I have a confession to make. I am inordinately fond of webinars and seminars that reinforce my pre-existing beliefs and practices. A recent webinar for nonprofit leaders on the importance of saying “thank you” did just that.

You’d think saying “thank you” would come naturally to the church, but you might be surprised at the pushback I get when I remind churches of the importance of saying those two words. The resistance seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the contemporary giving process. More than once I’ve heard people say, “Why should we have to say thank you for something you’re supposed to do anyway?”

I even had one individual challenge me on the subject of thanking, asking, “Is that Biblical?” I am seldom at a loss for words, but in that instance, I was. I should have reminded him of the Apostle Paul’s typical salutations in his many letters: “I have not stopped giving thanks for you.” (Ephesians 1:16 NIV)

Tom Wilkinson

Tom Wilkinson

The attitudes I’ve encountered are representative of the institutional model of church stewardship widely used in the mid-20th century, when people gave to the church because, well, it was the church. But that doesn’t work anymore.

Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millenials operate on a very different charitable playing field than their parents and grandparents, and church leaders and members must realize the church no longer inhabits a preferred status among donors. The church exists in a competitive environment, and the secular competition is eating our collective lunch. That competition doesn’t come from the Presbyterian or Baptist church down the street. It’s the sophisticated development offices of the Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, Hospice, the National Geographic Society and (fill in the blank) University.

“Giving USA,” the almanac of charitable giving in the United States, reports that the broad category of “religion” receives the largest market share of charitable gifts in our country, roughly a third of the more than $300 billion given in 2016. That’s the good news. The bad news is that our market share in 1985 was around 50 percent. So yes, we are in a competitive market, and we’re losing.

Consider a personal example. I give $1,000 a year to my alma mater, Purdue University in Indiana, earmarked for the theater department. That relatively modest gift earns me membership on the President’s Council, and I get invited to any number of special events, athletic activities, concerts, you name it. I get a personal, handwritten note from the chair of the theater department and a mention in the playbill for every production. I get thanked or “touched” at least once every two weeks. Pretty good return on such a modest gift.

In many of our local churches, donors are barely acknowledged. They might get an email from the financial secretary around pledge time asking them to confirm their pledge, and somewhere in that missive is a “thank you,” but you’d have to look pretty hard to find it. Donors will then get quarterly or annual statements from the church — which look for all the world like credit card bills — acknowledging their gifts. Again, a “thank you” may be buried somewhere in them.

So what do the University of Florida, Florida State, University of Central Florida, Rollins College and all the rest know what we don’t? It’s simple: saying thank you pays dividends.

Here are some simple, easy things every local church can do:

Revamp the offertory/offering time in worship to say thanks for the gifts members and friends have made. Connect those gifts with tangible success stories about what has been accomplished because of those gifts.

If you’re the pastor, set aside a few minutes every week to write a handwritten thank-you note to anyone who has made a gift to your church, regardless of the amount. In the course of the year, you’ll have thanked everybody.

Add a personal note to the giving statements you send to donors just to say thanks.

Create a planned giving program to encourage people to make legacy gifts to the church from their estate plan. The foundation can help you do that.

And simply remember what your mom and dad taught you. Smile, and say please and thank you.

For more ideas, check out Network for Good’s donor thank-you guide.

* Wilkinson is the foundation’s vice president of church relations and new business.

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