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:
- The letter is a real letter, not a pre-printed card.
- It is personally addressed.
- It has a personal salutation (no “dear donor” or “dear friend”).
- It is personally signed.
- It is personally signed by someone from the highest ranks of the organization
- It makes specific reference to the intended use of funds.
- It indicates approximately when the donor will receive an update on the program being funded.
- 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.
- It does not ask for another gift.
- It does not ask the donor to do anything (like complete an enclosed survey, for example.)
- It acknowledges the donor’s past giving, where applicable.
- It contains no spelling or grammatical errors.
- It has an overall “can do”, positive tone as opposed to a hand wringing one.
- It communicates the excitement, gratitude and inner warmth of the writer.
- It grabs the reader’s attention in the opening sentence.
- It speaks directly to the donor.
- It does not continue to “sell”.
- It is concise – no more than two short paragraphs long.
- It is received by the donor promptly.
- 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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: http://www.cygresearch.com/DCF-TY/