The Missing Thank You Note: Lessons on Why You Need To Write More

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Last week I received two thank you cards in the mail. The first one was from a dear friend who is expecting a baby soon and graciously took all of the stuff my twins have outgrown. The second was from my sister who thanked me for hosting her for a visit earlier in the month. As I read each card I noticed that my mood instantly brightened and my smile grew bigger—I felt so special and appreciated by people whom I love and respect.

My mother, while the very opposite of prim and proper, is a staunch believer in the handwritten thank you note. You may not be able to read half of the words because her handwriting is so poor, but dang it, you know she cared enough to scrawl it out. Every time she comes to visit me, all the way from Arizona, she sends me a note thanking me for the visit. I like to think that this is something she passed down to me, and I often joke that this is the value that makes me a born-fundraiser and organizer.

There is power in the thank you note—we all know it. Who doesn’t love receiving a hand written note in the mail? So why don’t we all write and send them more often?

It takes time, of course it does, and you and everyone else have very little time to spare. But this is just one of those things that is worth the investment. Every single fundraising study ever done tell us that a handwritten note to a donor is one the very best ways to retain them over time. Is anyone surprised by this fact? Not me. It doesn’t hurt to send one to a hard working volunteer, either.

When you send a note to someone thanking them for their donation of money or time you are reminding them of a really awesome thing they did and that feels good. And when you feel good you want to do that thing again. It’s really quite simple.

Play some upbeat music and let the gratitude flow.

It’s hard to remember to send thank you notes so add it to your calendar, maybe every Friday morning you save a block of time to write notes, or at every staff meeting you take 10 minutes for everyone to write a few cards and mail them all together. Buy a special pen that’s just for thank you notes or pick out the specialty stamps at the post office. Play some upbeat music and let the gratitude flow. Make thank you note writing a regular part of your life and you won’t forget. It’s worth it.




What Might Happen to Philanthropic Giving Over the Next Year

Thoughts on the Impact of Federal Budget Cuts

the spark mill strategic planning nonprofit

In the wake of the 2008 recession it took 1-2 years for nonprofits to see the impact of the reduction in the philanthropic gifts. Overall giving to nonprofits changed as you can read in this New York Times article from 2014. This resulted in smaller budgets, nonprofits being put out of business, and an increase in mergers and acquisitions. It took until 2015 for giving to rebound to its pre-recession levels. Foundations and corporations redirected their giving to nonprofits who focused their resources on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs lowest levels which are physiology and safety – namely food, shelter, and health.

I am going to go out on a limb and suggest a similar pattern is about to happen.

 Click to view the full article.

Click to view the full article.

Late last week the Trump administration released their new budget proposal.  A fabulous image by Bloomberg showing the impact of this proposed budget on various departments can be seen here. In the cuts were significant decreases in funding streams that many nonprofits have been relying on and using to provide services for decades. This article by The Washington Post shows the impact by agency and a breakdown of the specific funds being affected by the budget proposal. We all know these are not likely to proceed as proposed, but cuts in at least some areas are likely.

So, what should you do about this.

1. Unless you are an advocacy organization or legal organization like the ACLU, stay away from the politics of it. Mention and focus your public messages on its personal impact on your organization, not on the administration who is proposing it.

2. Use it to raise money. Draw a very clear picture of the impact of the cuts on your programs, on the number of people served, and then make a strong call to action. Check out Feedmore’s live Facebook post about their Meals on Wheels program embedded below for ideas. 

3. Engage in worst case scenario crisis planning. Dream up what happens if you lose 100% of the funding that is proposed. Decide what your essential services look like. It is much easier to engage in this activity when money is threatened than when it disappears.

4. Revisit your strategic plan and reacquaint yourself with your north star, your mission, and your vision.  Look to it for answers for windfalls of donations or severe restrictions. 


Honestly guys, I hope I am wrong.

21st Century Fundraising and Why You Should Invest in Online Giving

Okay folks, here are the things that matter with online giving all in one place. The most popular question I get is why isn't PayPal good enough? The easy answer is that donors are more likely to give to a branded page on your website that is one click from the home page. If PayPal is all you can muster then that is better than nothing, but you will have higher conversion rates and bigger gifts if you own the process. 

 At the bottom is a link to the slides from today's session at VAFRE with all of the stats that you need! 


  1. Your payment processor - the best option is a branded page within your website
  2. Mobile ready giving page - donors want to give on the go
  3. Concentrated campaigns - planned and multi-channel campaigns on and off line perform the best
  4. Helpers - a team of social media champions to ask for you and leverage their own networks
  5. Social media - you can't raise money on social media, but you can use it to help an existing campaign and drive online fundraising


  1. Am I likely to raise money?
  2. Will I annoy people?
  3. Does this fit into my overall development plan?
  4. Could I raise more money just by asking people?
  5. Will I have enough control?
  6. What are the fees?

Helpful links

 Click here to download the slides from today's presentation

Click here to download the slides from today's presentation

Tell a Story on Giving Tuesday - 3 Tips Based on Storytelling from Sgt. Carol Adams

 Picture from 

Picture from 

Life as a consultant and writer rarely comes with the structure of a consistent 9 to 5 work schedule.  As a result, my commute times are unpredictable, which often means missing my weekly dose of StoryCorps on NPR.  In case you are unfamiliar, every week StoryCorps tells a 3-minute story about different types of personal relationships that show the power, triumph, and brokenness of humanity.  In Layman’s terms: StoryCorps makes me cry.  Until the day it didn’t. 

October 28th, I was headed to meet a few members of The Spark Mill team at The Byrd for the TedxRVAWomen conference.  I was excited my drive was timed perfectly to hear that week’s StoryCorps episode and began searching my glove box for the tissues in preparation.  Before I knew it, the 3-minutes was over and nary a tear had been shed.  I began to wonder if something was wrong with me?  Had my heart hardened?  Was I in a particularly awful mood that day?  I wasn't able to process my newfound inadequacies as a human, before we were off to TedxRVAWomen to hear…stories. 

Much to my heart’s relief a couple of presenters in, big crocodile tears streamed down my face – I wasn’t broken!  As the day went on, I laughed, I cried, and sometimes I remained unmoved.  Not surprisingly, the people around me had similar reactions, except often at different times.  When the day was over, I shared my StoryCorps experience with a co-worker, who informed me she had listened that morning, but she cried.  As we chatted about the episode, and our experience at the conference, I had what felt like a profound revelation but  was really just an obvious observation:  people emotionally respond to stories when we can personally relate to them.

Working for The Spark Mill has forever changed the way I view the world.  Sometimes I liken it to my high school AP English class - I've never been able to read a book the same since.  What does that color mean? Why did the author use that particular flower?  I now view the world with a strategic lens.  If people choose to volunteer/donate to organizations because the mission or the story speaks to them, how do organizations expand that circle?  They have to tell a story that speaks to people who aren't personally invested in their cause.  They have to tell a story that moves all of the people.

I mentioned how we all took turns weeping or cheering throughout the day, but there was one speaker, one, that brought the ENTIRE house to a sobbing standing ovation.  Sgt. Carol Adams.  She told a story that moved everyone, regardless of our personal connectivity, our hardened hearts, or our individual ideologies.  Her story was raw and honest.  It was well crafted, well spoken, and genuine.  Her story was personal.  She nailed it and left it all out there on that stage. 

I had to Google the StoryCorps episode to remember what it was about, but I vividly remember Sgt. Adams' story, and can still feel the emotion in the room a month later. As nonprofits around the world prepare to tell their stories on #GivingTuesday, I encourage them to craft stories that move people outside of their own board and stakeholders.  Tell a story that will inspire someone else to recount it weeks later in a blog.  Tell a story that will bring a theater full of strangers to their feet as tears stream down their face.

3 Tips Inspired by Carol

1.     What is your greatest memory concerning your organization? If I were to tell you about an organization I volunteer with, I would tell you their mission and what they do.  If I told you my favorite memory concerning the same organization, it would be about the way I felt that day, how the air smelled, who I was with, and why it was so special to me.  

2.     Don’t be afraid to cry.  Raw, honest, personal stories are emotional.  Members of The Spark Mill often recount their experience at a meeting with an organization, listening to a stakeholder tell their story, and looking around at everyone in tears – the board, the staff, the consultants, the storyteller.  We will never forget that day.  Ever.  

3.     Leave it all out there. When you tell a story about your organization, make it count. Every. Single. Time.  It takes the same amount of time to tell an awesome, authentic, personal, emotional story as it does to tell a bad one. 

So Now What? Life in Richmond After The Amazing Raise or What to Do When Your Town Cancels a Giving Day

5 Ideas for alternative campaigns and 4 ways you can rock online giving

Yesterday there was a collective sigh across Richmond when we heard there will not be a 6th year of The Amazing Raise.  You can read more in the Richmond Times Dispatch here. We would like to start with a thank you to The Community Foundation for helping train donors to give online and reducing the barriers to small nonprofits.  Richmond is now full of people who are comfortable giving online and this is important because over the past 3 years online giving has increased at an average of 16% across the U.S.  

Now, if you have depended on this income, you have 9 months to figure out a plan to replace it. The good news is, you have many more online donors than you did before. The great news is, if you treat them right and develop solid protocol for communicating with them, you should be able to continue getting their support!  

5 Ideas: What to Do Now That the Amazing Raise Is No More

  1. Giving Tuesday - take advantage of it. According to the Giving Tuesday website, in 2015 just under 700,000 people donated over $116 million.  This is a similar platform and an excellent opportunity to implement your Amazing Raise techniques and tactics. 
  2. Activate your champions. Every nonprofit has people who are passionate about them and what they do.  Effectively utilizing these "champions" and their social media can save you tons of time and expand your reach to a completely new set of potential donors. Develop strategic ways your champions can tell their story in a manner that helps you reach your fundraising goals.
  3. Revisit your development plan.  Evaluate your calendar, events, and asks. See where you can beef up your annual fund work.  How much downtime do you have?  What can you do during that time?  Which leads us to our next idea...
  4. Organize your own campaign. Before you decide if this is the right step for your organization it's important to revisit your development plan.  If it looks like you have the capacity to run your own campaign, consider centering it around a time sensitive need, an awareness day, or a special day of the year.
  5. Give Local America - May 3, 2016 - In 2015, Give Local America raised $68 million dollars. This is a great national campaign you can use to leverage your online donors. Read more here. 

4 ways you can rock online giving

  1. Make sure your online giving page is optimized.  You can read here some tips on creating an effective giving page from a previous blog of ours. We would be happy to give you some free advice on how to make your donation page even better. 
  2. Send quality, regular e-newsletters.  Make sure they include an online donation link that is prominent, ideally not at the bottom of the newsletter. 
  3. Send annual fund appeals to your e-newsletter distribution list.  You got their name somehow, and they haven't asked you to remove them - so go ahead and shoot them an ask.  
  4. Say Thank You!  This is last but certainly not least.  Get creative.  Use compelling videos or visuals to demonstrate the impact of their gift.  For more info on how saying thank you can help donor retention and tips for awesome letters, check out this blog.    

We know this may feel like an overwhelming day - but you can do it. Take a deep breath, utilize your resources, get creative!  Feel free to reach out for a sparkler if your day is feeling super gloomy - The Spark Mill is here if you have questions or need a little help crafting your next move.    


Online Giving Trends and Resources from The Chronicle of Philanthropy


The Season of Asking: A Guide to Year End Campaign Letters and 6 Tips

First piece of advice:  relax and tell your story.  What have you done this past year? How have your donors helped make that happen? How grateful are you for their support and how important are they for the future? Assuming you did a good job throughout the year of keeping them informed of what was going on with newsletters, and sending them prompt “Thank You” letters when they donated or volunteered, then they really like you and may just be waiting for you to ask.

6 Tips for a Successful Year End Campaign

1.     Say “Thank You” and say it early.  9 times out of 10 your letter is going to previous donors and/or volunteers.

Dear Mrs. Smith,
 Thank you so much for your support this year.  With the help of your kind gift, ABC Organization has been able to feed 1000 children since February.  

2.     Acknowledge them again. Make sure they know that you appreciate them and their gift and that it made an impact.

Your generosity has made a direct impact on our youth...

3.     Then, tell them a story about what their donation has helped accomplish.  Make it a good one. 

…below is a story about Mark and his family that will give you an idea of how important your gifts are, not just to our organization, but to children throughout RVA.

4.     ASK FOR THEIR CONTINUED SUPPORT! You spent the first ½ to ¾ of the letter telling them why they (and their gifts) are important – now it’s time to ask them to keep being important. 

With all that we have accomplished together in 2015, there is still so much left to do as we expand our fight against childhood hunger here in RVA.  Please consider giving today to continue making an impact in the lives of hungry kids.  

5.     Give specific amount/effect examples.  It is proven to increase giving and provides the donor a tangible mental image of how they are helping.

 Your gift of $112 feeds a child for 6 months.
Your gift of $223 covers an entire years worth of healthy food for one elementary school child.

6.     Thank them again.  I know this sounds like a thank you letter, it is.  It’s a thank you for whatever it is that got your name in my donor management database.  Also, wouldn’t it just be great for everyone if you did it again?  Thank them on behalf of your clients, or thank them for being part of the team – something personal that leaves them with the knowledge that you appreciate them and look forward to working with them again this year.

 We love having you as a member of our team and look forward to what else we can accomplish together.
On behalf of Mark and his friends and family, we thank you for your past support and ask you to recommit today to help feed those children still in need of our help.


If you haven’t mailed out your EOY Campaign letters yet, GET THEM IN THE MAIL! 

5 Do's and 5 Don'ts to Crafting the Perfect Online Giving Page

The majority of the next generation of philanthropists do not own checkbooks.  Sit with that for a minute.  Most of them don’t listen to the radio and don’t have cable.  They listen to Pandora or Spotify and watch Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV – all online.  They pay their bills online and order their groceries from Relay Foods…online.  They want to donate to causes they feel passionate about, and they want to do it from their iPhone. 

According to Blackbaud’s 2013 Charitable Giving Report, online giving accounted for an average of 6.4% of total fundraising. That percentage will continue to grow year after year, especially as more nonprofits and organizations make online giving a convenient and attractive option.  In that spirit, here are some helpful “Do’s and Don’ts” of online giving.

Top 5 Do’s

1.     Do use a branded giving page.  They result in six times more in contributions than a generic external page. Check out this pinterest board from Little Green Light with branded pages. 

2.     Do ensure that your online giving page is compatible with mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads.  That’s where the people are looking at you. Need to test your page? Check it out here. 

3.     Do have a customizable giving page that offers a monthly giving option.  Recurring gifts result in greater donations.  Set the default to “monthly gift”.

4.     Do provide established giving levels.  Predesignated amounts result in larger donations than when the donor types in their own amount. The best ones link amounts to tangible items seen here on the right. 

5.     Do tell your story.  Make the visitor want to click “Donate” after spending time on your website, especially your home page. 

5 Don’ts

1.     Don't make me click more than one time to make a gift.  If I click donate now, take me to a place to donate, not your giving page. 

2.     Don’t make me search for your donate button. It should be colored and found in the top right hand corner of your home page.  Don't make me scroll to find it.  

3.     Don’t overwhelm your potential donor with too many giving options.  If your “Donate” button has a dropdown with 10 choices, you need to simplify. Online gifts are fast and furious, let donors contact you if they have a specific interest otherwise leave your online giving page vague. 

4.     Don’t make potential donors create a sign in and password to get to your donation page.  Odds are, they won’t do it.

5.     Don’t forget to send a prompt and personal “thank you”.  No, an auto receipt is not sufficient. For more ideas on thanking donors check out our past blog on this topic. 

Two more great online resources

Online Fundraising Essential Report from Network for Good

Boost Donor Acquisition Online from NPENGAGE


So, how does your online giving page look? Contact us for a free assessment.