How to write a bet­ter thank-you let­ter (and why it matters)

Dear Friend,’ the thank-you let­ter began… and it broke my heart. Don’t they know my name? I won­dered. (It was on the cheque I sent them, after all.)

Written by
Lisa Sargent
May 21, 2011

Oh, there were a few hints that this $76 million-a-year charity thought anything at all of my little $25 gift: they referenced the amount, for one. And noted when it was received. But...

...There was that vaguely unsettling ‘Member number’ in the upper right corner. I was one of more than eight million! And yikes – don’t we have enough numbers to remember already? I felt like part of an institution, not a fledgling member of a hardworking charity.

Then came the kiss of death: the PS upgrade to make me a monthly donor.

Mind you, this was an acquisition thank you. The first sentence after ‘Dear Friend’ was ‘Welcome!’ Why pitch an upgrade at this point in our budding relationship? I barely knew them!

The question I’ve always wanted to ask the author of a thank-you letter like this one is: do you hit up all your first dates for a monthly commitment? And based on this nifty little trick, how long do your relationships last?

And they wonder why donor retention rates are falling. 

Now for the scariest part. This is one of the better letters I’ve received. Why?

Because they sent one. Many nonprofits don’t. Or they wait so long to respond that the poor donor has forgotten who they are – and the moment is lost.

But the thing is, next to your fundraising appeals, your thank-you letter is the most important communication that a donor receives. So shouldn’t it sparkle with sincerity?

I think so. And once you look at the numbers, I hope you will, too...

Just the facts: Why you should audit (and edit) every thank-you letter you send.

According to Penelope Burk’s book Donor-Centered Fundraising, only four out of ten donors say they always receive a thank-you letter after they make a donation... which means that the other six donors either receive one sometimes or – gasp – not at all.

And a white paper from Burk’s Cygnus Applied Research notes that the 1997National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating study found that up to five out of every ten donors stop giving – or give less – because they feel, in part, that their giving isn’t appreciated.

Want something more recent? In a 2008 Bank of America survey on why wealthy donors stop giving, the number one reason cited was because donors ‘no longer feel connected to an organisation’. That very same answer was given by six out of ten wealthy donors.

But a survey’s just a survey. Are disconnected donors really closing their cheque books? If current statistics are any indication, the answer is yes. I quote:

‘A lack of new donor growth is not the only cause for the donor declines, however; falling retention and reactivation rates are also at least partly responsible.

‘Retention rates dropped by -3.0% from Q2 YTD 2007 to Q2 YTD 2008. Fewer than a third (32%) of the organizations in the index had positive retention rate growth in the first half of 2008. The greatest decreases in retention came in first-year donor retention, which declined -5.7% in Q2 YTD 2008 over the same period one year before. Reactivation rates of lapsed donors declined -6.9% from Q2 YTD 2007 to Q2 YTD 2008.’

(Source: Target Analytics’ Index of National Fundraising Performance, 2008 Second Quarter.)

So what can you learn from this, for your organisation?

If you want to keep more of your donors (and set your nonprofit apart from the pack), the thank-you letter is a perfect place to start.

That’s because a well-written thank-you letter forges an instant connection. It tells your donors, loud and clear: ‘You matter to us...and your gift makes a difference.’

By the way, if you’d like access to world-class advice on the thank-you letter, buy Ms. Burk’s book, Donor-Centered Fundraising and read chapters five and six. You can get it (for about US$60) at the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ online bookstore. AFP members save 10 per cent. This link takes you there.

Then when you’re ready to review your donor acknowledgement function, I suggest that you first get a bird’s eye view, by asking questions of your organisation, such as:

  • How soon after a gift is received do we send a thank-you letter?
  • Do we note the amount of the donation?
  • Do we send notices to both the giver and the receiver, for gift memberships?
  • Do we recognise long-term and repeat donors? If not, is our system capable of this?
  • What kind of information do we have on our donors?
  • If any, what kind of donor feedback have we received on thank-yous?

The Big Daddy of those questions, by far, is how promptly you acknowledge a gift. So give promptness top priority: aim to send thank-yous no more than 48 hours after receipt.

Then, gather a sample of every thank you that your organisation sends, and do a simple communications audit using the checklist opposite.

I have no doubt that what you find will amaze you.

For example, I was once asked to audit and rewrite more than 40 standard acknowledgment letters – from memorial to major gifts – for an organisation with more than 300,000 members. I found typos, gift receivers who were being thanked for donations they didn’t send, missing contact information and a whole lot more.

By no means am I condemning these folks. I applaud them: they cared how their donors were being thanked and fixed it. (And soon received glowing donor feedback in return.)

More to the point, I include the story so you’ll understand that practically every nonprofit can do a better job of thanking their donors and that you don’t need a billion-dollar budget to do it.

In fact, from fixing typos to tweaking tax language, you can make many changes yourself. And in the end, you’ll have a solid thank-you letter that does what it’s supposed to do: makes your donors feel appreciated for every heartfelt gift they send and keeps them giving for years to come.

Now what are you waiting for? Grab those thank-you letters and using the checklist opposite, let’s dig in...

This article first appeared on Lisa's website.

© Lisa Sargent 2009

About Lisa Sargent and Sargent Communications:
As president of Sargent Communications, Lisa Sargent is dedicated to helping her nonprofit clients keep their donors. Specialising in post-acquisition fundraising and development communications, known as donor retention communications, Lisa Sargent can help you keep donors connected (and giving) to your cause. Just call 1-860-851-9755 to get started, or email Lisa here. For free nonprofit resources, visit Lisa's website.

​Profit from Lisa’s thank-you letter clinic

Specially for SOFII the talented Lisa has prepared an annotated, instructive series of ‘before’ and ‘after’ thank-you letters from around the world. Click here to review the first seven of these, from five countries – Ireland, UK, USA, Canada and Australia. With thanks to all SOFII users who sent in their thank-you letters for Lisa’s clinic. (We're finished for now, but will almost certainly ask for more later, because this has been so instructive and such fun. If you want to comment on any of the thank-you letter examples, email Carolina.

The better thank-you letter checklist

  1. Is it personalised (as in ‘Dear Lisa’ vs. ‘Dear Friend’)?
  2. Is the gift amount noted?
  3. Do you start with something other than ‘Thank you for your gift of...’? Use an exciting lead.
  4. Do you tell the donor when and how they will next hear from you?
  5. If this is a repeat gift, do you also thank the donor for their:
    a. Past generosity (and indicate all it has made possible)?
    b. Continued contributions/support?
  6. If this is a gift membership (meaning made by someone else on the gift receiver’s behalf):
    a. Do not thank the gift receiver, but talk about what ‘this kind gift makes possible’
    b. Send a thank-you letter to the person who made the gift, so they know their gift is on its way as intended.
  7. Say something new or timely in the PS – offer videos online, a holiday message, an upcoming opportunity to visit or meet you, etc.
  8. Include a contact number they can call if they have questions. You can add an e-mail, but not the generic ‘’. Direct them to a warm body (ie a real person), please.
  9. Do you need to thank them for something specific? For example:
    a. Membership renewal.
    b. Holiday appeal.
    c. Memorial gift.
    d. Capital campaign (focus on all the good this new building/machine/wing will do).
  10. Do you need to reference something specific? For example:
    a. A gift you’ll be sending.
    b. A certificate or photo you’ve enclosed.
  11. Do you have a website? Mention it in the letter, with a simple call-for-action to drive them there. (‘Keep up with all the ways you’re helping XYZ at’)
  12. And remember to:
    a. Keep the letter short (3-4 paras plus a PS).
    b. Add required tax-deductible language.
    c. Share with them ‘all your gift makes possible...’
  13. Use more ‘you’ than ‘we’ and ‘our.’
  14. Say thank you more than once.
  15. Proof-read your letter:
    a. Use spellcheck (but carefully).
    b. Print the letter and read it out loud, word for word.
  16. If you can, hand-sign them all. If you have too many donors, determine an amount at which you or a board member will hand-sign. And an amount where a phone call is appropriate.
  17. Make sure your donation thank you does NOT include:
    a. An additional ‘ask’.
    b. An upgrade to monthly giving or other programme.
    c. A gift reply envelope (even if there is no ask).

About the author: Lisa Sargent

As head of Sargent Communications, Lisa Sargent helps nonprofits raise more money and keep more donors through better donor communications. A creative strategist and copywriter, Lisa works exclusively with nonprofits on direct mail, email fundraising and donor care communications – acquisition appeals, annual reports, proposals, welcome packages, e-appeals, newsletters, thank-you letters and more.

Lisa’s articles have been featured in Mal Warwick’s newsletter, FundRaising Success Magazine and The Agitator. Lisa also publishes The Loyalty Letter, a free e-newsletter for nonprofit and charitable organisations read by subscribers around the world.

Lisa has regularly contributed to SOFII, including the wonderful thank you letter clinic, which you can read here.

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