Why just any kind of thank you call, done whenever, by whomever is not donor-centered and likely won’t work.
As a passionate advocate of using research to inform fundraising practice, it was with considerable interest that I read the new study, “Do Thank-You Calls Increase Charitable Giving” (Samek and Longfield, 2019) which concluded that thank-you calls to donors have no impact on the value of their future donations.
This study certainly challenges some ingrained practices when it comes to building donor relationships, but it also indirectly reinforces what I have been saying for 20 years: when the thank-you call is made, who makes the call, and what is said during the call are all critical components that affect renewal rates and gift values.
When I first conducted a test of thank-you calls and their impact on giving, I set out several requirements to ensure calls had a meaningful impact on giving behavior: 1) they must be promptly made following the gift – ideally within 48 hours, 2) they must be made by a senior leader of the organization — preferably a member of the board of directors, and 3) they must not use language or be timed so that donors might believe the call had an ulterior motive or was simply a set up for the next appeal. (See “Donor-Centered Fundraising”, second edition  for step-by-step instructions on how to make thank you calls that are genuinely appreciated by donors and which influence their future contributions.)
The tests described by Samek and Longfield, however, contain none of those three critical assets. Calls were made 3-7 months after gifts were received, calls were conducted by teams of “call workers” whose status within the organization would have been insufficient to inspire donors, and calls were often followed closely by a renewal appeal. It is no surprise that, under these circumstances, the research failed to yield a positive result.
Although not discussed in their paper, there are some additional factors that may have further reduced the effectiveness of the study’s calling program: The dominant sample in their analysis describes the experience of a thank-you call program for public television. The acquisition gifts of these donors were strongly incentivized with a benefit based on the size of the donation such as a coffee mug, tote bag, video box set, and so on. Since all donors received their benefit before they received a thank-you call (irrespective of whether they were in the control or test group), these supporters likely perceived the coffee mug or tote-bag along with its accompanying correspondence to be the thank-you, further diminishing the value of the thank-you call that they received several months later. This also raises another question about whether the fundraising methodology deployed by public television stations is broadly comparable with that of other large non-profit organizations who do not rely on incentives of this kind.
That aside, Samek and Longfield’s paper remains convincing in that thank-you calls conducted long after gifts are made, and without the involvement of a senior representative of the not-for-profit, are unlikely to have any impact on donors’ future giving decisions.
That should not be seen as a dismissal of all approaches to calling donors to thank them for their gifts, however, and the Samek and Longfield study appears to acknowledge that. In their related survey of professional fundraisers, Samek and Longfield found that “about 85% indicated that they make thank-you calls within the same month of the gift date, and 40% of fundraisers indicated that board members usually make those calls”. This type of thank-you calling (which is much closer to what I advocated in Donor-Centered Fundraising) was not tested in their research. So, a significant difference exists between the tested calling program and what a majority of fundraisers practice. By extension, this also means that many professional fundraisers already know the difference between high quality acknowledgment and a poorer quality alternative. In fact, the authors specifically state in their paper that “alternative ways of operationalizing [thank-you] calls may have different results”, and that it is an “open question whether the results would apply to … non-profits, who tend to use senior staff, board members or volunteers to make calls and also usually make calls closer to the initial gift date”.
There are so many tactics and programs to consider when trying to build relationships with donors and everything fundraisers choose to do takes time and budget resources. When I write or speak about acknowledging donors for their gifts, or communicating with them or recognizing them publicly, it’s never a black and white situation where a strategy works or doesn’t work no matter how it is implemented. Truly meaningful thanks that inspires loyalty and higher gift values is immediate and personal. And it is offered by someone from the highest ranks of a not-for-profit, someone who is genuinely grateful for what donors make possible.