Donor-Centered Thank You Letters: Your First Step to the Next Gift

Acknowledging Donors’ Gifts / Saying Thank You to Donors, Donor-Centered Fundraising • Views: 251309

A dear friend of mine is a dedicated philanthropist, as is his wife. Both as a couple and independently, they support many charitable organizations in their quiet, yet deliberate way. While reviewing the day’s mail recently, my friend’s wife plunked her stack of letters down in her lap and, with a tone of exasperation in her voice, she remarked, “Is there only one thank you letter?”

When I first conducted research over a decade ago on the impact of thank you letters on donor loyalty and generosity, donors identified two prominent deficiencies — the time it took to receive acknowledgement letters after making gifts and the predictable nature of their content. I am happy to report that donors now say they receive far more thank you letters in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, they continue to be deflated by the content.

What Donors Say Makes Thank You Letters Superior

My research on thank you letters culminated in a list of the 20 Characteristics of Great Thank You Letters which was published in Donor-Centered Fundraising. Over the years I have had many reports from thrilled Development professionals who have re-engineered their acknowledgement letters according to these principles, raising more money and improving donor retention as a result. Many have also received immediate and very generous additional gifts from donors who were now reading something they could get excited about. One story is particularly memorable. A community hospice sent their new donor-centered thank you letter to a first-time donor who had just made a $100 contribution. The delighted donor called the organization because she “wanted to meet the person who had written such a beautiful letter”. Donor and Fundraiser fell into conversation about the Hospice and its future plans. The next day a check arrived via courier with a post-it note attached which read, For your hopes and dreams. The check was for $25,000.

Here is my list of the 20 things that make a thank you letter superior:

  1. The letter is a real letter, not a pre-printed card.
  2. It is personally addressed.
  3. It has a personal salutation (no “dear donor” or “dear friend”).
  4. It is personally signed.
  5. It is personally signed by someone from the highest ranks of the organization
  6. It makes specific reference to the intended use of funds.
  7. It indicates approximately when the donor will receive an update on the program being funded.
  8. It includes the name and phone number of a staff person whom the donor can contact at any time or an invitation to contact the writer directly.
  9. It does not ask for another gift.
  10. It does not ask the donor to do anything (like complete an enclosed survey, for example.)
  11. It acknowledges the donor’s past giving, where applicable.
  12. It contains no spelling or grammatical errors.
  13. It has an overall “can do”, positive tone as opposed to a hand wringing one.
  14. It communicates the excitement, gratitude and inner warmth of the writer.
  15. It grabs the reader’s attention in the opening sentence.
  16. It speaks directly to the donor.
  17. It does not continue to “sell”.
  18. It is concise – no more than two short paragraphs long.
  19. It is received by the donor promptly.
  20. Plus, in some circumstances, the letter is handwritten.

A Growing Resource as Precious as Gold

At the request of colleagues who understand the power of compelling communications, I continue to compile a catalog of the best examples of Donor-Centered Thank You Letters which is distributed to everyone whose entry is included. We are now accepting submissions for the 3rd edition of our Donor-Centered Thank You Letters Project. If you have adapted one or more thank you letters according to the twenty donor-centered principles above or if you would like to do so now, I would love to receive a sample of your best.

In the meantime, don’t hesitate to post a comment if you have any questions about something on that list of twenty characteristics. Here is a clue that will lead to greatness —  more than 80% of thank you letters start with Thank you for your generous gift of… or its first cousin, On behalf of the Board of Directors, thank you for your generous gift of…

I’m counting on you to be so much more brilliant than that.

Donor-Centered Thank You Letters Submissions

Send your Donor-Centered Thank-You letters to:

All letters chosen for publication will be edited to preserve anonymity. Here is an example from the 2012 Edition of the Donor-Centered Thank You Letters Project.

For more information on the project, visit:



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37 Responses to Donor-Centered Thank You Letters: Your First Step to the Next Gift

  1. Jay says:

    Help! We receive a great deal of funds allocated to whatever area is in greatest need. Donations go into our general account, and it’s impossible for us to see exactly where any specific donor’s money is spent. How can we write a meaningful thank you and steward these gifts appropriately without giving specifics?

    • All our research and testing has confirmed that the best possible ask (i.e., the one that raises the most money) is a designated or specific ask, not one that asks donors to give to the organization as a whole. If your fundraising campaign has been non-specific, the second best solution is to designate gifts to an agreed priority program or service as soon as they are received. This is a program that leadership (board/CEO) have identified as a strategic priority, implying of course that your NFP has a strategic plan in place for programs and services.

      If you are receiving significant contributions to “area of greatest need”, then I recommend that you do not list that as a giving option on your website or in your campaign because it actually tells donors little about why you are raising money. If you want them to give to your area of greatest need, then you must know what that greatest need is (or someone must); otherwise, it calls into question the need for fundraising in the first place.

      Non-specific asks or shopping lists of everything your organization does are less effective cases and, consequently, raise less money. A specific, compelling program or project focuses’ donors’ attention and allows you, the fundraiser, to sell your objective with a strong intellectual and emotional case.

  2. Nick says:

    Wonderful piece! I’m currently re-working our donor letter and having trouble “communicating measurable results to donors.” We currently offer a large music festival in the summer and educational programs in the spring. It is hard to determine exactly what the $100 donation will cover (since artists, teachers, equipment, etc. all costs above our median donation). Am I just not looking at this in the right way? Thank you!

    • The key to providing measurable results to all donors, regardless of how long they have been giving or the value of their most recent gift, is in looking at your operating budget (not fundraising budget but the budget for your entire not-for-profit) in a cost-centered manner. This means taking a budget that lists expenses in a typical way — salaries, benefits, rent, utilities, travel, etc. and re-allocating those costs to the programs and services that you run. So, for example, in a budget by cost center, the salary of your CEO would be apportioned across the various programs and services that you deliver. The same goes for all other expenses in your organization. Now you have a budget that truly reflects the business that you are in. To use your example, a donor who gives $100 would be contributing to one of the programs and services that you operate and the entire budget for that program would be $X. Additional funds come from other philanthropic donors and sources of revenue such as government grants, product sales, fees, etc. You are right in assuming that a single donor’s $100 gift cannot do a meaningful job on its own to move a program forward and achieve measurable results, but it can when combined with other donors’ contributions. Focusing asks on one program or service at a time allows donors & potential donors to visualize exactly what the money is for, making your appeal more compelling and increasing the likelihood that donors will give again after your report to them what you accomplished in that program since they gave.

      More information on the benefits of restricted over unrestricted fundraising is contained in my book, Donor-Centered Leadership, and for a living example of the financial benefits of restricted giving (which I prefer to call “assigned” or “designated” giving), see another of my blog posts here:

  3. Sara says:

    We have been receiving funds from our donors for about 10 years and I don’t believe a thank you letter has ever been sent out. I was recently brought on to take over the fundraising aspect of the organization and step #1 is to send out a thank you letter asap.
    My question is – we have about 100 donors who donate monthly. Is sending out a letter annually to those donors enough? (We are also starting to implement a monthly newsletter, so they won’t be left hanging and wondering where their money is going…)

    • Regarding your monthly donors, your approach is correct. They should only require an official thank you letter and receipt once a year, assuming their gifts are coming to you automatically as charges to their credit cards or debits from their bank accounts. However, that thank you should not be your only communication. Be sure to include them in information mailings, especially ones that contain updates on what your organization is accomplishing with the gifts that donors contribute.

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