Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during June-1992 has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
In 1977 a woman sent $25 to an advocacy group working on women’s health issues. The organization was run collectively by 2 utterly overworked and underpaid staff and 40 volunteers. They had won recognition for their work exposing the dangers of the Dalkon Shield IUD and championing reproductive rights issues. The donor did not receive a thank-you note for her gift. However, she did receive the group’s newsletter and heard about the group from time to time.
A year after her gift, when she received a letter requesting a renewal, she threw it away. Sometime later, she learned that a friend of hers was in the group. “That group sounds good,” she told her friend, “but they don’t even have it together enough to send thank-you notes for gifts. I can’t imagine that they are really fiscally sound or that they use money properly.”
Her friend defended the group, saying, “They do really good work. Maybe they should take time to thank people, but saying they don’t use their money wisely is an unfair conclusion.” The one-time donor replied, “It is fair. It is my only contact with them. They claim to want a broad base of support, yet they show no regard for their supporters. But since you are in the group, I’ll give them something.” She sent $15.
During the year between the donor’s $25 gift and her $15 one, the group had hired me to be their fundraiser. I sent the donor a scrawled, three-line thank-you note:
“Thanks for your gift of $15. It’s a help financially and also a great morale boost. We’ll keep in touch.”
Two weeks later, the woman sent $1,500.
Although I had been drilled from childhood about the propriety of sending thank-you notes, I never really believed they were worth much one way or the other until that lesson. After I met that donor, she told me she often sent relatively small gifts to groups she liked to see what they would do. If she sent $100 or more (a lot of money in 1977) most groups would thank her. But that would not tell her how much regard they had for smaller donors. “Most grassroots groups talk a good line about class and everyone being welcomed,” she said, “but the only people they really care about are the program officers of foundations and wealthy donors.”
As it turned out, this woman was very wealthy, but she wanted to give money only to groups that had proved they valued all gifts. I was flabbergasted that a sign of proof could be a three-line thank-you note, but for her it was better proof than a longer form letter with her name typed in.
Since then I have seen over and over that a simple, handwritten note or typed thank-you letter with a personal note as a postscript can do more to build donor loyalty than almost any other form of recognition. Unfortunately, thank-you notes tend to be the one thing that organizations are sloppy or even thoughtless about. They either don’t send them, send them weeks too late, or, now endowed with computers, send form thank yous with the person’s name inserted every few lines. These practices are unjustifiable. Sending thank-you notes too easily falls too low on people’s work priority lists. They have to be placed at the top.
It is not clear to me why people like thank-you notes so much, particularly when there is usually very little content in the note. Probably reasons vary. Like our wealthy, testing donor, some see them as a sign that the group knows what it is doing. Others may just like the attention. While psychologists may be able to figure out why people like to be appreciated, for fundraisers it is enough to know that it is true. Doing what donors like — as long as we stay inside the mission and goals of the organization — builds donor loyalty. A loyal donor is a giving donor, giving more and more every year.
What about the donor who claims not to want a thank-you note, or the one who even more strongly states that thank yous are a waste of time and money?
The first type of donor, who claims not to want a thank-you, but doesn’t seem emotional about it, should get one anyway. These are generally people who are genuinely trying to save groups time. You will have greater loyalty if you send a thank-you note anyway. When these donors say, “You really shouldn’t have done that,” or “That’s really not necessary,” they often mean, “Thank you for taking the time. I can’t believe someone would be bothered to notice me.”
The second style of donor, who actually resents thank-you notes, probably should be thanked in some way, but without using a thank-you note. Try calling to thank her or him instead of writing. If the person is close to the group, you can combine your call with another function, such as to remind them of a meeting: “I called to remind you about the meeting Wednesday at 7 P.M. at Marge’s. By the way, thanks for your gift — we can really use it.”
Overall, experience shows that, all else being equal, when you thank donors you keep them and when you don’t you lose them. Of course, there will be exceptions to this rule, but it is almost impossible to figure out who really is an exception and who is just pretending to be, so thank everyone and save yourself the time you would have spent worrying about it.
How can you most efficiently thank your donors, and who should do it? Perhaps the most important rule about thanking donors is that no matter who is doing it — from the board chair to an office volunteer — gifts should be acknowledged within two days of receipt, a week at the outside. If possible, a person who knows the donor should sign the thank-you note.
If you are fundraising properly, you will have dozens of donations coming in from people you don’t know. Volunteers and board members can send thank yous. It is actually a good way to get board members who are resistant to fundraising to do some, because the thank-you note is a part of fundraising.
Buy some nice note cards, or have some made with your logo on the front. Small cards have only a small amount of space on the inside, so you can take up the whole space with a few short sentences. That is much better than a lonely three-line thank you on a full sheet of stationary.
People should come to the office to write the notes; only the most loyal and trustworthy people should ever be allowed to write the notes at home. It is just too tempting to put them aside at home. Also, information about a person’s gift, while not secret, is also not something you want sitting around someone’s living room.
The only requirement for handwritten thank yous is legible handwriting. The format is simple:
Thank you for your gift of $____. We will put it right to work on (name your program or most recent issue). Gifts like yours are critical to our success, and we thank you very much.
If you know the person, follow the same format, but add something more personal: “Hope your cat, Fluffy, has recovered from her spaying.” So that the donor can use the thank you as a tax receipt, add, “No goods or services were exchanged for your donation.”
It may be that handwriting thank yous or handwriting all of them is impossible, especially when you get a lot of contributions, such as at year end, and volunteers aren’t as available, or after a successful direct-mail appeal when you are swamped for a few days with responses.
Then you go to the next step, which is a word-processed letter. Put this on stationery and make it a little longer. Start the thank you several lines down the page, and use wide margins.
Thank you for your gift of $100. We have put it right to work on our shelter. As it turned out, your gift came at a particularly crucial moment, as our boiler had just given its last gasp. We were able to buy a refitted, good-as-new boiler for cash (saving us $), which we wouldn’t have been able to do without your gift.
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I am hoping you will be able to come to our art auction next month. We have the works of some well-known local artists and will be featuring paintings and sculptures by some of the residents of the shelter. I enclose two complimentary tickets.
Again, thank you so much! I look forward to staying in touch.
You will notice that the letter refers to a recent event (the boiler). This gives a sense of immediacy to the gift. If the organization had not used the money for the boiler, they could have still used the story, as follows:
Your gift came the same day our boiler broke for the last time. I would have been really discouraged, but your contribution cheered me up. Fortunately, we were able to get a refitted, good-as-new boiler for much less than a new one would have cost.
The letter also invited the donor to an event. You do not need to provide free tickets, nor do you need to be having an event. The point is to refer to things happening in your office every day. Give your donors some sense of your daily work. Even things that seem routine to you can be made to sound interesting.
We got a pile of mail today — bills, flyers, newsletters, and then, your gift of $50! Thank you! $50 goes a long way in this organization, and we are grateful for your support.
I just finished talking to a woman who used our educational flyer with her son. She said she had expected a miracle, and though of course that didn’t happen, maybe something more long lasting did. Her son called the HelpLine. It’s a start, and that’s what we provide for people.
I hope you will feel free to drop by sometime. Though we are usually busy, we can always take a few minutes to say hello and show you around. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.
Dear Annie Mae,
I just came in from an eviction hearing of one of our clients. I feel really good because we won, and we got some damages to boot! Then, going through the mail, I came to your gift of $25. Thanks! I feel like you are a part of this victory.
You wouldn’t believe how many people came to our community meeting last night — more than 50! People are hopping mad about this incinerator proposal, and I am feeling confident that we may be able to defeat it and finally get the recycling bill passed. Your gift of $50 is going to go a long way in helping us with flyers and phone calls. Thanks for thinking of us at this time. You don’t know what a great morale boost it is to receive gifts from supporters like you.
If you have a matching campaign or a goal for an annual campaign, then include that:
Your gift of $100 will be matched dollar for dollar. Your gift brought us to just under $2,000 raised in just two months!
Your gift of $75 took us over the $1,000 mark in our goal of $3,000. Thanks!
If you are a volunteer, mention that in your thank you:
Giving time to this organization is one of the high points of my week. I know we are making a difference, and I want you to know that your gift helps make that difference too.
The least effective option for thank-you notes, but one you sometimes have to resort to, is the form letter. If you use a form letter, acknowledge that it is impersonal, but give some sense of the excitement that would lead you to use such a method.
Thank you for the recent gift. Please excuse the impersonal nature of this thank you — we are no less enthusiastic about your gift for not being able to write to each of our donors. The response to our call for help with sending medical supplies to El Salvador was both gratifying and overwhelming. We will send you a full report about this effort in a few weeks. Right now, we are packing up boxes of supplies — supplies you helped pay for. Thanks again!
There are two common questions remaining about thank yous. One is, how do you address people you don’t know? The choices are by first name only, by first and last names (Dear John Smith) or by title (Dear Mr. Smith). There is no clear right or wrong practice on this point and no way to avoid possibly offending someone. In general, you will probably offend the least amount of people by using titles, “Dear Mr.” or “Dear Ms.” Certainly, you could write to the person according to how they write to you. A letter signed, “Mrs. Alphonse Primavera” should be answered in kind. If there is ambiguity about whether a donor is a man or a woman, write “Dear Friend.” If you live in a fairly laid back or not terribly formal place, you can use a first name, “Dear Terry” or “Dear Lynn.”
Don’t waste a lot of time worrying about this. Having received many thank yous that say, “Dear Mr. Klein,” I know how off putting that can be, but it does not cause me to stop giving to that group. Anyone who will stop giving just because you (or anyone else) cannot tell from their name whether they are a male or a female, or whether they prefer to be called by their first name, last name, Mr., Ms., or Mrs. doesn’t have much loyalty to your group.
The second question is, do all donors get a thank you? Yes. You have no idea how much a gift of $25 or $5 or $500 means to someone. You need to act as if you would like to get that amount or more again. You also don’t know how people use getting a thank-you note to judge whether to continue giving to your organization, as with the donor at the beginning of this article. Why take a chance?
Do all donors get the same thank you? No, because the notes, if possible, are personalized. But people giving bigger gifts don’t get bigger thank yous. If you have thousands of donors, you will not be able to write to them all personally, so sort out the ones you know and write to them. But make sure each donor gets something.
Keep up with thank-you notes as gifts come in. Each thank you is a link to the donor and you should see it as paving the way for the next gift.