What’s the Purpose of a Thank-you Letter?

Print Share on LinkedIn More


Thank you

Sure, the letter acknowledges receipt of the gift. Yes, the thank-you letter is part of tax reporting with government.

But, certainly you realize that the donor thank-you letter is much more than either of these first two statements.

Sadly, too many nonprofits behave as if the thank-you letter is a pro forma activity. This is so bad!

Sometimes nonprofits treat the thank-you letter as the end of the relationship with the donor. We got the gift. Yippee! The donor is now ours. Let’s move on to acquiring that next donor.

And for those loyal donors? “Hey, you already like us, so you don’t need anything special in your thank-you letter.” This approach should be called the “how to lose a donor easily” strategy!

Instead, ask yourself again, “What’s the purpose of a thank-you letter?


For the first-time donor, the thank-you letter is the start of the relationship. For loyal donors, the thank-you letter is a meaningful continuation of the donor journey, an important wayside moment.

Thank-you letters should be an extraordinary experience.

So I’ve got two letters to share with you.

Letter #1

Tom and I are long-time donors to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “The audacity to fight for justice. The perseverance to win.” I very much like that positioning statement.

So here are my favorite parts of the letter that accompanied the annual report a few years ago.

Let’s start with the salutation: “Dear Simone and Tom.” (Good. The right names. No “Thomas” in our house.)

First sentence: “I am honored, as always, to enclose NCLR’s 2012 annual report.”

I like this paragraph:

“I have also included our 2013 Donor Survey. It would mean so much to me—and would help to share and improve our communications with you and careful stewardship of your giving—if you would complete and return it to us.”

(And then Kate, the executive director and signer of the letter, offers me the online line, too.)

Here’s the paragraph that I just love!

“The accomplishments highlighted within this annual report are as much yours as they are NCLR’s—without you, none of this would have been possible. There is truly no way to fully express what your support and investment mean to NCLR.”

Tom and I feel like part of the team. As Tom says, we are on the field, part of the team. As donors, we are not up in the grandstand, cheering the team down on the field. Nope. As donors, we’re on the playing field, too.

And then, the amazing last sentence of the letter:

“Without the right words, I am left only with the two that come closest—Thank you.”

Kate signs the letter with, “In gratitude, Kate.”

Free Download: Insights From a Master of Fundraising

Letter #2

This letter comes from Ashley Belanger, the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Urban Debate League. This, too, is a social justice organization. Policy debate is the strategy.

RIUDL is a client of mine. And I brought Tom in. (I often subcontract with Tom, as he is so darn good in donor-centered communication.) So Ashley uses one-sentence paragraphs as necessary. Of course, she also indents paragraphs, double spaces between paragraphs, and uses a serif-type font to improve readability.

Here’s this magnificent letter:

Dear Simone and Tom:

          What does a Rhode Island Urban Debate League hero look like:

          [Insert mirror here.]

          Thanks to your incredibly generous gift of $1,250.00 on December 20, 2014, a team of two students will have the opportunity to represent RIUDL at the 2015 Urban Debate National Championship in Los Angeles this April.

          It’s a really intense competition. And for our debaters—most of whom have never traveled outside of Rhode Island—it’s a really big deal…Like, life-changing.

          I’m predicting that Lexus Fernandez will be one of them. She goes to Mount Pleasant High School, one of the poorest performing schools in the state. She’ll be the first in her family to go to college.

          This year, she and her debate partner are attending extra practices on Fridays at Brown. They really want to go to Nationals. And they’ve written an original case from scratch. They’re arguing that instead of focusing on exploration and/or development of the Earth’s oceans (this year’s policy debate resolution), something must be done about racism and police brutality.

          And even if it doesn’t win policy debate rounds, she knows it matters. And she has you to thank for the opportunity to advocate for something important.

          Without people like you, students like Lexus wouldn’t have access to the life-changing impacts of academic debate. Because of you, they do. And together, we’re making a difference in their lives.

          Thank you, heroes. Big time.

So Sincerely,

Ashley H. Belanger

Executive Director

Rhode Island Urban Debate League

P.S. This letter will serve as an official receipt for income tax purposes. And as official documentation that YOU are Rhode Island Urban Debate League heroes.

The Rhode Island Urban Debate League is a 501(c) nonprofit organization. Your donation is tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. The Rhode Island Urban Debate League has provided no substantial goods or services in exchange for your contribution.

But there’s more to Ashley’s letter. Handwritten in blue ink in the top right-hand corner up near the logo:

Simone & Tom,

For and for all you’re doing to get RIDUL—and those kids—on track to awesome!


And “So” is handwritten in front of the “Sincerely.”

In conclusion…

So do you thank-you letters make donors smile? Stand up tall and proud? Feel special? Keep as an extraordinary experience? Tell others what cool thank-you letters you write.


  • Laura deBuys

    Really terrific article, very helpful – and those are indeed great letters.

  • Graham Gill

    thank you for a great article, good examples and a truly important practice. I recall the first personalized donation acknowledgement letter I received, got to admit it felt great and I still contribute to the cause. It also began my practice of adding a personal thank you added in the in the footer of standard acknowledgement letters I send. Yes it takes a bit longer to get through signing acknowledgments but the return on your investment of time and consideration of others is profound. It has also prompted me to work on my penmanship which isn’t a bad outcome either.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks for your comments, Laura and Graham. Your points are so on target.

    I love handwritten notes on thanks letters, too.

    We just say we’re “so busy.” Or we think that email quick note was okay.

    P.S. Yes, Graham… penmanship is important. In the U.S. they aren’t teaching cursive anymore in lots of schools. Can you imagine a print handwritten note.


  • Wendy Zufelt-Baxter

    As always Simone, a cage rattler to make sure we stay fresh and focused in our daily work. A reminder not to be complacent. Thanks!

  • Simone Joyaux

    Ah Black Dress. How wonderful to hear from you. Tom and I just presented at the Australian fundraising conference. Delightful. And how are you?

  • Simone Joyaux

    Hey everyone. Check out this blog from Jeff Brooks, http://www.futurefundraisingnow.com, posted on February 11, 2015:

    “Are you thanking donors, or just using the moment to brag?”

    Best, Simone