Tell Donors How They Helped in 2020

woman lying on leaves looking up at sky as if thinking

Nonprofits, it’s time for those annual letters from your CEO to your donors. Whether they be for fundraising or an annual report or your last newsletter, I want to issue a plea: If yours begins with, “2020 has been a tough year for everyone. Here’s what we’ve done to get through it,” get out a clean sheet of paper and start a new draft.

Now is not the time to extol how hard you worked. It’s not the time to inform your supporters how you turned in-person events into virtual ones or made the “tough, but right” decision to let your staff work from home.

Instead, now is the time to thank your supporters for keeping your services available to the people who need them.

I can’t help thinking no word will ever be 
as full of life as this world,   
I can’t help thinking of thanks.

I know you really did work long and hard. Few organizations had a script for a pandemic. My point, though, is that whatever you accomplished in 2020 was possible because of those who supported you … and now’s the time to say thank you.

Why do donors give?

Remember, donors don’t give to your organization because they care about it. They care about the people, animals, environment or whatever part of society it addresses. Fortunately for us, our supporters continued to care during 2020 while they also were struggling with economic uncertainty, sick family members, children learning at home, elderly parents and so much more.

Their struggles have been intensely personal. So I hope you can see that hearing you managed to write an annual report during the pandemic will sound out of touch at best … and maybe a little insulting.

That’s how I felt when I read a 902-word (really) e-letter from a local nonprofit this week. Below are examples from the letter of some of the most egocentric-sounding parts of the message – mistakes I hope you’ll avoid in your own 2020 messaging.

In the introduction:

‘It’s hard to comprehend all the challenges our organization has faced in 2020. … Our staff has been on the front lines of this pandemic.’

Nope, they have not. “Front line worker” has taken on a specific meaning, thanks to COVID-19, and this definition shouldn’t be co-opted. Imagine an ER nurse reading such a line.

In paragraph 2:

‘We had to dig deep and exert enormous effort to implement completely new ways of doing things.’

If this doesn’t sound like patting oneself on the back, I don’t know what does. “Dig deep” and “exert enormous effort.” Really? Think about the parent who, without warning, had to start working from home while helping their school-age children learn virtually and adjust to the family being together 24/7. Now that’s digging deep in all kinds of ways.

16 bullets of accomplishments (yes, 16!):

These business-as-usual “milestones” included producing an annual report, “transitioning” (buzzword) events to virtual platforms, and “deciding to continue to provide staff the option to work from home.”

By this point, we’re about 650 words into the letter and the CEO has neither mentioned how any of these successes benefit the people they serve nor thanked the supporters who made them all possible.

Only in the closing does the writer say thank you – well, they “express appreciation” to those reading the letter “for your willingness to stand by us and ensure our sustainability.”

Those words aren’t likely to produce a warm glow.

Outside of the board and maybe a few of the biggest donors, supporters don’t want to hear how the organization adapted to challenges, especially when everyone else is doing the same.

This worthy nonprofit missed the chance to connect to donors with genuine stories about who supporters helped during the pandemic. That’s what donors want to hear about: how they are changing the world through you.


photo by Greek Food – Ta Mystika
poetry from “Slant,” Copyright © by Suji Kwock Kim

Want more? Read why your nonprofit’s About Us page shouldn’t be about you.