I have the pleasure of introducing a new guest post by Mary Cahalane. I met her recently on Twitter and learned more about her insight on Pamela Grow’s newsletter. I just loved what she had to say, so I asked her to guest post for me, here. Mary, you rock.

Mary Cahalane

Mary Cahalane

Mary Cahalane is currently development manager at Riverfront Recapture, a Hartford, Connecticut based nonprofit that is reconnecting the area to its riverfront by building beautiful public parks and creating programs, performances and events that are free for all to enjoy. Prior to that, Mary spent many years fundraising for nonprofit theaters. In more than 20 years of fundraising, she’s done a little of everything but admits to being geeky about direct mail. She is most happy when working with individuals – the amazing people who support our organizations. Follow Mary on Twitter at @mcahalane.

I’ve been a fundraiser for more than 20 years now. I’ve worked for small and small-ish organizations, mostly in the arts. I’ve done a little of everything, but most of my focus has been in individual fundraising.

When I first started, it was easier to grasp the analytical side of things. Numbers were safe. Data entry, collecting information, reporting on information, new ways of looking at the information… it did need to be done, after all. Appeals were a challenge. Thank you letters were scary. How do you stretch “thank you for your gift” into a whole letter?

I took a deep breath and jumped in. Did some research, and learned what to do. Soon, we no longer hired a freelancer to write our appeals. I got better the more I did, and the more I did, the more I enjoyed it.

But… thank you letters were still tough. I did my best, official job of it, and dutifully got them out.
Sound familiar?

I was just avoiding the emotion. That’s why I had nothing to say: giving is an emotional experience and so is gratitude.

But Enough About Me
Unfortunately, most of the acknowledgements I get are still lacking emotion. They’re official, even officious documents, devoid of feeling and, frankly, selfish.

You too? Frustrating, isn’t it? A little sincerity, a little gratitude, would go a long way, right? (You see where I’m going here, don’t you?)

Can I share a story?

There was a man, we’ll call him Henry, who suffered from alcoholism. His disease stripped him of everything he had counted on in his life: his job, his possessions, even the respect of his loved ones. He hit absolute rock-bottom.

That was Henry’s turning point. His recovery began.

Though he was in recovery, he hadn’t regained most of what he’d lost. He was still mostly unemployed. He didn’t have much money. And relationships take time to heal.

The strange thing was Henry was also the happiest person anyone had ever met. Consistently, joyfully, contagiously happy.

Someone at the soup kitchen finally asked: “You’ve lost everything, yet every single time I see you, you’re happy. Why is that?” And he shared his secret:


He spent every moment of every day focusing gratefully on what he did have; on the blessings he’d been given. And that made him happy. Very, very happy.

I’ve remembered the story for years because it just made so much sense. That’s the way we ought to feel about our donors.

It’s OK to be emotional. In fact, it’s mandatory!

Think about it. We’ve got a really amazing job – we get to help marvelous people do really useful, world-changing things.

So, here’s my advice:

Take the drudgery out of it.
You want to thank each donor personally, warmly – send them a hug.

I know, I know: lots to do, little time. Here’s where a little planning and a little technology can be your friend. Spend a chunk of time writing thank you copy for every type of gift you can anticipate in the year ahead. I stick all of it into one giant bear of a nested merge document. Once it’s done, every person gets a letter that’s properly addressed, that talks about exactly the gift they gave and why they gave it, and that gets to them – fast.

Come up with a system of your own, but just do it. Sure, you’ll probably have to spend a little time eating your spinach, but then it’s all dessert!

I Love You This Much
Don’t be afraid to be emotional. Donors give from their hearts more than their heads. Don’t leave them out there alone! You really can’t be too effusive, so long as you’re being sincere about it. (And if you can’t be sincere about it, then maybe you’re in the wrong line of work.)

Getting To Know You
Meet your donors. Call them. And then listen to them – every chance you get. Even if you’re a little shy, as I am, you soon realize this is the most rewarding part of your job. Remember that in a way, your donors aren’t supporting you; you are supporting them – it’s all about their wishes and dreams, their priorities. You, and your organization, are a means, not the end.

What a Donor Really Wants
Ask them. Try a donor survey. I did that just last year, and it was so much fun! People were happy to be asked for input on what really is their organization. And we learned really important things.

In this case, one of those important things was that many of our donors weren’t able to see our work first-hand due to age or distance and didn’t have computers, so they couldn’t see our website or receive email. They were among our most loyal supporters, too.

If they couldn’t come to us, we needed to come to them…

Show and Tell
So we created a print newsletter. It’s nothing fancy: lots of pictures, some stories, and lots and lots and lots of gratitude. Judging from the gifts that came in after the newsletter was mailed, they loved it.

Just Because
This year is an anniversary year for my organization. We asked people to mark the celebration with a special gift. And they did. People were quickly and gratefully thanked, of course.

But weeks later, it still didn’t feel like enough. So we wrote a brief, but heartfelt letter to these amazing people. Not to ask for a thing, just to say thank you. Just because.

I can’t tell you what a kick it was to hear “that was the nicest letter I have ever gotten!” Made my day.

Practice some gratitude. It will make your donors happy. And it will make you happy, too – I promise!

Thank You
I’m very grateful to Mazarine for allowing me to share her space for the day, and to you, for reading this. Thank you!

Mary, thank you for giving me a chance to practice gratitude, right here and now! Thank you for such a fabulous guest post!

If you have ever been interested in guest posting, but were all, “Well, what do I really have to say?” let me paraphrase Madonna and tell you, EVERYONE is entitled to your opinion. So, if you’re interested in guest posting, let me know.

In the meantime, what are some direct mail strategies that have worked for you?