“Please and thank-you — they’re the maaa-gic words!”

It’s been more than a decade since my young son watched and rewatched the PBS children’s program Barney & Friends, but I still can’t get that catchy and oh-so-true song out of my head. Probably because it contains such a universal truth.

I received my latest reminder of this kids-show wisdom over the new year, when I did my own end-of-year giving to causes I care about. The widely varied responses I received to my contributions are a lesson to any newsroom “making an ask” of their audience for support.

In my role leading the LMA Lab for Journalism Funding, I spend a lot of time working with local newsrooms on how to make the ask – their case for support from readers, viewers, funders and foundations, that the journalism they do is deserving of community support. Anyone who seeks funding support, inside or outside of journalism, knows how much effort it takes to build a compelling case, and to get to “yes.”

In some ways, the most important work of fundraising is the work we do after we get the “yes.”

In some ways, the most important work of fundraising is the work we do after we get the “yes.”

By accident, my own experience making end-of-year contributions turned into a real-world case study of the fundamental importance of the thank-you.

I donated (modest) amounts to about 10 organizations, mostly supporting journalism. Without question, this was the “thank-you” I found the most compelling.

For context, SOLVE is a non-profit in Oregon best known for organizing beach cleanups. I appreciate that they recently pivoted to help organize clean-ups across the city of Portland, where trash has become a big problem. I had a chance to volunteer in person while visiting last summer, and donating seemed like another good way to support their work.

A couple of questions: How much do you think I contributed? And, what’s the dollar value you’d place on the thank-you note? Before I share my answers, let me add this context: My donation to SOLVE was the smallest of all my contributions. Yet this felt to me like the most appreciated donation. In addition, I have a personal or professional relationship to most of the journalism organizations I supported. I don’t know anyone at SOLVE, I just admire their work. Yet this thank-you felt more personal than the replies I received — for larger gifts — to organizations where I actually know the leadership team.

So let’s flip over the cards and reveal that my donation to SOLVE was only $50. Yet, when I asked the newsrooms in our current cohort of the LMA Lab for Journalism Funding, the consensus answer was that this was a “$500 thank-you.” I agree.

This begs two follow-up questions: What are the odds, based on that thank-you note, that I’ll contribute again to SOLVE? And what are the odds that I’ll contribute more next time? The answers, of course, are yes and yes. While we’re at it, think about the effect of an impersonal, automated response – like I received from several organizations that already had a relationship with me. What are the odds of a repeat, or increased, donation there?

In the fundraising community, it’s common to know of an example where a $25-$50 first-time donor eventually became a very large contributor — six figures or more.

Several takeaways apply to any newsroom pursuing philanthropy:

  • Make your thank-you messages prompt
  • Make your thank-yous personal
  • Connect the dots (if donors are also members or subscribers, thank them for that as well)
  • Thank all donors like they are big donors

Making the ask is only half of the process. The thank-you can mean the difference between a one-time donation and lasting support. So ask yourself, whether it’s subscribers, members or donors: Are you giving a $50 thank-you to a supporter who’s worth $500 to you? Or are you giving a $500 thank-you that turns a one-time donor into a long-term champion of your journalism?

The Lab for Journalism Funding, a project of Local Media Foundation, is operated by LMA with continued support from the Google News Initiative and additional funding from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.