Fundraisers, Fix Your Thank You Letters!

By | November 1, 2013

thank-you-pink-brownWhen I first started working in development, I felt comfortable around data and record-keeping. It felt neat and orderly. You plug the numbers in correctly and you get the right results. You spell people’s names right and they don’t call and yell at you. Simple, really.

I learned to write appeal letters. Hesitantly at first. But I got there. And learned to love it. The challenge, the psychology of it – it was fun!

Thank you letters, though. Thank you letters were not fun. How many ways can you say, “thank you for your generous gift of $X”? You’re thinking: “If they bored her, imagine how her donors felt!” Exactly. Though I don’t think mine were any worse than most of what I see in my mailbox to this day.

I’ve written about some of the really awful ones I’ve received. You get them too, I’m sure. The ones you swear were written by a bored cyborg. There are so many crappy thank you letters out there! So this week’s best idea I ever stole? Fix your thank you letters!

I have to thank a couple of people for changing my attitude. Lisa Sargent and Pamela Grow both showed me how effective a great thank you can be. (Lisa’s even got a whole clinic on SOFII about this). I learned how important they are to donor retention. But also how rewarding it is to write one. Now I’m a totally devoted disciple of the School of Good Thanks.

Here are some tips for writing a good thank you letter.

  • Start by creating a donor profile. This will be very helpful as you try to craft a letter that’s meaningful to your donor. You’d probably write in a slightly different style to a friend or your grandmother.
  • Spend time on the first line. But you know this already from writing your appeals, right? You want to open your letter in a way that immediately makes your donor feel great. Considering all the dull thank you letters out there, a great opening will immediately set you apart.
  • Focus on your donor, not on your organization. This isn’t about you. This isn’t about the great work your organization does. This is entirely about your donor and the great work he does – through you.
  • Be specific. Thank the donor for the gift he gave. Mention the reason for the gift if you know. If the gift was given for a particular program, talk about the program and the impact of his gift. Don’t fall back on generalities just to make it easier on you.
  • Be emotional. Very emotional! Giving is not an intellectual, rational exercise. People give from their hearts. (They may then rationalize the gift with facts). Speak to their hearts and wear yours on your sleeve.
  • Be personal. I’m not just talking about getting her name right. I mean have the letter personally signed. Add a handwritten note. Let her know how to be in touch with you. You’re working on creating a personal relationship here!
  • Don’t be greedy. There is a lot of controversy about whether to ask for another gift as you thank your donor. Some very smart people can show evidence that an ask with the acknowledgement brings good results. Personally, I can’t bring myself to do it. It just feels rude. I might try including a response envelope with a request for comments or questions though.

But, you say, “how can I possibly generate letters that are warm and genuine? I’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands to do and my boss won’t OK a clone!”

This is what I do:

  • Plan ahead. At the beginning of each year, or better yet, each campaign, write thank you letters for every possible kind of gift and giver. Ideally, you should write the thank you as you write the appeal. They really go together.
  • Set up your database. As gifts come in, key each gift to the type of letter. Then you can use that key to create the mother-of-all-nested-merges in Word.  You can run one report and still generate many different letters that reflect the gift (and giver). I’ve built 20 or more different letters into one document. It’s a bear to create. But it saves lots of time later.
  • Keep it up to date. Plan to update all those letters through the year. Consider coding second and third gifts in your database as well. Then you can recognize your donor’s extra generosity.
  • Then review. This is where you make sure names, dates and amounts are right. And this is where you can add personal touches.
  • A reminder: These letters are just the “official” thanks. Don’t stop there. Donors deserve better! Think about personal notes, phone calls and other ways to show them they really matter.

I’ve found the more organized I am up front, the less work I do overall.

You don’t want gratitude to feel automated. But unless you only have a few donors, you can’t write a new letter for every gift. A little smart automation can help you avoid robotic thank you letters.

So go write some fabulous thank you letters. No more robots. My family is tired of my grumbling as I open the mail!


Mary CahalaneMary Cahalane is a fundraiser and consultant in Connecticut. She began her nonprofit career almost 30 years ago in theater and remains a passionate arts lover. She loves spending her days helping nonprofits communicate better and develop meaningful relationships. You can find Mary’s blog at www.mcahalane.com. Connect with her on Linkedin or on Twitter @mcahalane.

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