Saying thank you to a donor ends one transaction but builds a bridge to future support and deeper engagement. Do it well, and you are on your way to future fundraising success.
Here are 10 tips for making that thank you letter just right.
1. Get it in the mail fast
Forty-eight hours is an ideal turn around for a thank you letter. If that is impossible, aim for no more than a week. You want the donor to remember that he made the donation so that the thank you reinforces his action and rewards him for that decision.
Getting the letter there quickly will make your charity's name stick in the donor's mind, reassure him that you actually received the donation, and impress him with your efficiency and thoughtfulness.
Even online donors should receive a mailed thank you letter, but that is expensive and many nonprofits are moving to online as much as possible. In that case, make sure that your online donor has not just gotten an emailed receipt.
Brush up on best practices for emailed thank you letters. In crowded email boxes, your thank you letter can go unnoticed, so pay attention to its subject line and how recognizable it is to your donor.
2. Make it personal
Personalize your thank you letter with the donor's name (double check the spelling and never call a Ms a Mr), and write directly to the individual. First names are powerful, so use them if you can.
Use personal pronouns, such as "you," "we," and "I." Include information about the donor that you may know, such as how long they've been a donor, or that you enjoyed seeing them at the last event. Perhaps the donor has received an award or gotten a promotion. Feel free to add something about it to your letter.
A good donor records system will be your best friend when it comes to this level of personalization. Most systems, even low cost ones, have the ability to capture current information about your donors.
When did they last give? Have they volunteered? When was the last time the donor had contact with your organization and what was the nature of that interaction? If this is a first time donor, send a welcome package, put the donor's name on your mailing and/or email list to receive newsletters and announcements.
If thanking a long time donor, consider a handwritten note rather than a formal letter.
3. Coordinate it with campaign themes
Coordinate the thank you with the appeal or campaign that brought in the donation. Draft a template letter when you write your fundraising materials. Think of it as part of one campaign package. If the donation is in response to some other stimulus...perhaps an event you staged...relate the letter to that event. Think continuity for the donor.
Coming full circle back to the appeal will improve the stickiness of your organization's name in the donor's mind. It is also reassuring to the donor and shows that you are organized and taking the time to get it right.
If the donation is in response to a specific email appeal, do develop a post-donation landing page on your website specifically for those donors. Generic is out. Specificity to what the donor saw that compelled him or her to give is a must.
Tie your thank you into that theme, both the emailed acknowledgment that is sent immediately and your mailed letter as well. Even if the donation is to a generic appeal on your website, consider developing a "wow" post-donation landing page. This one from charity:water is a good example.
4. Use stories to connect donors to results
Help donors visualize how their money will be spent. The best way to do that is to tell a story about a particular person who will be helped by the donation. It needn't be long, just a few sentences and using a person's name can be enough to arouse empathy in the donor.
Make your donor the hero of those stories. He or she made that story possible. Keep an inventory of stories about the good things your charity accomplishes. then set up blocks of copy using those stories and drop them into your thank you letters as appropriate.
Changing up the stories frequently will keep your letters fresh and make it easier to send out many letters without having to make each of them completely new.
Even if you serve people who are in sensitive situations and you need to protect their identities, there are ways to tell their stories without compromising their privacy.
5. Have a real person sign your letters
Avoid digital signatures unless you're sending literally thousands of letters at a time. Even then, reserve letters that go to donors giving significant donations for your executive director, the board president, or a volunteer fundraising chairperson to sign. Use real first class stamps for these letters.
6. Add a personal, hand-written note
If appropriate, ask the Executive Director or Board President to add a personal note to the letter. This is especially gratifying if it is a long time donor who knows the leaders personally.
Mentioning a recent event that the donor attended will both remind the donor of a pleasant experience and add authenticity to the note. Consider having a note writing party with volunteers who write notes on letters or attach post-it notes with handwritten messages.
7. Include a reply envelope
I don't recommend asking for another donation in a thank you letter. Honestly, that turns people off more than you think. However, just including the envelope might remind the donor that future donations are welcome.
Many donors will keep these envelopes and use them for a donation later...or even right away. For a different view of including a reply envelope, see How to write a better thank-you letter (and why it matters)
8. Use the letter as a tax receipt
Thank you letters today typically include the proper disclosures each time a donor gives, whether online, by check or through monthly giving.
It is good practice as well to provide a summary of giving for the year at the beginning of the next year, just at the time when donors are typically preparing their tax returns. Just remember that a receipt is not a thank you. The receipt should be a minor part of the letter. Check this example of a letter that also includes a record of the donation that can be used for tax purposes.
9. Invite more engagement
It's always nice to include an invitation to visit your agency and see your work first-hand. In today's world where you might be soliciting donations from people all over the world, engagement can be attained through social media. Encourage your donor to follow your organization on Facebook and Twitter or any other social networks that you participate in.
Since there are no hyperlinks in a mailed letter, give your website address and then make sure that your social media buttons are easy to find. Include a specific invitation to visit the website and click on those buttons and to sign up for your email newsletter or other communications. Social media icons are some of the most important elements on your charity's website.
10. Add a postscript and provide contact info
We are all skimmers. That's why most of us will read the top part of a letter and then skip down to the P.S. Then we may go back and read the rest of the letter. Direct mail marketers know all about the P.S. and always include it. Sometimes they have more than one.
For your thank you letter, you might want to refer again to the story you provided ("Michael and Jane are safe and happy because of you") or put important contact information there.
Donors should have the name, telephone number and email address of someone in the organization that they can contact with questions. Customer service is just as important for nonprofits as for businesses, so make it easy for a donor to find a real person to talk with.
More about thanking donors: