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Joanne Fritz

A Receipt Is Not a Thank You: Online Donors vs Online Buyers

By February 20, 2012

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Last week, Blackbaud released a report about online giving for 2011. It continues to grow...up 13%. A receipt is not a thank you for a donation.

Frank Barry, in a follow-up to the report, pointed out new donor acquisition through online channels is hotter than any other for charities; that online donors give more, on average, than off line donors; and that they represent higher household income than other donors.

So, why do nonprofits not worry about their online thank yous as much as their mailed thank yous? Why do thank you letters seem to warrant time and attention while the attitude toward online thank yous seems so nonchalant? This seems especially odd given that we also know that attrition for first time donors, especially online, is extremely high. Those donors are worth a lot, but only if we keep them.

Why do I even think that there is less concern about thanking online donors? Well, when I look at the stats for my content, I find that my articles about writing thank you letters (as in mailed ones) are some of the most popular content on my site. My material about online thanking barely registers on the meter. I also accumulate a lot of online thank yous because that is my preferred way of donating. They are not very good.

I'm going to guess the reasons:

  • Many people in nonprofits don't think getting a thank you after making an online donation is all that important. Possibly they never learned the art of writing thank you notes. I hang out with a lot of folks who have grown children and grandchildren. A big complaint among this set is that their children and grand kids don't write, call, or even send a thank you for a birthday or holiday gift. Sure, the little kids are usually enthusiastic, getting on the phone or Skype and gushing their enthusiasm, but after about 13 or so....nothing.

  • Many young people at nonprofits think that an online donor doesn't care much about a thank you. The donors are probably young, like them, and it just doesn't matter that much. After all, we don't expect IKEA to gush over us every time we buy a DIY bookshelf, do we? So...sending a brief, receipt-like online thank you is just fine. Who has time to read a thank you anyway when your email box is so crammed?

  • But, many fundraisers do assume that a check in the mail means that the donor is probably from an earlier generation and is going to get mad if a thank you letter doesn't arrive in the mailbox. How do we write those again? God, will we be glad when everyone is online.

    Actually, it's a multichannel world for all generations. Older donors might respond with an online donation even when they got a mailed appeal; and online donors may switch to sending a check in response to direct mail after that first online gift.

That's why I was so happy to see Simon Norris and Juliet Richardson's article, Why thanking donors online is powerful, which is part of a white paper from the very smart consulting firm, Nomensa.

Simon and Juliet, I think, get to the heart of the matter: we confuse an online donation with a commercial online transaction when they are nothing alike. Simon and Juliet point out:

"The psychology of online giving is definitely not the same as online shopping and should be treated very differently. Thanking the donor appropriately is a key part of the donation process--donors need and expect more than a 'receipt' for their consideration and their money. In fact, there is a rule of thumb that donors should be thanked seven times before you ask for their next donation."

Simon and Juliet go on to cite powerful psychological research that shows just how motivating a good thank you is: donors who are thanked well are more than twice as likely to give again. Example of a post donation landing page from charity:water.

I'm pretty darn sure that these psychological effects happen to anyone at any age. Young people...the ones who might be sitting at the social media controls in your nonprofit...might THINK they don't care if they are thanked, but, in fact, they do. They just might not know it yet.

Thanking is a reward and a validation of a genorous act, as Simon and Juliet point out in their article. Donating is so different from buying that it is only that the two seem so alike online that the two transactions confuse people. Donating is altruistic, emotional, personal and expectant of engagement; while buying is calculated, narcissistic, and a one-off exchange. Really, the only resemblance between an online donation and an online purchase is the exchange of information and provision of a credit card number.

I love looking at a thank you letter as a 'reward.' When you buy a hot pink teddy from Victoria's Secret, the teddy in your hand is the reward. But, when donating online, the reward is the knowledge that you're helping, the thank you that lets you know you've done a good thing and are thus valued, and the promise of future engagement with this cause. Your post-donation actions are not an after thought...they are a bridge to the future.

Simon and Juliet connect thanking with the psychology of reward and point out that it involves three factors:

  • Reciprocity. Donors are giving a gift, so telling them how valued that gift is completes the reciprocity loop.
  • Expectation (and prediction). Donors have expectations about how they want to be treated; they will predict how they will be treated; and when expectation, prediction, and reward (the thank you) match, they feel valued.
  • Reinforcement. A social relationship is set up when a donor is asked to give, he or she makes the gift, and when the gift is acknowledged. A good thank you reinforces this particular giving choice and motivates future giving.

Simon and Juliet have some very specific ways to make your thank you landing page and your thank you email reward your donors in a way that will engage, motivate, and fulfill their expectations.

Post donation landing pages can be designed to make an immediate impact, followed up by a thank you email that looks as little like a commercial transaction as possible. Follow Simon and Juliet's instructions, and you'll be a long way toward seeing and creating the differences that make saying thank you for a donation something special and that will get donors to come back for more.

My thanks to Pamela Grow for pointing me to this article.


  • Examples of email thank yous
  • Saying Thank You With the Perfect Post-Donation Landing Page
  • Keep Donors Coming Back After the First Donation
  • How Multichannel Thank Yous Work
  • Multichannel Fundraising

    Receipt Image: Walker and Walker/Getty Images; Post Donation Landing Page by charity:water

  • Comments

    February 21, 2012 at 10:47 am
    (1) Dave Parker says:

    Great post as usual.

    Your correct about the shift demographics of giving. I was on the Board of the Seattle Union Gospel Mission in Seattle for five years up until about five years ago. We saw a significant shift in our outreach moving from Direct Mail dependence to a more significant jump in online giving.

    I think the data validates the assumption that our younger giving base continues to mature and the overall online giving base continues to grow.

    Now that you’ve acquired a donor/customer it’s time to keep them engaged!

    February 21, 2012 at 12:09 pm
    (2) nonprofit says:

    Thanks, Dave! Love your comments. Yes, I think nonprofits have been a bit lax about online donors up until now. I guess it feels like an accomplishment just to set up the ability to take online gifts. Now it’s time to get more sophisticated with thanking and engaging for the long haul.

    February 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm
    (3) Cheri Friedman says:

    I have found that by treating our online donors the same as those who donations come in the mail, that we have a great response rate in future requests. There is something about being acknowledged for the good you do that is important no matter what the age of the donor.

    January 2, 2013 at 8:30 pm
    (4) Elaine Fogel says:

    Joanne, it’s amazing how many charities have poor thank-you landing pages and badly composed thank-you e-mails. Some are written from an internal perspective without any personalization at all. Not a great brand impression.

    I still believe in sending a follow-up thank you by mail. To keep costs low, organizations can send a handwritten or printed personalized postcard including the url (and QR code) for a special landing page that engages them even further. No matter what their ages, I’d bet that receiving that extra note of appreciation would go far in endearing donors to the cause.

    I’ll share your article with my newsletter readers. It’s an excellent reminder. :)

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