We all know why donor recognition is important. People who are honoured in even a small way are more likely to give again. That’s why most charities offer donor recognition programs, such as giving membership circles, listing the names of donors and such. Most of this activity is usually focused on the larger donors. The small meat and potatoes donors usually get a modest thank you card or letter followed by a subscription to the charity’s newsletter and a free space in the “They gave once, they may give again” section of the charity’s database.
It’s widely believed donor recognition works along the lines of positive reinforcement, but that may not be true. Think about it. What makes a powerful reinforcer? The science of reinforcement, pioneered by Pavlov and Skinner, was drilled into my head during my psychology degree at UofT, so the answer comes easily to me. Usually, it is a reward of significant value to the donor. For Skinner’s test animals, the reward was food. It also has to be timely to be effective. For example, a dog must be rewarded with a treat immediately after doing a new trick. And it has to be very much behaviour-based – they complete an action, then they get a prize.
In reality, most of the donor recognition programs at Canadian charities don’t have many of the qualities of positive reinforcement. Their rewards, which for most donors usually amount to a few words on a piece of paper, don’t really have much value. They are also very often badly timed. They are sent out days, if not weeks later after the event. It is only recently, that things like automated online giving has begun to change this. And not all of these rewards are in fact behaviour based. There are many reasons for making a donation which really don’t amount to a conscious decision to support the charity. In things like third party giving, often loyalty to the person asking for the gift or the activity at which the donation is generated is the reason behind it all.
Our brains are not DVDs. They do not record memories like a movie and then recall them flawlessly every time (and there are no special features!). Thinking is in fact a complex mix of both thought and emotion, and most often it is unconscious. According to “How Consumers Think” by Gerald Zaltman, things like cues, goals and imagination plays a big part in the reconstruction of memories. Therefore, it is possible to influence how a memory is recalled. Zaltman says what consumers recall and what their actual experience was will differ if marketers can refer to those past experiences in positive ways. This is called Backwards Framing.
For example, Zaltman talks about a study which exposed consumers to ads after they had purchased a product and it effected their memories of their purchase. Every new encounter alters a donor’s recall of the prior experience. Every donor interaction is an opportunity to positively “change” how and why the donor made the gift in the first place. Donor recognition may work because it positively changes the recall of the memory of that gift. In other words, people may think more positively about their initial gift after being thanked for making it.
This opens several doors to understanding donor recognition. First, it means that you can’t thank donors enough for their gifts. And you can’t say enough positive things about their generosity. Far from it, it might be that a key to keeping donor loyalty is to go out of your way to thank them. On the flip side, it also means that every interaction a donor has after their gift will have a major impact on their giving. A customer service problem with a tax receipt may wind up negatively changing the way the donor thought about their gift in the first place. That’s something that won’t easily be undone.
The bottom line is that there’s no better message to your donors than saying “Thank you.”