These 12 Ways to Thank Donors Will Keep Them from Saying Goodbye

I never understood the point of thank-you letters.

My mom would insist. “You’ve got to send a thank-you letter!”

Three weeks after my birthday: “Have you written your thank-you letter yet?”

Four weeks after my birthday: “You’re grounded if you haven’t sent that letter by this afternoon.”

What’s the point?” I thought. My relatives KNOW I’m thankful! I’ll tell them next time I see them. Ugh, and I’m so busy playing video games.

Ridiculous right? Thankfully I wised up in my later years. I figured out that if I wrote a really great, sincere and funny thank-you letter (usually with hand-drawn illustrations of the gift’s potential applications), my relatives not only appreciated it… but they’d actually put the letter up on the fridge and leave it there for months. Seriously, guys?

The secret of the great thank-you note: if you do it right, the givers are actually happier giving to you than they were before they gave the gift. It’s not an obligation to give a gift any more—it’s a privilege!

You can actually get a glow of happiness sending a gift when you know you’ll be treated with a fun, gratifying message of thanks and appreciation.

But the truth is, we treat our donors like Young Marc treated his relatives after his birthday. We wait until 4+ weeks to send our donor thank you letters, if we send them at all.

And the thank-you isn’t personalized or fun. It’s clearly written at threat of “being grounded”—or sheer fear that the donor might not donate next time you send an appeal.

Stop with the perfunctory thank-yous. Send GREAT thank-you letters. Make people happier than before they gave to you. Make them excited to give next time. Make the world a more generous place by starting with yourself.

Here are 12 ways to start thanking your donors today:

1. Offer a Next Step

The hours, days and weeks after a donation are the time when your donor will be most excited about your cause, and most likely to remember you. Offer them a next step before their passion cools. (Note: You do NOT say “Please donate more!” See below for why not.) The next step can be as simple as “You can join our email list for [X cool benefit, updates, etc.]!” or “We’re throwing this free event for new donors in your area” or “check out our website to see watch X video on what you’re making possible.” What’s the next step?

2. Thank You… for Being YOU

What’s infinitely more valuable than a donation? The person who gave it. The donation happens once. The donor could be around for life. So thank them… for being THEM! The kind of person who gives to important causes. That’s what they’re buying with their donation: confirming their identity as someone who not only cares, but cares enough to take action. Thank me for being me, not for “my donation of [form-filled donation amount].”

3. Send a Handwritten Note

This is one of the coolest things you can receive in our digital age. If you’re a small nonprofit trying to grow your donor base, this is where it’s at. Sure, it won’t scale forever, but right now, that’s not important. Save it for your most committed donors once you’re really big. But do this. Thank-you note writing is a great activity for board member fundraising too—it’s low pressure, with a big return on the time invested. Don’t underestimate the handwritten thank-you like Young Marc did.

4. Treat Each Donation as the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

If the donor is new, realize that pitiful little donation is an opportunity for a LIFETIME of support. You are starting a new relationship. Of course they’re probably taking it slow. But that means it’s worth doing things you wouldn’t otherwise. Make your thank-you especially impactful, meaningful and memorable. What could have started as an offhand donation could become a lifelong passion for you new donor. Keep the fire alive with new donors!

5. Don’t Ask for More Money Yet

Thank you, Aunt Sally! All things said, this wasn’t a terrible gift. But I can’t wait to see the next one! In fact, here are 10 ideas to get you started, in order of MOST desirable to least…” Thank-you notes should bubble with pure, unadulterated sugary gratitude, and make the donor feel sheer delight and appreciation. That means DON’T ASK for more money yet! If you thank them with enthusiasm now, you should definitely ask again in a month or two—and if you do your job, they’ll be HAPPY to give. Hold your horses, eager fundraiser. Don’t ask again just yet.

6. Simple and Emotional, Not Complicated and Jargony

Keep your message simple and emotional. Being complicated doesn’t make something better. In fact, complexity makes it less likely you’ll be remembered when you ask for money next time. Consult the following chart, which is helpful for writing your mission statement, but also your thank-you letters:

good and bad nonprofit mission statements chart

7. Don’t be Boring – Make Them Feel Something

When you write your thank-you letters, get excited. Order a triple shot of espresso. Turn up the music. Dance a little. The more enthusiastic you feel writing your thank-you letters, the more likely it is that enthusiasm will come through your writing. Your goal is to make your donors feel something. Make them care. The biggest thank-you note killer is being boring.

8. Avoid Careless Errors

My father-in-law still writes my name as “Mark” in every text message he sends me. (It’s “Marc.”) Our in-laws can get away with this, but we can’t with our donors. Nothing communicates a lack of care and respect like a blatant error on a thank-you note. While most donors are gracious about a rare mistake, repeated errors are unacceptable. Ask folks on occasion if you’ve got their contact information correct (give them an email address to reach out), and if they send you corrections, update their profile everywhere. Donors don’t experience your organization in silos. Update that info.

9. Send a Thank-You FAST

Send a thank-you letter within two days. Not an acknowledgement or a receipt. A real thank-you. Speed is important because the longer you wait, the more likely your donor will forget they donated, and the less sincere your thank-you seems. Speed matters.


10. Make it Relevant

For every fundraising appeal you send, you should have specific, relevant follow up thank-you letters prepared. That way, the thank-you can be directly relevant to the reason your donor gave. Boilerplate thank-you messages stick out like a sore thumb and anyone can spot them. Spend as much time crafting relevant thank-yous as you do crafting your appeal.

11. Give THEM Credit – Not You

Count the times you use the word “we” and make sure the number of times you use “you” is far greater. The donor is the hero. You are thanking them for their awesomeness. Don’t lapse into bragging about your accomplishments or your future aspirations. Instead, tell them about all that they have enabled. Everything that they made possible. Make them look great, because they are.

12. Follow Up Later – and Show Up with Results

When it’s time to follow up later, show up with results. Be specific: why did my donation matter? What did it accomplish? Why should I be hopeful and excited to contribute to create the future my donations are creating? Whose life was changed? The follow up needs to be just as carefully crafted as the appeal and the thank-you.

Remember, writing thank-you notes is hard work.

But the payoff is worth it.

When you thank your donor RIGHT, they are excited to give again. It’s not an obligation. It’s a privilege.

So please, take some time to do it right.

donor-thank-you-letters note

Marc Koenig

Marc Koenig is a regular contributor of Nonprofit Hub. Marc believes smart, ethical marketing can make the world a better place, and strives to create content that helps nonprofits tell better stories, push their organizations to excel and do work that matters. You'll find him writing Nonprofit Hub featured posts, brainstorming infographics and tweeting up a storm at @npmarc - follow him and say hi!

November 18, 2013

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