Top fundraisers' tips for saying thanks

For the next two weeks, I’m on the road in search of donor relations success stories. My travels take me from Kansas City to Utah to Montana and back. In classic single-mom fashion, I'm combining family and work. My three sons go to two different universities in Utah and Montana. And it's Family Weekend. So I'm on the road! 

I'm curious. Midwesterners are down-to-earth and friendly. Westerners are adventurous and pioneering. How do fundraisers thank donors in these regions in meaningful ways? What can we learn from the successes of our peers?

 Lucas Dart, VP for alumni relations and development at UNK, and yours truly at the foundation office.

Lucas Dart, VP for alumni relations and development at UNK, and yours truly at the foundation office.

Today I’m in Kearney, Nebraska, home of the University of Nebraska Kearney, part of the powerful University of Nebraska Foundation. Alumni and friends donated $61.2 million to the Kearney campus during a nearly $2 billion campaign ending last year. Quite impressive for UNK, which has 50,000 living alumni and 7,000 students. 

I sat down with Lucas Dart, vice president for alumni relations and development for University of Nebraska Kearney to hear works for his team. A native of Kearney and graduate of UNK, Lucas has served in development roles with the university since 2002. That longevity means he knows his donors and the culture of giving.

The first donor relations story Lucas shares involves UNK’s most generous donor, Carol Cope. She passed away on Sept. 13, 2012, her 103rd birthday. Carol graduated from University of Nebraska in Lincoln, but made Kearney home and loved the community. Carol and her husband, Ron, operated shoe stores in Nebraska, but made most of their fortune investing in farmland and early Berkshire-Hathaway stock.

“Her ultimate gift was $13 million from her estate,” Lucas says. “This came after she had given throughout her lifetime---both financially and by giving endlessly of her time and energy.”

Carol demonstrated Midwestern values and work ethic in her leadership giving. Peter Kotsiopulos, a former mayor of Kearney and former vice president of the University of Nebraska Foundation, said after her passing, “Carol Cope was the pinnacle of what it means to give back and pay it forward. She was gracious, hospitable, polite, caring, humorous when appropriate, and above all fair.”

The Copes supported UNK for fifty years. Two campus icons bear their names: Ron and Carol Cope Stadium and a fountain in the center of campus. Plus, there are many named scholarships, professorships, and programs named for them. Lucas says the university community honored Carol’s contributions by engaging her in every way possible.  

“After her husband passed, a lot of people looked after Carol,” Lucas says.

In 2006, Carol said in an interview that she enjoyed giving to projects “that are going to do the most good.”

She was practical and not afraid to roll up her sleeves to get a project done.


  • Stewardship often spans many decades. Make sure to keep it going throughout your many staff changes over the years.

  • Involve donors in the life of your organization.

  • Offer meaningful giving opportunities.


Giving History Booklets

The University of Nebraska Foundation’s stewardship office creates custom booklets for donors including their full giving history. It goes way beyond charts and graphs. The report includes quotes from recipients of the donor’s scholarship/fellowship/award plus thank-you letters from faculty and staff.  

Lucas recalls one donor looking at the booklet and reacting with, “Wow. This is unbelievable.”

“This is not a donor who usually got excited about things,” Lucas says. “We will be doing more of these.”


·         The staff resources to create personalized stewardship booklets pays off.

·         Donors like to see the impact of their giving in black and white.

Thank-a-thons Work

 UNK puts together thank-a-thons in which students call donors to thank them for their giving.

“This is good stewardship of donors. It’s also good for students to realizing where their scholarships are coming from,” Lucas says.

One donor had given $50 a year for an athletic scholarship for many years. A student-athlete called to thank her.

“The donor really appreciated the call. She stepped up her giving and has now given about $100,000,” Lucas says.


·         Go the extra mile and set up a thank-a-thon.

·         Try a creative thank you with your consecutive year-givers. They may come through with a sizable gift.

 On campus at University of Nebraska Kearney.

On campus at University of Nebraska Kearney.

Travel trivia:

·         I got a kick out of visiting Kearney because my maiden name is Kearney.

·         The UNK mascot is the Loper. This is short for antelope, the fastest animal on the range, Lucas says.

·         I wanted to drive instead of fly on this trip so I could bring my Corgi, Abby. She loves to travel and I love her company. Most hotels now allow canine guests while their human companions are present. Abby visited The Retreat at Cottonwood, a dog day care in Kearney while I worked.