Oper­a­tion Smile: spe­cial thank-a-thon’

Exhibited by
Denise Milisitz, donor care associate, Operation Smile, Inc.
May 23, 2013
Medium of Communication
Target Audience
Type of Charity
Children, youth and family
Country of Origin
Date of first appearance
November, 2010

SOFII’s view

We hear so often of charities where relationships between different departments are described as ‘fraught’. How refreshing then to hear of an organisation that not only values its donors but gives all members of staff the opportunity to thank them personally rather than just keeping that privilege for the fundraisers.

Summary / objectives

To organise an event that acknowledges donors and also builds camaraderie among all the staff of Operation Smile.


Operation Smile’s entire global headquarters staff participated in this simple event that recognised our most loyal donors, promoted internal team building and gave our local student volunteers a fun project. A thank-a-thon event has the immediate benefit of thanking often overlooked donors with a personal phone call from the organisation.This event also gives employees a time to reflect on the organisation’s mission, connect with the donors that help fund critical programmes and more closely tie staff to the passion of why they decided to work in the nonprofit sector.

We really had to rally people for this event. Calling donors can be intimidating to those who don’t typically interact with the organisation’s supporters, such as personnel in administration or finance. We used what we had learned from direct response initiatives and communicated with the staff multiple times using various channels. See an example of our communications calendar on the left.

We treated this just like our external marketing campaigns by using consistent messaging and presentation. Since our event took place during the week of Thanksgiving we incorporated the autumnal colours of orange, red and marigold. And because we are an international and culturally diverse organisation we sprinkled ‘thank you’ in different languages and fonts throughout our communications. We tried to highlight something that makes our organisation special. We included the date, time and other important details in every message.

We were mindful of supporters who may not have heard from Operation Smile other than through direct response solicitations, monthly giving statements, or our standard acknowledgements. Working with our database team, we selected specific criteria to identify our most faithful donors who had not received a personal thank-you call to recognise their consistent loyalty. We identified a group of donors that had given recurring donations consecutively for over 24 months at an amount over $20.

We worked closely with our direct response and online marketing teams to make sure that calls were coordinated with other communications efforts that were in the pipeline.

After we had scrubbed our database, we divided the list and gave it to departmental managers to pass on to staff members. We made sure that the spreadsheet had a column for notes to be added and then imported into our database, including flags for bad phone numbers, comments, etc.

The lists were manageable in size so all calls could be completed in less than two hours. Each employee received 10 names and was given colourful note cards to write down reactions and special remarks.

We also gave callers point-of-contact information (to address any concerns that might have arisen during calls), a script and best practices. Scripts enhance confidence and we created one for both live calls and voicemails. Some highlights of our script consisted of:

‘This is not a solicitation; I just wanted you to know how much we appreciate your support.’

‘Your regular, ongoing gifts have helped transform lives across the globe. You truly are making a difference for boys and girls by giving them new smiles.’

‘I’d love to hear your story of how you first heard about Operation Smile – what inspired you to give?’

We put up posters the day before the event and displayed them throughout our office. Our volunteers painted handmade posters and displayed them in the reception area and conference room where we held our post thank-a-thon party.

Special characteristics

Using a digital camera we created a slide show to run during the ‘after party’. Our employees loved seeing pictures of each other and this added some comedy to the conclusion of the event.

We had coffee and cupcakes at our after party and incorporated the elements that we used throughout the communications. We inserted little flags with ‘thank you’ written in several languages onto the cupcakes. These flags were made with labels and wrapped around toothpicks. Our party budget was under $100.

Influence / impact

All staff members were invited to the after party even if they were not able to participate in making the calls. As employees arrived, a glass bowl was provided for them to drop their note cards in. We used this time to share stories and reflect on Operation Smile’s mission and asked several participants to pick out a card from the glass bowl and read it aloud. We also encouraged others to share stories from their calls. These stories were very funny but also extremely touching and emotional. Our senior vice president of international programmes spoke to an 80-year old-woman in Minnesota for 45 minutes. This donor explained that maybe she could not actually go on a mission but she could ‘give her $20 a month to help these poor children’. A favourite quote from the event was ‘And those doctors…they are definitely going to heaven!’


During the afternoon, we were able to talk to 355 donors in less than two hours. Because of the high volume of calls we learned that our phone lines did not have the capacity to handle that number of outgoing calls. We had to be flexible and ask staff to stagger their calls. In the future we plan to allot each department a time to start calls rather than a single time for the whole office to begin.


A thank-a-thon is a great time to reflect on our work and what makes our organisations touch the hearts of our donors. Staff can sometimes lose sight of why each and every one of their jobs is so important to the organisation. This easy event helped our team reconnect with their passion for the cause, express gratitude to our most loyal donors and be thankful for the supporters who make it all possible.

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Our communications’ calendar: good communication in advance will encourage and give confidence to your organisation’s staff members, even the accounting manager who doesn’t normally speak to donors.
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Our donor relations department also offered to work with teams to coach them on the above.
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Eileen, international programmes.
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Katie, student programmes.
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Liza, international programmes.
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Sondria, accounting.
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Hand-painted posters were placed in reception and the conference room.