Dos and Don’ts When Writing Donor Thank-You Letters

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by Timothy Sandoval

It’s difficult and costly to attract brand-new supporters — and that’s why charities want past donors to give again and again.

To get donors to make repeat gifts, nonprofits should take care to thank them well, experts say. Yet many groups’ thank-yous are lacking, says Steven Shattuck, chief engagement officer at Bloomerang, a cloud-based fundraising-software company.

Mr. Shattuck, who donates to many nonprofits to assess how well they thank donors, says:

“I think you have to operate under the assumption that a lot of nonprofits don’t even see the value of [sending thank-yous] to begin with,” he says. “They spend all this time fundraising, which is great, and it’s important — you need to do that. But then they kind of fall asleep on the postdonation stuff.”

How can nonprofits improve their thank-yous? The Chronicle spoke to several experts to get their advice. Here’s what they said.

Thank promptly.

For online donors, an initial digital thank-you and receipt should be sent within 72 hours, says Robert King Novara, enterprise account manager at Classy, a fundraising-technology company. Fundraising software often allows for these items to be sent automatically, he noted.

For most donors, instantaneous acknowledgment is important in today’s digital world, notes Karl Miller, managing associate in the education practice of Bentz Whaley Flessner, a fundraising-consulting firm. Consumers “kind of expect it,” Mr. Miller said. “And when it doesn’t happen,” donors may develop a negative view of the organization.

After initial notifications are sent, Mr. King Novara recommends sending a more substantive thank-you note. A second thank-you should be more personal, he says.

Keep the same the look and feel as the solicitation.

If your donor gave to a particular campaign, make sure you refer to it and use the same colors and logos, says Mr. King Novara. “You want to make sure you’re carrying that theme forward,” he said, adding that it’s also important to use the donor’s name in a thank-you.

Tap into emotions when expressing appreciation.

“I always tell my organizations it’s important to convey the impact of the donation on an emotional level,” says Mr. King Novara. You can do that through success stories and specific examples of the ways donations make a difference.

At the international aid charity World Vision, for instance, new sponsors of children living in developing nations receive a welcome kit and a thank-you phone call. After that, sponsors get letters, emails, reports, and videos about the work of the charity.

Through an online portal, donors can also write letters to the children they sponsor overseas and get the latest updates and photos.

Some of the most popular messages include a personal story, says Hilary Reynolds, director of child sponsorship.

“Having the story is really what makes the difference because people really connect with a story on an emotional level,” Ms. Reynolds says.

Customize your communication.

Don’t send everyone the same thank-you.

First-time donors should get a welcome kit that introduces them to the organization, while recurring donors should get notes that assume more knowledge of the organization, Mr. King Novara says.

As you learn more about donors — like what programs they care most about or what kinds of communications they prefer — you might find other variables to use with certain groups of supporters.

Use the mail.

Penelope Burk, president of Cygnus Applied Research, a fundraising consultancy, stresses that thank-you letters sent by “snail mail” are still vital — perhaps even more so than in the past: “As electronic communication becomes more and more commonplace, print communication becomes rare — and more valuable because it is so rare.”

Effective Letters

How do you write a good letter? Here’s some advice from Ms. Burk:

  • A good thank-you letter starts with a short, atypical opening line that grabs attention. Many nonprofit letters start the same way, she notes, saying something like: “Thank you for your generous gift of …”
  • As an example of a different approach, she pointed to a letter she reviewed from a nonprofit saying, “We envisioned a better future; then you stepped in and made that future possible.”

  • Keep it short — no longer than a single paragraph. “That one often drives fundraisers crazy,” she says. Oftentimes, Ms. Burk says, nonprofits start to repeat what they put in the original solicitation if they write long: “That’s just unnecessary. If the letter is prompt, the donor will very much remember who [he or she] just gave to and why.”
  • Make sure someone prominent signs the letters. It could be the executive director, a key employee, or a board member.
  • Don’t send the same thank-you twice. Donors will catch on, and they’ll start to ignore them, Ms. Burk says.
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