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Gratitude: How We Show Donor Appreciation in Higher Ed

Gratitude was not a word that I used as a child. But writing thank you notes was a common practice in our household. And always saying “thank you.” From a young age, the importance of expressing appreciation for the kind gestures of others was instilled in me. In turn, I've always had a fear of people not knowing how truly grateful I am for their kindness.

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But I did not connect expressing appreciation to the word gratitude until just a few years ago when I began my work in development at a higher academic institution. As a stewardship manager, gratitude is not only significantly important to me personally, but is also the focus of my work. I connect student scholarship recipients and faculty members to the donors that support their studies and research. Demonstrating appreciation for the generous support donors provide is not only the right thing to do, it could mean the difference in someone’s life and arguably change the direction of many solutions to the world’s problems. 

Hand holding money with hearts on the billsTake this example, at the School of Public Health, where a student or faculty member is donor supported in their pursuit to find a polio vaccine. That student or faculty member invents a vaccine. That vaccine is used to eradicate polio in the United States and significantly reduce the spread of the disease around the world. In my interaction with students, it's very common for them to tell me that they would not have been able to attend college without the support received from donors. If that student did not attend the School of Public Health, and consequently did not discover a polio vaccine, it would affect the health of thousands, even millions, of people around the world.

Hand holding a heartInfusing gratitude into your development work can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. Knowing your donor audience drives the methods used to communicate the power of their support. We utilize many platforms to gather information regarding our donors and alums to help us better understand our audience. Social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram provide biographical information as well as demographic information that we use to learn more about our donors' philanthropic areas of interest and geographic locations. We are able to target our outreach efforts, including donor and alumni event invitations, leveraging geographic data we collect.

I feel the most effective stewardship derives from combining old fashioned practices with innovative techniques. Listed below are a few examples of our stewardship methods.

  • Endowment packets that include a handwritten student thank you note from the recipients of the fund, a student profile card featuring the scholarship recipients of the fund, a letter from the chief development officer with endowment financial information, and an impact report.
  • Brief, candid “mobile” phone videos featuring a scholarship recipient sent or shown to donors during a stewardship or donor visit.
  • Customized postcards from scholarship recipients on a day coinciding with a university-wide thank you card writing event. These cards are then used as acknowledgements for the annual giving donors.
  • Short-form social media videos highlighting a specific fund and including impactful images of students and student recipient quotes.
  • A school-branded faculty member profile combined with a personalized letter from the faculty member detailing the impact of the donor gift.
  • A stewardship visit from an endowed professorship chair and scholarship recipients to an organization's headquarters to meet and interact with the board of directors and CEO to brief them on their research.

The feedback donors have given us about our stewardship materials demonstrates they feel appreciated and their gifts are used in a manner they’re happy with. One donor stated:

Hand holding a gift“I want to thank you for the wonderful set of messages we received from the scholarship recipients. My wife and I were both blown away by the time and thought that went into the notes. Each was very meaningful. Thank you to everyone who made the time and put in the effort to send us such a terrific acknowledgment. P.S. This is one of the best examples of stewardship we have seen!”

Another donor sent this message:

“Thank you for the annual summary of activity report, and specifically the comments from the two recipients of scholarship support. I cannot recall a similar communication before this time and am appreciative of the faces of students and their statement of future goals and aspirations. I am committed to continuing, and even elevating, my support for this fund.”

And another:

“I want to compliment and thank you again for the annual scholarship information packet you distribute. It's truly very classy. We appreciated the personal note from our scholarship recipient and have written to tell her so. I must say that you are making some really important improvements in the school’s donor relations. The school is lucky to have you.”

Two people holding a heart between themOur donors are actually thanking us for our practices! When we communicate the impact of a gift to donors and they feel sincere appreciation, one could argue that it inspires their philanthropy. The possibilities are endless when it comes to creative ways of stewarding donors; it just takes time, patience, creativity, and resources. 

When reflecting on my stewardship work, l’m inspired every day by the willingness and generosity of others to give to those they may never meet, and by the eagerness of those to thank those givers for their support. It is truly a remarkable thing. And for that, I am very grateful. Wavy line

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Subscribe to Brain WavesThe post Gratitude: How We Show Donor Appreciation in Higher Ed originally appeared on Campus Sonar's Brain Waves blog.

Betsy Burke

Betsy Burke is the assistant director of donor engagement at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. With a diverse professional background including creating public relations campaigns for high-profile celebrity clients, and a decade of teaching physical education and health, Betsy blends her unique set of skills to provide the best experience for donors, alumni, and students. Betsy enjoys running and anything fitness related and spending time with her close-knit family.

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