Guest post by Liz Williams
In the digital age, a handwritten note of gratitude from a beneficiary to their donor is the gold standard. It takes time, thought, and creativity. No two sets of handwriting are the same and no one expresses their gratitude in exactly the same way.
As we began planning a formal dinner for the University of Melbourne’s most generous lifetime donors (including both individuals and organisations), we thought about how we could incorporate this handwritten personal touch. What if we started off the dinner with every single donor opening up a card at their seat that contained a handwritten, personalised message from the individual who had benefitted from their support?
Sounds amazing, but you can imagine how logistically complicated this could become. How do we know which of the 200+ invitees will attend the dinner? What about those who have no current beneficiary? Do we coordinate cards for the donors’ guests too? What about people who may show up unexpectedly on the night?
We had 102 people attend the dinner, including 69 donors and their guests, and 34 internal staff members (Advancement staff, academic leaders, philanthropically-funded professors and other beneficiaries). EVERYONE found a personalised, handwritten card at their place as they sat down to dinner. We put the cards inside nice envelopes with the attendees’ names written on the front in calligraphy, so there was no need for additional place cards.
It was a beast to organise, but the joyful, emotional responses from donors upon reading their cards made every ounce of logistical effort worth it.
Here are our top tips for organising something similar for your event:
1. Befriend your colleagues. To pull this off, we relied on donor relations staff in the academic divisions. We first pulled a list of all people who were invited to the dinner, and then divided this up based on what areas of the University the donors had supported or were most closely affiliated with. There were seven donor relations staff members across the University working on these cards simultaneously.
2. Start early! When relying on dozens of professors, students and others to write a heartfelt note of thanks, it’s crucial to give yourself plenty of time. Before even getting our RSVPs in, we made a list of who was likely to attend and who were our highest priority. We started by getting cards secured for these donors and then worked our way down the list as RSVPs came in.
3. Have some generic text ready. We knew there would inevitably be guests for whom we could not coordinate a personalised card. For example, some organisations had funded research projects that had concluded years ago. In these cases, we contacted scholarship recipients from the relevant academic area and asked if they’d be willing to write a card expressing how philanthropy has touched their lives.
4. Think beyond direct beneficiaries. For some donors, the professor whose position they had funded would be attending the dinner and sitting next to them. We looked for other voices to feature in this case, such as a student who had taken a course with the professor and could speak first-hand about what it’s like being taught by them.
5. Transcribe online messages. Some beneficiaries were located off campus or unable to come in and physically write a card. In these cases, we got other Advancement colleagues to transcribe their messages for us (to keep the handwriting varied!).
6. Thank guests for their time. For those who attended as a guest of a donor but had no other affiliation with the University, we gave them a card written by a student that thanked them for their time in attending the dinner and celebrating the power of philanthropy. These worked for staff cards as well.
7. Prepare for random arrivals. We had two people show up to the dinner who had not RSVP’d, something that had not happened to us at this high-level event in the past. Luckily, we had spare envelopes and cards ready to go for these guests, with pre-written text from students that was generic yet still meaningful. One of our donor relations team members had handwritten all the donors’ names on envelopes so she was able to write envelopes for these late additions on the spot.
Weeks later, we are still hearing about how donors enjoyed receiving their cards. Some senior staff have reflected on how they witnessed donors who rarely become emotional visibly moved when reading their cards. Following the dinner, a number of donors got in contact with their beneficiaries to thank THEM for writing a card. This was one ‘surprise and delight’ moment that went down exceptionally well with our donor community and was worth the additional effort to coordinate.
This post was written by Liz Williams, Donor Relations Manager at the University of Melbourne.