After many years of living in the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington DC, my husband and I moved back to his hometown of Lexington, North Carolina in 2001. Living in a small town in rural county has given me an entirely new appreciation for the complexities involved in nonprofit management, fundraising, and marketing.

We have all of the various nonprofit agencies that you’d expect to find in any town, from hospice and the free clinic to the humane society and Girl Scouts. But we only have about 20,000 people in the city limits proper and 160,000 in the whole county. That equates to about 8,000 households in Lexington and about 20% of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. The local economy has been crushed by the outsourcing of textile and furniture manufacturing overseas. In other words, the services of all of these nonprofit agencies are desperately needed, but they are all competing against each other for slices of an already thin and crumbling pie.

How can a nonprofit stand out under these circumstances?

I met with one of our local nonprofits, Davidson Medical Ministries Clinic, last week to talk generally about nonprofit marketing as they consider investing more resources in this area. We discussed this and that, but what I really wanted to impress upon them is that nailing the basics is going to be far more effective in this environment than any newfangled approach.

Take the very simple, but much overlooked thank you note, for example. The first step is to actually do them. I made a batch of donations in the last month as part of my What I Got When I Gave experiment and have yet to receive a thank you note for the majority of the donations.

The thank-you notes I have received from the clinic have been professional and personalized – no big problem there. But I suggested that they could step it up a bit by including a note from or even a snapshot of a person who is receiving care at the clinic (with their permission, obviously). That kind of thank-you would more directly connect me with why I’m giving them money in the first place.

This made sense to them immediately. Sandy, the executive director, had her own memorable experience with a heart-felt and specific thank-you note. She shared a story with me about how even though she was exasperated from a long busy day, she decided to work a little harder and later to bend a few rules to more quickly process paperwork so they could provide care for a man who came in one day with a young family. While his wife and children were covered by Medicaid, he wasn’t, and with no health insurance at all, his diabetes went untreated for so long that he was at serious risk for even more devastating medical problems.

While his family waited for his new prescriptions to be filled at the clinic’s pharmacy, his small son asked Sandy for a piece of paper and a pencil. She assumed he was just bored and wanted to draw. But a few minutes later, that young boy came back with a picture he had drawn for Sandy of his family that said “Thank you for helping my daddy.” Sandy had to excuse herself so she could go cry in her office.

Thank you notes matter. A lot. Spend time on them. Even if you only customize 10 thank-you notes a week with more personal messages, stories or photos, that’s 10 more happy donors who’ll be likely to do even more for you next time you ask.