Fundraising Q/A: What’s the best “thank you” that you’ve ever received, as a donor?

That’s actually a hard question to answer because there have been so many good ones over the years. (That would fall into the good news category, I think.)

What makes for a “good one”? For me, it reflects three things.

  • First, it makes reference to why the gift is important to something that I care about.
  • Second, it reflects the fact that the organization’s fundraisers and I may have talked once in a while; there’s a personal touch.
  • Third, it’s future-oriented; it gives me an idea of what the future could look like, for the organization overall and the initiative I am supporting in particular.

To illustrate, I will share a recent experience that snowed me. It occurred in the context of a $1.5 billion fundraising campaign by the Smithsonian, but there are lessons for any organization of any size, I believe.

Founded in 1846 through a bequest to U.S. Government, the Smithsonian has grown to include 19 museums, 9 research centers and the National Zoo based in Washington D.C. It welcomes 30 million visitors (free of charge) and registers 141 million online visits.

The Smithsonian’s $1.2 billion annual budget consists of federal funds (65%) and private gifts, endowment earnings and corporate gifts (35%). As part of its strategic planning process, leadership decided that private philanthropy needed to increase, and launched its first organization-wide fundraising campaign.

The campaign’s goal is to raise $1.5 billion. Its quiet phase began in October 2010. By 2014, it had raised more than $1 billion including 192 gifts of over $1 million. The public phase would continue through 2017.

Now – finally – to my story.

To celebrate the campaign’s public opening, the Smithsonian hosted a dinner for donors who had given money during the quiet phase. My wife Fredi and I were invited. Midway through a very inspiring evening, envelopes were delivered to each guest at their tables.

Inside the envelopes were handwritten thank you notes from the head of whichever Smithsonian unit the donor was supporting. (For me, that was astronomy; for Fredi it was educational services.) The notes were short and sweet, and personalized.

I was very impressed because I have tried to manage that sort of thing and know how hard it is to do right. The Smithsonian development people managed to organize people to write the letters and (no mean feat) get them to the right people at the right table at the right time. And, as a donor, I felt that my contribution was important and appreciated. Well done!

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