Thank You Calls Are Pointless. Wait…What?


Do Thank-You Calls increase charitable giving?

Well, this piece of research found that there is “no effect of the calls on subsequent giving behavior”. That would mean from a fundraising point of view, it makes little financial sense to spend/waste money on thanking our donors.

Of course this would be a blow to my #delighter religion…but wait…

There are 3 sides to every story and there are 3 ways we can take this.

  1. We can accept it as fact. Like being told the average person has less than 2 legs and launching a business to sell single shoes.
  2. We can dismiss it. We just know thank you calls work. Yes so many things in fundraising are counter-intuitive…but not this one.
  3. We can realise that…live everything…the truth is somewhere in the middle. Let’s learn what we can from it and ask ourselves what we can do better. All the while being cautious of taking them as gospel. Remember to use statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination.


So, as a write this blog from atop a fence…here are my problems with the research and the lessons I’m taking from it:

  • The experiments involved nearly 600,000 individual donors and 500,000 thank-you calls between 2011 and 2017. The vast majority of the calls were to public television donors…perhaps a much more tangible transaction than most of our nonprofits are used to. The rest of the donors were a single charity. So while this research is mammoth, let’s remember your organisation and your donors are different. We learn from others, but we don’t accept them as universal truths.
  • The calls were made 3-7 months after the initial donation…which is simply not good enough. I can’t remember what I did last week. Let’s remember that the act of giving is like spinning plates…we make the decision to donate and we feel good because of it. But almost immediately life continues to kick us and we’re bombarded by distractions. Our role as fundraisers is to keep that plate spinning, so your calls need to be landing within days.
  • Two call attempts were made, with a voicemail being left on the second attempt. In my telephone training I always recommend leaving a voicemail on the first attempt. This flags to the supporter that it’s a harmless call…not their bank or their ex-boyfriend…and so they’re more like to pick up the phone the next time we call them.
  • The experiment found that the calls had no impact on subsequent donation behavior in either experiment. However, they found that those who were reached, and especially those who engaged positively with the caller, were significantly more likely to give in the year following the intervention than those who were not reached or those who responded negatively. This suggests that responses to thank-you calls could be used by non-profits to identify members who are most likely to give again. In many ways I feel like this undermines the conclusion…in fact, if we are doing these calls right then can see that they’re justified.
  • The callers reached (spoke to or voicemail) about 75% of donors. God I love telephone fundraising…what other medium gives us that level of effectiveness?
  • Thank you calls are not just about thanking. They’re about Affirmation, Verification and Feedbackation. Yes we’re affirming the decision was a good decision. But we’re also verifying their details: capturing email where we’ve missed it and making sure their address is correct, etc. We’re also looking for feedback…don’t you want to know why this person donated? And don’t you want to give them an opportunity to have their say so they feel invested?
  • Thank you calls are also about opening doors. I recommend against using a script (because your donors don’t follow that script) so that the conversation goes to unexpected places. Out of these calls you’ll find corporate partners, volunteers, beneficiaries, fundraisers, introducers and more. Unless you have a rigid conversation…then you might as well be speaking to a voicemail.
  • The call script was wetter than a sack of drunk otters. And my biggest learning from this whole thing is that, if you’re going to call 50 donors or 500,000 donors, spend a sliver of time and money to bring me in to make sure these calls are not a total bummer. Their script needs more First names, Questions. Conversation, Human Personality, Plain English and Impact. Here’s one of the scripts they used with some of my suggestions:

4 replies added

  1. Adam 19th June 2019 Reply

    Thanks for this, Simon. I was thoroughly annoyed when that research was posted and subsequently defended by their director. Great to read some commonsense pushback on some of the finer points such as a weak script and a lazy 3-7 month wait to make the calls!

  2. Toña Morales-Calkins 20th June 2019 Reply

    Speaking as a donor to public broadcasting, I’ve always found that line about “we couldn’t do it without you,” just a bit insulting. Of course they couldn’t! Their funding all comes from me. Either I donate, or pay taxes (a miniscule percent of my taxes go to fund them and it makes only a small portion of their budget), or I support the companies that underwrite their programming. It’s great that you called this out, Simon.
    It’s also great that you called out the study authors for their overgeneralized application of their results. Study public broadcasting donations and them generalize to all charities. Notice that thank you calls didn’t get made for 5-7 months, but don’t blame the timing for the “tepid” responses. And don’t mention that those who actually were contacted with a positive interaction were more likely to give again…
    Great read, Simon!

  3. Sean Triner 26th June 2019 Reply

    This is awful research. Not worthy of their headline. Basically, they never really tested the premise.

    As you say, they found that late and badly scripted phone calls to thank these particular type of donors were pointless. I agree! It’s like saying ‘Badly written direct mail isn’t worth it!’. Wow.

    But there is just as much awful research saying thank you calls / letters etc are worth it. Often based on qualitative or quantitative research.

    Despite that, your main conclusion is spot on.

    Though I would dismiss the inference of option 2: that we *know* thank you calls work.

    Thanking because “I think it is just the right thing to do” is unethical and can lead to shoddy practice in other areas.

    We can’t pick and choose what we want to be evidence-based. And we shouldn’t dismiss the (non quant and qual) research that shows that thanking is a good thing! We don’t need to say “we don’t need evidence, we just know it is right”.

    Many charity leaders decide against things because they think they are the ‘wrong thing to do’ despite evidence.

    Don’t like long letters?
    Don’t like F2F because it annoys you personally?
    Think phone calls for monthly gifts to doors are bothersome?

    That means their charity probably raises less income. Of course, each of them could have a data-driven or economic reason not to do them for any individual organisation.

    But not doing them ‘because it is the wrong thing to do’ is turning your back on your mission. Doing thank you calls/letters “Because they are the right thing to do” is just as much a ‘sin’.

    But don’t fret – plenty of measures have been done to show that thanking (promptly and properly) increases lifetime value – ie the true measure of long-term engagement.

    Pareto Fundraising did a study that showed that the second* most important variable on F2F acquired monthly givers was whether the donor received a prompt and thorough thank you call. All the other stuff – ongoing comms, SMSs, invitations etc tend to have a positive impact but with less (and possibly too marginal) impact.

    What is a thorough thank you? That is the subject of many blogs but what I have seen time and time again is that a well-written ask in a thank you letter does not negate the value of the retention impact. In fact, a couple of charities in Australia who bothered to test found that a beautiful thank you letter with a ‘soft’ ask increased overall retention!


    *The most important variable was the age of the person who came on board.

  4. Sophie Penney 22nd July 2019 Reply

    Great comments all. Sean Triner hit the nail on the head when he used the words “prompt” and “thorough” in front of thank you call. Would love to see links to some blogs on this topic which are known to be from reliable sources.

    I agree with Sean as well that we need to be careful about making assumptions that steps are the right ones to take. As a faculty member and person who has engaged in research, I rankle at studies that proport to provide information that is of value. We need more and better research to verify that what we have said is best practice really is. I know the chair of the AFP Reseach Council and will share this with her.

    I also know a firm that consults with many a public media station, I plan to ask the founder about this study and his thoughts about the results.

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