need more to Heifer. My relatives love it! This is the organization that provides needy families throughout the world with livestock to improve their lives. I think I gave a cow and a couple of sheep in their names. Now I have the opposite problem, they won’t leave me alone. Certainly there must be some middle ground.

  • Lisa

    Your experience with these organizations is most disturbing. At our agency, we have a policy: Thank before you Bank. That includes even the smallest donations. My experience with NFG is that I’m notified within 24 hours of a donation. The process is involved to log in and get to the report that details who made the donation, but I’ve found it beneficial.

    Case in point, a donor to our FB cause made a donation of $25, for which we promptly thanked him via e-mail as he did not give a mailing address. (We normally send personalized letters in the mail for all donations.) The next day, he made a second donation with promises to give more when his personal finances were better.

    My speculation is that both national and local agencies are finding more work on their plate (with fewer staff) as funds dwindle. Even though we are facing a similar crunch, we realize that now is the time to build relationships that will survive the economic woes, resulting in bigger commitments later on. The larger agencies simply can’t miss that point right now and use any donation to build relationships.

    Hopefully the experiences you had, which are probably shared by many, won’t make you less likely to support the causes you care about. The trick is to find those agencies who’ll engage you in multiple ways going forward.

  • Rachel Pena

    NPs are generally seen as the “good” of a “bad” world – whether the rest of the world sends thank yous or not, it is expected of us. It’s good practice.

    I just tested NFG’s process of getting donors’ info. The user name was easy – our EIN. However, I couldn’t remember the password. I clicked “forgot my password,” retrieved the password from my email, logged into NFG, clicked for a report of donations, and there was our two donors’ addresses and emails. THE ENTIRE PROCESS TOOK LESS THAN SIXTY SECONDS! (And, I was notified by email the day that the donations were made)

    As the way that donations are made to us changes, we need to adapt to the way that receive and thank them. This means taking the time to retrieve a forgotten password to get the contact info from our new donors. If someone has provided us with their contact info where they had to option to remain anonymous, they WANT to hear something from us. I urge other NPs to take 10-30 minutes at the beginning of each week to thank each donor from the week before.

  • Stacie Mann

    Thanks for your post Kivi and for all the additional feedback. I work at Network for Good and wanted to chime in to let you know that we are listening to what everyone has to say. We too wish you had seen better results in terms of follow-up from the charities and we would like to improve upon this process.

    Here are some of the things that we do right now to help charities cultivate donors that have made donations through the Network for Good Giving System:

    1. Email notification — Like Lisa said, we send an automatic email to the charity that includes a summary of the donations made to that organization for that day. The email includes a link to our donation tracking report where the charity can access details on the donors who have decided to share their information.

    2. Donation Tracking Report — We make the donor information accessible for charities at anytime — we understand that time is precious when you are juggling jobs. Like Judi said, registration is required but we feel like this is a necessary step for security. In addition to the donor details we provide information on where the donation was made so that charities can segment their follow-up. The data can be exported in excel, a file format common to most databases.

    2) Payment Notification – When we send the donations to charities we include an insert with a paper check or an email if we are sending the payment via EFT. Included in those communications we include detailed steps for charities including recommendations to thank their donors directly.

    While we currently make the data as accessible as possible we will strive to incorporate your suggestions and remind charities about the importance of acknowledging gifts they have received through Network for Good.

  • Shannon Aronin

    I am really disturbed by the results of this experiment. I was almost moved by the NFG excuse, as I don’t have experience receiving gifts from them, but then someone else said they have no problem with it. So much can be automated, and I agree with you, while a personalized hand written thank you note is always appreciated, ANY form of thank you will do so long as you acknowledge the gift. And this excuse about manners going out the window I believe is also hogwash. While thank you notes to your aunt who sent you a sweater is manners, an acknowledgement of a charitable gift is simply the most basic of good fundraising practice. In other words, DO YOUR JOB! And in these trying times, yes, nonprofits are forced to do more with less. Staff members are working harder and staying later — something that before may have seemed impossible as they are already stretched so thin. But really, not following up on gifts is only going to make times even tighter. I mean the whole thing can be automated in any # of ways. Sorry to the nay sayers, but I’m with Kivi, any reason for not having gotten her a thank you note by now is just an excuse.

    Kivi, what do you plan to do next? I mean I think it was the right thing to do not to publicly shame the ones who didn’t send a thank you note. However… I do think some DoDs could use a little reminder. Do you plan to email them a link to this blog post with all the comments? Phone calls to the E.D.s? I’m just wondering b/c I think this could be a huge learning opportunity for these orgs. if they are notified appropriately.

    Last year I made a gift of $200 t a charity, but did it in someone else’s name. I NEVER received confirmation from the org. or the person in whose name the gift was made (although it was a guilt gift so not sure I expected him to acknowledge it). I just wanted to know that it was acknowledged at least to the recipient and despite a few phone calls was never able to receive. I finally just gave up.

    I guess a lot of development staff are just overwhelmed by their job duties these days.

    I also think that if these charities knew who you are, a thought leader with a large following that writes about nonprofit issues, it would have been handled much differently. But that would require looking at the name (sheesh, another very basic principle) and actually reading the nonprofit blogs. Any of them. Most of them link to you. Most of these nonprofit staff should be reading you. It’s like serving a crappy meal in a restaurant to someone you SHOULD know is a food critic.

  • Darrin Wasniewski

    Thank you for the post. While we acknowledge every gift I must admit that we don’t go out of our way to personalize the acknowlegdement. You’ve given me great things to think about.

  • Christine

    You know, when we receive donations via Network for Good, it is very time-consuming process to access WHO actually gave the money. And with very limited staff, it is sometimes not viable given all that we must do. Perhaps Network for Good can make this information, including mailing address and/or email more available when the money is donated. Like many other nonprofits, receiving doantions through our own website allows us to own the information that goes along with it.

  • Hannah Moore

    Best practices are fairly well established in this area: 24-48 hours to send a thank you from the time you open the envelope or see the email from NTG. It should be personalized (with Mail Merge it’s easy, and with email, oh my, even easier). I print up a thank you on letterhead acknowledging the amount of the donation and how it will be used, and our Executive Director signs each and every one and adds a short “thank you for your support” in his own hand. Kivi, send us your $25 and test us!

  • Jessica Junis

    I’m the Communication Manager for JFCS Arizona. My organization would have sent a personalized letter, and we definitely would have added you to our email listserve. This response from us would have been automatic and quick! I think the experiment was a great idea, and I appreciate you sharing your findings!

  • Anne Hansen

    I wonder if its the way that the gifts were transmitted to the charities. Does the credit card company do a lump sum transfer, that shows up on a bank statement? Perhaps if the charities are not very sophisticated, (or overwhelmeed or busy) or only a finance type person sees the statements, they didn’t think to drill down to see individual donations coming in this way. This might also explain why some were somewhat late–perhaps they weren’t notified until they received the monthly statement. It’s a good heads up and reminder to all of us that donations come into our organizations in many ways, and we’d better be tracking them. The thank you is SO IMPORTANT!

  • Jennifer Kohnke

    We are a small non-profit of approximately 10 paid staff. For every single donation we receive — no matter the amount — we mail either a printed thank you letter, personally addressed to the donor with a personal message written at the bottom, or a seasonally-themed card with “Dear So-and-so” handwritten at the top. These are mailed with the donor’s receipt either the same day we receive the donation or the next day, barring extenuating circumstances…

  • Charles

    This is an informative post. As a gift processing staff member for a large non-profit, I can tell you that NFG’s and some other online donation sites make it very difficult to retrieve donor information. Frequently, people don’t even report their information. It is true that we need to adapt. Our team is in the process of determining how we go about acknowledging gifts from places like NFG’s. We certainly do send snail mail, hand signed letters to any size donation — $1 even. Great post that will give me a story to tell my team during our next meeting.

  • Laurie

    As someone who is new to the world of development but is a veteran ‘giver,’ I believe there needs to be a balance between the acknowledgment and appreciation of gifts and the persistent flood of mailings and e-mails that often follow once you’ve contributed to an organization. I appreciate organizations that ask if I want to be contacted in the future, and have sometimes chosen to stop giving to organizations that continually fill my mailbox.

  • Jason

    I can’t offer any real defense for the charities. I happen to agree that they should have sent a thank you. Especially if it would allow them to say – “and check out our blog” or “here’s our newsletter.” On the other hand, I believe that giving WITHOUT EXPECTATION is the key to actually getting anything in return, ever. As soon as we expect something in return from an individual, or in this case a group, we negate the positive effect our giving has had in the cosmos, creating a net neutral.

    Now, does the thought that a thank you note would appear in the mail or email box really seem to be an “expectation.” I don’t know.

    Just a thought.

  • Robin Donovan

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t get an acknowledgement from everyone! I don’t do development at my org., but I do hand write thank you notes for all in-kind donations, big and small. It might sometimes take me longer than I’d like to get to writing the note, but I make sure everyone gets one.

  • Chris Noonan

    Your simple, fascinating yet telltale experiment inspired me to write a blog post on this topic for Philanthropy Potluck, the blog of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. Here’s the link:

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Carolyn Berry Copp

    We must all remember that whether a contribution is for $5 or $5000, it is still a gift that deserves thanks. It also could be the beginning of a long term relationship. But if it isn’t acknowledged it is definitely the end of a relationship.

  • Jen McKnight

    I wonder if part of the challenge has to do with some non-profits stuggling to keep up with technology and the ability to utilize it well. As a fundraiser I have received Network For Good contributions, and we always prompty acknowledged them. I think your comment about Network for Good not being thier online method of choice is probably true. It would be interesting to repeat the same experiment but send in checks of $25 and compare response rates as well as donate directly through the charities’ websites.

  • Janet

    Since some of the responses complain that acknowledging donations through NFG is too tedious, but say that donating on their websites would get an immediate response, perhaps they should reconsider being on NFG’s list. If it’s too much trouble to thank their donors, they should take their fundraising efforts elsewhere. Honestly. I’m disgusted.

  • Sharon

    I just took over a development manager position in a medium-sized non-profit, and one of the first things I changed was the end-of-the-month form thank-you letter, opting instead for personalized, handwritten thank you notes. It just takes a few minutes at the end of each day, and I actually look forward to it. It also familiarizes me with the donors, that hopefully will result in larger and more frequent gifts in the future.

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  • Charlotte Fong

    It’s awful when people don’t acknowledge you for your hard work but charities! They would probably say that they’re too busy and they have too many people giving to them so they can’t keep track of all the people who give.

    Even so they should at least write a generic email that thanks their fund raisers so that they can then send the email to you after receiving your donation. It wouldn’t take long to copy and paste a message and change a name or two.

    I’m working at a company called Thanksto and they’ve set up a site where people can thank each other and acknowledge one another. We have managed to get a few charities on our site which I think is great because this shows that at least they care enough to want to thank their sponsors and fund raisers!

  • Sasha

    Just curious what everyone thinks is a reasonable turn around time for a thank you letter. For example how soon after you send the check do you want to receive a letter back?

    Just to keep it real here’s some facts… first class mail takes 3 to 7 days… that’s both ways from the donor to the organization and again from the organization back to the donor. Once the mail arrives it has to be sorted, the deposits created and the batches sent to the processing volunteers, then the volunteers enter the batches and a staff member checks them. Once that’s done the letters are processed and printed up. Then they have to be stuffed into envelopes and then they have to go to the receptionist to be stamped and picked up by the post office.

    So… keeping all that in mind along with the fact that several hundred come in each day during busy times… what is a reasonable time frame? I’d really like to know because I work for a non-profit and I printed out 400 thank you letters today… I had to laugh at the person who said they wrote personal hand-written thank you’s at the end of each day… there’s no way I could have done that. Great if you can but… just not possible.

    As you can tell this is an important topic to me (and I have to tell you that we would have acknowledged your donation if you had selected us) Thanks for the blog… it’s wonderful!!

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  • Terri

    Thank you so much for this article and for including it in your top 10. I also am responsible for sending thank you notes and I pride myself on doing it in a timely fashion. However, I was always about a month or more late for those who donated via Network for Good. I would have to manually go into the account each month and find the donors. It was embarrassing to send them so late!

    Thanks to Rachael Pena’s comment, I found that the old Development Manager’s email address was still active in the Network for Good system and that was why I received no notifications! I changed it yesterday and today I had three donations in my Inbox! These were large and I would have really been upset if they didn’t get thank you notes right away. Thank you so much.

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  • Frank

    You never know how a relationship with a one-time $20 or $25 donor might blossom into something more, especially if the organization puts in the effort to get to know the donor and give that donor a sense of connection to the nonprofit.

    Did you ever communicate to the organizations you didn’t hear from? I’d think those organizations would want to know if there is a breakdown somewhere between receiving the donation, and acknowledging the donor. At the least, they might want to take another look at their acknowledgement policies.

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