Jastine Lumbres
by Jastine Lumbres

Best Practices For A Donor-Centric Thank You Letter

A thank you letter that brings donors back.

Being in the business of asking for and receiving donations, saying Thank You by sending out a letter of gratitude seems likes a small task for nonprofits. It has gotten to the point that it has been made an indispensable part of the donation process and is one of the top methods your nonprofit can utilize when figuring out How To Retain Donors. Previous research conducted by Penelope Burk over a decade ago on thank you letters told a different story, where donors highlighted two shortcomings of nonprofit thank you letters: the time between their donation and receiving the letter and the unsurprising and generalized content of these letters. Nonprofits today have wised up and have gotten better at thanking donors in a timely manner, but the content of these letters still leaves something to be desired. Below, we outline some general pointers on the composition of the thank you letter along with a few additional tips on how to separate your letter from the rest.

Who gets these letters?

Simply put: Everyone! Although some may think that thank you letters should only be reserved for and sent to regular contributors like monthly donors or to those who make large donations, we believe that it would benefit your nonprofit to send out these letters to all who donate. That being said, don’t forget about donors who give smaller gifts and definitely include first-time donors on the list of those who should receive a letter of gratitude. Gail Perry of FiredUp Fundraising emphasizes that by including them in this personal thank you process, they will be more likely to give a second time. The same can be said of larger and monthly donors: by maintaining the personal touch in this way will encourage them to continue giving and to give more.

Physical details of your letter.

In its most basic form, Burk states, your letter should be composed of an actual, tangible letter, not just a printed card with your thanks. It should be personally addressed to the donor in question and, if resources allow, can be handwritten as well, a useful tactic we discussed in greater detail in our article on the Classic and Contemporary Ways to Say Thank You to Donors. Additionally, Allison Gauss of Classy reminds us, make sure that your thank you letter is properly branded with your nonprofit’s logo affixed at the top with other relevant elements in the letter reflecting your brand colors. Ensuring that your thank you letter is appropriately branding in keeping with your nonprofit’s branding standards is important to maintaining your nonprofit’s personality and professionalism in the minds of your donors, which we discussed in greater detail in Why Nonprofit Branding Is Important.

Structure and Language

Opinions on the length of your thank you letter vary across with the board, with some, such as Penelope Burk who err on the side of a short, sweet, and complete letter maxing out at two short and concise paragraphs long. Some others believe that your thank you should be said in a maximum of four to five straightforward paragraphs. And still others, like Kivi Leroux Miller of GuideStar, advise nonprofits to “think Hallmark card,” where you can look to Hallmark cards for thank you letter inspiration. Many of their cards “lay it all out there in 30 words.”

Whatever length you choose as your thank you letter structure, there are a few things on language that you should also consider as your dive into your writing:

  • Work in short sentences, says Vanessa Chase Lockshin of The Storytelling Nonprofit, so that you letter is understandable and easy to follow, this also means avoiding the use of lengthy or complex words.
  • Hone your voice. Treat your thank you letter like a conversation on paper: “Write the way you would speak,” advises Kindful. When your donor opens up that letter and reads through it, are the contents of it a good reflection of your nonprofit? Are these the things that you like to say to them? Lockshin recommends that in your edits you “go through your letter sentence by sentence and think about what you would say to someone if they were sitting across the table from you." Through this exercise, you nonprofit will be able to identify a voice that is uniquely yours.
  • Use the first person through “I” and “we,” instructs Perry, along with the second person through “you” in order to avoid the trap of making the letter about your nonprofit and not about your donor. This will also help your letter adopt a warm tone, making your donor feel connected to your nonprofit and its cause.
  • Remember, your thank you should reach out at a personal level, not distance your nonprofit from your donor through a cold tone or calculated language.

Opening Personally.

A large part about using your thank you letter to connect with your donors is customizing that letter according to that particular donor. This means speaking directly to the donor through addressing them by name and avoiding the use of generic titles like “Fellow Contributor,” “Dear Donor,” or “Dear Friend.” Addressing your donor by name show your donor that you are mindful of them and interested in who they are outside of the check they send in or the credit card number you have on file, creating a comfortable and trusting atmosphere for a good donor relationship to either begin or be strengthened.

After greeting your donor, lead into the bulk of your letter with a creative opening or header. Ditch the usual thank you letter openings and try approaching it in a different way that will lead to a testimonial, story, or outline of where the money will go. The goal is to capture your donor’s attention and interest in the opening sentence in order to entice them to continue reading on.

Giving recognition.

Give credit where it is due; the content of your letter should reflect the donor that is receiving it. If you are sending a letter to a monthly donor, a donor who usually gives a few times a year, or even someone who has only donated once before, recognize their past support and contribution. If their previous donation went towards a specific program or campaign for your cause, highlight that as well in your recognition. By referencing their past contributions, your nonprofit emphasizes that keeping track of donors and their previous efforts to support the cause is important to you and that your gratitude is unending no matter the frequency or amount you receive from your donors.

Breaking down the donation.

Show your donors exactly where their donations will go. Communicate the specifics of what their contribution will equate to such as programs or a specific campaign that you were collecting donations for. Also let them know when they should expect an update on their donation. Offer a testimonial about what donations have done for your nonprofit’s mission and give a detailed explanation of the impact donations are making. This is a great opportunity for storytelling where you can use your thank you letter to build a sense of community with your donors, which we explore in depth in our article on How To Improve Storytelling For Your Nonprofit. By receiving a personalized thank you letter telling a story about how their contributions make a difference, it will be re-emphasized with your donors that your organization isn't just a faceless one, it is full of human beings who share the same desire for change.

Use your letter to bridge that connection with your donors and your mission. By providing tangible evidence of the impact donations make, donors will be reassured that their contributions are being used to make a difference.

Making gratitude central.

The purpose of your thank you letter is to express your thanks, “it does not continue to ‘sell’” nor does it “ask for another gift,” says Burk. Just we previously discussed the importance of letting your donors understand the impact their donations have and will make, it should also maintain its “focus in how the donor has contributed to the solution,” according to Gauss. Your letter is meant to show gratitude, not make more appeals.

Adopting the right tone to express your thanks is also equally important to all the other elements mentioned so far. Shannon Doolittle of the Razoo Foundation suggest that your thank you should be “funny, grateful, [and] refreshing.” But if that isn’t your speed or as reflective of your nonprofit’s personality you can be “sweet, warm, and sincere.” Express your gratitude without overdoing it or going over the top. It is important to emphasize in your letter that your donors are partners in your mission by using a positive and uplifting tone. Give donors peace of mind that you used their donations for good, that they made a very good choice in giving to your nonprofit, that you care about your mission and about them as people.

Editing and Signing.

Like all materials that your nonprofit sends out to its donors, make sure you double-check your letter to ensure that they are free of errors. This means making sure that your donor’s named is spelled correctly, that you have the right address on file to send out the letter, and that the grammar of your letter all checks out. Naturally, your nonprofit will have a few working letter templates floating around that you will use or cycle out depending on the season or the donation campaigns you’re running at the time. Be sure to update your letters periodically in order to keep them relevant to your mission and that they still effectively reflect your nonprofit.

When all edits are completed, have your letter signed with a real signature. This goes back to one of our earlier points that emphasized that your letter should not come pre-printed like a card. Even if your nonprofit opts against hand writing your thank you letters, having your letter signed by hand with a real signature is a great way to add the personal touch, especially when you have them signed by a high-ranking person within your organization, a volunteer, staff member, or even by a person who has been helped by your nonprofit.

Timing.

As referenced in our introduction, the timing of your thank you letter could mean the difference between making an impact on your donor and making them feel like they are underappreciated. According to Pamela Grow for Nonprofit Pro, your letter has to be sent out within the first 48 hours following the donation. Try to implement a system that will help you send out these letters as promptly as possible. Grow gives the example of spending the first 30 minutes of each day thanking your donors, like sending out your thank you letters and using your other channels to express gratitude.  

Staying in contact.

Following your thanks and donation breakdown through storytelling, start to wrap your letter up by giving donors a person to contact within your organization. Include a name and phone number of a specific person that your donor can contact if he or she had any questions or concerns. By letting your donors know that there are specific people they can speak to, they can be rest assured that your nonprofit is running a professional operation and that your nonprofit has a genuine concern for and prioritizes customer service.

Kindful also highlights this part of your thank you letter as an opportunity to “set the stage for more.” Invite your donors to learn more about your nonprofit or to get involved in other ways by joining your email list, subscribing to your nonprofit newsletter, or following your nonprofit on social media.

Painting a picture of the future.

Let your donors know about your plans for the future. Help them visualize the impact your nonprofit can continue to make with their support and how your nonprofit intends to continue its work until its mission is fulfilled and your organization is no longer needed. “By demonstrating vision,” says Lockshin “you will keep the door to that relationship open. You will have a reason to keep in touch and provide them with updates.” This will also encourage donors to keep giving to your mission until it has been achieved. 

A few additional tips:

  • Make use of visuals: Include photos with your thank you letter, maybe of volunteers on site or of those who make up your nonprofit’s mission. Miller suggests that you “Get a group of people whom your organization helps together and take a photo of them holding a big banner that says ‘Thank You’.” Send some pictures of staff and volunteers working at one of your sites or at your nonprofit’s headquarters. If you have put together a thank you video (Ways to Say Thank You to Donors), indicate it in your letter and invite donors to check it out via a link in your letter or through checking your nonprofit’s website. All of these will help your donors put a face to your mission, who is involved, and who benefits from their donations.
  • “Send more than one thank you letter”: Although resources may not allow it, considering sending out multiple thank you letters from different points of view. These letters should come from different people, such as staff members, volunteers, and those who benefit from the work your nonprofit does. Gail Perry also highlights writing thank you letters as another way to get board members involved as well. By giving others a chance to say thank you, your nonprofit will become more memorable to its donor base and it will be a great exercise within your nonprofit as well to keep everyone focused on your mission through seeing the end results of the work they do and connecting with donors.
  • Include a small gift: Along with the thank you letter or following it, a small token or gift should be sent as well. This could come in the form of a postcard, some of visuals we discussed earlier, etc.

Some phrases.

In our reading we have come across some great phrases that we think your nonprofit could use when brainstorming for  your own thank you letters, specifically from the Razoo Foundation and from Fundraiser Help. We’ve compiled a list of our favorites below: 

  • Thank you (not sent from my iPhone).
  • Next time, I’m sending you a cape. Thanks for your super-hero sized gift.
  • You’re kind of a big deal. Don’t believe me? Ask our clients.
  • Our clients have started an unofficial fan club. You should start practicing your autograph.
  • Amazed. Inspired. Grateful. That’s how your generosity makes me feel.
  • You’re a spark plug for good. Thanks for igniting something amazing.
  • We are so grateful to you for your recent gift – thanks!
  • I opened today’s mail and found your generous donation. Thanks!
  • Thank you for renewing your support. Here’s how we are using your gift already…
  • Thank you for your continued faithful support of our…
  • You are a treasure to us all. Thanks again for standing with us.
  • You gift did this…I was there to witness it myself. Here’s what happened.

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Jastine Lumbres

Jastine Lumbres
Jastine is Elevate Click's first content writer. She received her BA in English from UC Riverside and Master's in English degree from Claremont Graduate University. She currently lives in Rosemead, CA with her family.

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