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

Acknowledging Donors’ Gifts / Saying Thank You to Donors, Donor-Centered Fundraising • Views: 244004

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. Marilyn says:

    I am newly elected president for a choral group. Our conductor retired (after 41 years) and we have a new conductor. I want to send a hand-written note (and envelope) to the people who donate to our organization. I also know that we need to send a donor acknowledgement letter. I’m struggling to figure to how to best do this. Should I send a small thank you note card in the same envelope with a donor acknowledgement letter? Should we print the legal tax receipt information on the bottom of the letter and handwrite the rest? Should the thank you note and donor acknowledgment be sent separately? Thanks!

    • You have a wonderful opportunity to make a rare connection with your donors from the top of your choral group. Our research continually finds that leadership volunteers (board members) and top staff including artistic directors, physicians, deans, performers, etc. have unusual influence on donors. Just the smallest acknowledgement from one of these important people is enough to sustain a donor’s interest for a long time and inspire many to give more generously.

      Because you have a new conductor, I would suggest that you draft something that would go to donors from this person, rather than from you. It should have a picture of your new conductor on it and contain a brief thank you to donors “for all you have done to date to make this wonderful choir a reality” (or some such sentiment.) It should be short – just a note size – expressing the new conductor’s delight at leading the choir, acknowledging donors’ support, and looking forward to seeing them at the next performance, perhaps.

      It appears from your message that it is also time to acknowledge recent contributions from some or all of your donors. Make this a separate thing; craft a beautiful thank you letter to be signed from someone on the board or from a member of your choir, perhaps.

      Two great opportunities for you to capitalize on!!

  2. Liesel says:

    We’re struggling with the question of handwritten notes versus a printed letter signed by someone on the Board. There are those who think only unique cards with handwritten notes inside are the way to go, but others think that a personalized letter would be more time- and cost-effective.

    We are a small non–profit with no small full-time staff, and we struggle to write all notes by hand. Furthermore, one of our Board Members is pressuring for a 24-hour turnaround time, which is just not feasible given that we all have different tasks as well as our day jobs.
    So, would a a week to two weeks be acceptable to respond, and with a letter rather than a note card?

    • I think you/your Board may be getting too bogged down in the process which is holding everyone back from actually capitalizing on the opportunity. It is the content of your thank you letter that is most important, regardless of whether it is hand-written or printed on your letterhead or on thank you note stationery. You are in good company with virtually all not-for-profits who are either so short-staffed or have so many donors that they cannot address them all at once. Do not worry about that. Set an objective which is to send a beautiful thank you note, in whatever form, to as many donors as you can reasonably handle while getting those notes out in a timely fashion.

      As for turnaround time: donors say that if they receive your thank you letter within two weeks of the date they made the commitment to give (said yes over the phone; sent you a check in the mail, etc.), then they consider that to be prompt. Giving time for the gift traveling to you and your thank you letter travelling back to the donor, that tells you how much time you have internally to adhere to donors’ definition of timeliness.

      Everyone wants to do the right thing by donors, and that’s wonderful. But sometimes we are over-think it to the point that nothing gets launched. You and your board can stop worrying so much; your donors will be grateful for the obvious care and attention you are showing. Make sure that comes through in the quality of the thank you letter you write and everything will turn out well.

  3. Andrew says:

    Loved the post! I think that promptness is a major key to retaining donors after a contribution, but personalization is equally if not more important. Nothing beats a handwritten card, but depending on your size and time constraints it can prove to be inefficient. There are a few sites now that you can personalize and design your own cards that they will mail for you and it looks identical to handwritten ones because you can submit your own handwriting or choose from hundreds of fonts. I think the cheapest and easiest is called Thankster. I also agree that it is important not to ask for another gift or donation with the thank you letter as you want to establish friendly correspondence. Thanks for sharing your approach.

  4. Jamie Segar says:

    After 32 years since establishing our annual fund we are looking to increase our Founder’s level from $1,000 to $2,000. I’m looking for suggestions to gently communicate this message in the proper way to our donors. Any suggestions would be helpful.

    • Jamie, this response is likely not what you are expecting. A sudden change in historical gift or gift club levels is just one of many things about this kind of recognition that creates problems and risks alienating donors when the purpose of recognition is supposed to be enhancing relationships. All our research with donors on whether or not gift clubs or levels contribute to retention and inspire higher gift values concludes that they do not. Today, 92% of donors say this form of recognition has no influence and a mere 4% say gift clubs are influential in certain circumstances. Fundraisers seldom consider another problem that comes into play with graded donor recognition. Some donors tell us they were prepared to give more until they saw that they could get their name into an attractive category for less money and then downgraded their contribution.

      Creating and maintaining these levels or societies takes precious professional staff time and financial resources. My recommendation is to do away with this kind of recognition and apply the saved time and money into communicating measurable results to donors on what you are accomplishing with their gifts. This is what donors have told us is very influential. It inspires them to stay longer and give more generously, the two measures that make your fundraising operation more profitable.

      Penelope Burk

  5. Judy says:

    Any advice for late thank you letters and how would you open the letter, with an apology or still something unique? For example…”As they say it’s never too late to say your sorry, it’s never too late to say thank you as well”!

    If you think this is ok, then would I follow with an apology, and an explanation, just one or the other, both???
    I ‘m thinking not, but feel very embarrassed that these letters are going out so late.
    Looking forward to your response. Thank you!


    • Do not apologize; it serves only to draw attention to the fact that thank you letters are going out late. But, you can partly compensate for tardiness with an extraordinarily good letter that still makes them glad that they gave…even if they cannot remember when! Then, next time, make both content and timing work in your favor so that you can maximize the benefit of acknowledgement letters – which is better renewal and higher gift value the next time you ask your donors to give.

  6. Thank you for your great ideas on donor thank you letters.
    One thing we struggle with in our non-profit is the timeliness of the thank you letter…IOW, how prompt should they be? Our letters meeting all the criteria abouve (customized, signed by our ED, personal notes, etc. We try to send ours out within 7 – 14 calendar days of receiving the donation. Do you think changing the metric to 4 calendar days would be significant in terms of pleasing the donor? Not sure this is possible giving our staff constraints, but I thought it was worthwhile to ask the question.

    • When we conducted our original research, it was taking over a month on average for donors to receive thank you letters from not-for-profits they supported. Their definition of prompt, at the time, was receiving a thank you letter within two weeks of the date they issued the gift. For direct mail where the gift and the thank you letter take time to travel to and from your organization, you are left with around 3-4 business days to prepare and issue your letter.

      Between our original research in 2002 and our latest research on this issue (2014), not-for-profits have made a significant improvement in the time it takes to issue acknowledgements and donors have noticed. Our survey respondents now say that the majority of not-for-profits now meet that two-week delivery timeframe. But, now that timeliness is the standard, those not-for-profits who don’t meet the two-week window stand out for their inefficiency and are at risk of losing donors. So, my advice is make the effort to issue thank you letters in a timely manner because doing so contributes to repeat and more generous giving.

  7. Sara says:

    I love what you say about thank you letters. I’m wondering though, what is prompt “19.It is received by the donor promptly”? We are planning for an event that doesn’t happen for a couple of months, but are starting to collect donations for it now. Would it be best to send the letters as we get the donations, or after the event when we can tell them how the people responded to their gifts?

    • You have two opportunities here. Thank the donor immediately upon receiving his/her gift. After the event, send a follow up communication that lets donors know how the event turned out, how much money you made and, most important, what you will do (in specific and measurable terms) with the funds you have raised.

  8. Charlie Pitts says:

    I am the president of a very small charitable foundation supporting a local Illinois Department of Agriculture experimental farm through volunteers. We are in the process of revitalizing the Foundation and are beginning to seek donations and members. In searching for sample thank you letters I happened onto your site – and was deeply moved by the philosophy and, well, love expressed in how to write a great thank you letter. I now see that – particularly as small as we are – it would be best to just write each letter uniquely and from the heart. Thank you for crystallizing an thoughts and demonstrating an approach that will express how individually important each volunteer is and how grateful we are for each one’s contributions.

  9. […] of trusted fundraisers point to the importance of thank you letters. Penelope Burk says that they are the first step to a next gift. Katya Andresen weighs in. Erica Mills has advice. […]

  10. […] Burk’s classic 20 things that make a thank you letter superior and donor-centered, including not asking for another gift and or asking the donor to take any additional actions at […]

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