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Are you thanking the wrong half of your supporters?

Howard Lake | 10 January 2019 | Blogs

Let’s face it. When it comes to thanking our supporters we have a major problem.
Not being thanked continues to be the most common reason people give for not making further donations to an organisation they have previously supported. The number of supporters complaining that they have not been thanked for their donations (including a number of fundraisers on various online forums) should be a source of great embarrassment for the sector.
However, if you tell any fundraiser that there are organisations out there who do not thank their supporters they will react with surprise/horror/anger/all of the above. Fundraisers know the importance of thanking their supporters. I’m yet to meet a fundraiser who doesn’t claim to thank every supporter for their donations.
So what’s going wrong? How can fundraisers be thanking everyone if so many supporters are not being thanked?
Are supporters lying about their experience? Are fundraisers telling porkies about how often they actually thank? Or is there something else going on?
A recent TED Talk Daily podcast could shine some light on why our Thank Yous aren’t hitting the mark. Could it be that we are trying to thank the wrong part of our supporters’ brains?

Experiencing and Remembering

The podcast in question featured Daniel Kahneman talking about ‘The riddle of experience versus memory’. You can listen to it here:

In the podcast, Kahneman recalls a conversation with one of his students who had been listening to a recording of a piece of Classical music. At the end of the recording there was “a dreadful screeching noise”. The student wasn’t happy, passionately telling Kahneman “it ruined the whole experience”.
Kahneman points out that this statement can’t be accurate. The screech wasn’t until the end of the recording. By the time the unpleasant noise occurred the student had already enjoyed an incredible performance. However, when it came to recalling his experience the quality of the performance counted for nothing. The student’s perception of the whole experience was solely defined by one negative moment.
While this might seem irrational, Kahneman attributes this to the fact that, when it comes to remembering and evaluating experiences, we have “Two Selves”.
The first is the Experiencing Self. This is the self that lives in the present. It perceives each of the detailed individual moments that make up the whole experience. The student’s Experiencing Self listened to every note of the recording and could, if encouraged, recall that detail.
The second is the Remembering Self. This is the self we use to summarise all of those individual moments, converting our detailed experience into a simple story. This enables us to make an immediate judgement when we are asked to reflect on past events. For
example, in January, when a colleague asks how your Christmas was, your Remembering Self will quickly summarise two weeks of holiday into a simple response.
Entrusting this task to your Remembering Self is a lot quicker and easier for your brain than relying on your Experiencing Self to go back and assess every single moment over the holidays before you can reach an answer. It is the student’s Remembering Self that has created the damning review of the recording.
The Two Selves are not equal partners. As Kahneman says, when it comes to evaluating past experiences “the Remembering Self is the one that makes decisions”.

How does the Remembering Self remember?

Knotted handkerchief in pocket symbolising remembering - photo: Pixabay
As we can see from the music-loving student’s story, the Remembering Self is not rational. Rather than assess every single event, it relies on shortcuts. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman introduces one of these shortcuts – the peak-end rule.
Put simply, Kahneman says that the Remembering Self summarises an experience by considering how we felt at two key points:


Recruiting and managing millennials, a course by Bruce Tait.

• The point in the experience when we had the strongest feeling (the peak). (This could be a positive, pleasurable feeling, or a negative, painful one.)
• The end of the experience

The Remembering Self considers the average of our feelings at these two moments. In the case of the student, the screech was both the end point and the peak – the student experienced a strong feeling of anger and disgust that outweighed any delight he had felt during the performance. This explains why this one negative moment was so instrumental in defining his memory of the experience.

So what has this got to do with thanking supporters?

I believe this could explain why there is such a huge discrepancy between the number of fundraisers saying they are thanking, and the number of supporters feeling thanked. The strategies being used by fundraisers are trying to engage the wrong Self.
When it comes to stewarding supporters, most fundraisers design plans comprising a number of individual touchpoints. For example, these touchpoints might include:

• An automated receipt following the donation
• A follow-up letter, thanking the supporter for the donation
• Subscribing the supporter to a regular newsletter
• Segregating future mailings so they include a line acknowledging their previous support
• Sending a physical or digital copy of the annual report at the end of the year

There is nothing wrong with any of these approaches – they all have a role to play. However, while these touchpoints all appeal to the Experiencing Self, they completely ignore the needs of the Remembering Self.
There are a few ways you can tell which ‘self’ your thanking and stewardship plan is appealing to. You are almost certainly appealing to the Experiencing Self if:

• Your plan assumes that each supporter will notice, experience and remember every individual touchpoint
• Your plan views each individual touchpoint as being of equal importance
• Your plan assumes that the touchpoints have a cumulative effect (i.e that each additional touchpoint will increase the way the supporter feels about the experience)
• Your organisation is of the opinion that being able to demonstrate that you have sent a Thank You is more important than how the supporter engages with that touchpoint. (e.g., if you have decided to make all of your thanking digital-only despite knowing that only 6% of charity emails get opened…)
• Your plan prioritises quantity of touchpoints over quality (for example, if you have decided not to invest in certain high-impact approaches because you are already providing lots of other touchpoints)
• Your plan assumes that the supporter sees their gift as being part of a long-term relationship, rather than being a self-contained experience with a start and end point.

In a lot of cases, these are all choices that fundraisers or organisations have proactively made – often to reduce the cost, workload or effort needed to thank supporters.
However, fundraisers ignore the Remembering Self at their peril.
Choosing not to provide your supporter with a positive peak means that, at best, your Thank You – and the rest of the experience – is likely to be forgotten. At worst, the lack of a positive peak leaves the door open for a negative incident to be the overriding memory the Remembering Self has of supporting your organisation.

What might thanking the Remembering Self look like?

As we’ve seen above, if we want the Remembering Self to take note, we need to plan for the supporter’s experience to have a positive peak and an excellent end. The good news is that your Thank You has the potential to fulfil both of these roles.
As fundraisers, we don’t tend to think of donations as having endings. We talk about our relationships with supporters as being ongoing and long-term. The donation is just one part of this journey together. For the fundraiser, the Thank You marks the start of the next phase of the relationship.
However, the reality is that most supporters will view the experience of making a donation as being a self-contained action. For your supporter’s Remembering Self at least, the Thank You marks the end point.
This puts a lot of pressure on the Thank You. If we can provide the supporter with a positive peak at this point it will have a disproportionate impact on how they remember their experience of making a gift.

So what makes a positive peak?

When it comes to peaks we can think of the Remembering Self as being a bit like a car dashboard camera. When things are going normally, or as expected, the Remembering Self sits inactive in the background. It only starts to record when something significant or unexpected happens.
All of the touchpoints in the example above can be described as normal – they follow the script for what someone might expect when they make a donation. They probably expect to receive confirmation their donation has been completed. They probably expect to receive a basic thank you. They probably expect to receive further marketing from the charity (which, let’s face it, is how most newsletters appear to most supporters). On the face of it there is nothing unexpected there for the supporter. So there is no need for the Remembering Self to get involved.
If we want our Thank Yous to be remembered we have to do something unexpected.
Something out of the ordinary. Something worth remembering.
In their book The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath give some great tips for creating memorable moments, including these suggestions for creating positive peaks:

• Boost sensory appeal – create an element of theatre that maximises the impact on the senses and emotions
• Raise the stakes – “up the ante” for supporters. For example, create a sense of pressure through competitions, games or public commitment
• Break the script – “defy [your supporter’s] expectation of how an experience will unfold”

Importantly, creating a positive peak doesn’t have to mean spending a lot of money. The simplest of touches can elevate a moment to become a memorable peak. More important than having a huge budget is having a fundraiser with the imagination and the drive to break the mould. Someone prepared to look beyond the status quo, to take responsibility for creating peaks for their supporters and to fight internally for the importance of defying supporters’ expectations.
In the podcast, Kahneman tells us “A critical part of a story is how it ends”. As we head into 2019, are you content to give your supporters a predictable, forgettable end to their story?
Or will you give their story a wonderful ending they will never forget?