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How to Write a Better Donation Thank You Letter
(And Why It Matters)

“Next to your fundraising appeals, your donation
thank you letter is the most important communication that a donor receives. So shouldn't it sparkle with sincerity?”

By Lisa Sargent
Sargent Communications


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“Dear Friend,” the thank you letter began... and it broke my heart. Don’t they know my name? I wondered. (It was on the check I sent them, after all.)

Oh, there were a few hints that this $76 million a year charity thought anything at all of my little $25 gift: they referenced the amount, for one. And noted when it was received. But...

...There was that vaguely unsettling “Member #” in the upper right corner. I was one of more than eight million! And yikes – don’t we have enough numbers to remember already? I felt like part of an institution, not a fledgling member of a hardworking charity.

Then came the kiss of death: the P.S. upgrade to make me a monthly donor.

Mind you, this was an acquisition thank you. The first sentence after “Dear Friend” was “Welcome!” Why pitch an upgrade at this point in our budding relationship? I barely knew them!

The question I’ve always wanted to ask the author of a donation thank you letter like this one is: do you hit up all your first dates for a monthly commitment? And based on this nifty little trick, how long do your relationships last?

And they wonder why donor retention rates are tanking.

Now for the scariest part. This is one of the better letters I’ve received. Why?

Because they sent one. Many nonprofits don’t. Or they wait so long to respond that the poor donor has forgotten who they are – and the moment is lost.

But the thing is, next to your fundraising appeals, your donation thank you letter is the most important communication that a donor receives. So shouldn’t it sparkle with sincerity?

I think so. And once you look at the numbers, I hope you will, too...

Just the facts:
Why you should audit (and edit) every donation thank you letter you send.

According to Penelope Burk’s Donor-Centered Fundraising, only four in ten donors say they always receive a thank you letter after they make a donation... which means that the other six donors either receive one sometimes, or *gasp* not at all.

And a whitepaper from Burk’s Cygnus Applied Research notes that the 1997 National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating study found that up to five out of every ten donors stop giving – or give less – because they feel, in part, that their giving isn’t appreciated.

Want something more recent? In a 2008 Bank of America survey on why wealthy donors stop giving, the #1 reason cited was because donors “no longer feel connected to an organization.” That very same answer was given by six out of ten wealthy donors.

But a survey’s just a survey. Are disconnected donors really closing their checkbooks? If current statistics are any indication, the answer is yes. I quote:

“A lack of new donor growth is not the only cause for the donor declines, however; falling retention and reactivation rates are also at least partly responsible.

Retention rates dropped by -3.0% from Q2 YTD 2007 to Q2 YTD 2008. Fewer than a third (32%) of the organizations in the index had positive retention rate growth in the first half of 2008. The greatest decreases in retention came in first-year donor retention, which declined -5.7% in Q2 YTD 2008 over the same period one year before. Reactivation rates of lapsed donors declined -6.9% from Q2 YTD 2007 to Q2 YTD 2008.”

(Source: Target Analytics’ Index of National Fundraising Performance, 2008 Second Quarter. cam/TargetIndexResultsSummaryQ22008.pdf)

So what’s the takeaway?

If you want to keep more of your donors (and set your nonprofit apart from the pack), the donation thank you letter is a perfect place to start.

That’s because a well-written donation thank you letter forges an instant connection. It tells your donors, loud and clear: “You matter to us...and your gift makes a difference.”

By the way, if you’d like access to world-class advice on the donation thank you letter, buy Ms. Burk’s book, Donor-Centered Fundraising, and read Chapters 5 & 6. You can get it (for about $60) at the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ online bookstore. AFP members save 10%. This link takes you there:

Then when you’re ready to review your donor acknowledgement function, I suggest that you first get a bird’s eye view – by asking questions like:

  • How soon after a gift is received do we send a donation thank you letter?
  • Do we note the amount of the donation?
  • Do we send notices to both the giftor and giftee for gift memberships?
  • Do we recognize long-term and repeat donors? If not, is our system capable
    of this?
  • What kind of information do we have on our donors?
  • What kind of – if any – donor feedback have we received on thank yous?

The Big Daddy of those questions, by far, is how promptly you acknowledge a gift. So give promptness top priority: shoot for sending thank yous no more than 48 hours after receipt.

Then gather a sample of every thank you that your organization sends, and do a simple communications audit using the checklist below.

I have no doubt that what you find will amaze you.

For example, I was once asked to audit and rewrite 40+ standard acknowledgment letters – from memorial to major gifts – for an organization with more than 300,000 members. I found typos, giftees who were being thanked for donations they didn’t send, missing contact information and a whole lot more.

By no means am I condemning these folks. I applaud them: they cared how their donors were being thanked, and fixed it. (And soon received glowing donor feedback in return.)

More to the point, I include the story so you understand that practically every nonprofit can do a better job of thanking their donors... and that you don’t need a billion-dollar budget to do it.

In fact, from fixing typos to tweaking tax language, you can make many changes yourself. And in the end, you’ll have a solid donation thank you letter that does what it’s supposed to do: makes your donors feel appreciated for every heartfelt gift they send... and keeps them giving for years to come.

Now what are you waiting for?! Grab those donation thank you letters and -- using the checklist below -- let's dig in...

The Better Donation Thank You Letter Checklist:

1. Is it personalized? (As in “Dear Lisa” vs. “Dear Friend”)
2. Is the gift amount noted?
3. Do you start with something other than “Thank you for your gift of...”?
    Use an exciting lead.
4. Do you tell the donor when and how they will next hear from you?
5. If this is a repeat gift, do you also thank donor for their:
    a. Past generosity (and indicate all its made possible), and
    b. Continued contributions/support
6. If this is a gift membership (meaning made by someone else on giftee’s
    a. Do not thank the giftee, but talk about what “this kind gift makes possible”
    b. Send a thank you letter to the giftor so they know their gift is on its way
        as intended
7. Say something new or timely in the P.S. – videos online, a holiday message,
    an upcoming opportunity to visit or meet with you, etc.
8. Include a contact number they can use if they have questions (you can add
    an e‑mail, but not the generic “” Direct them to a warm
    body, please.)
9. Do you need to thank them for something specific? For example:
    a. Membership renewal
    b. Holiday appeal
    c. Memorial gift
    d. Capital campaign (focus on all the good this new building/machine/wing.
        will do)
10. Do you need to reference something specific? For example:
      a. A gift you’ll be sending
      b. A certificate or photo you’ve enclosed
11. Do you have a website? Mention it in the letter, with a simple call-for-action
      to drive them there. (“Keep up with all the ways you’re helping XYZ at”)
12. And remember to:
      a. Keep the letter short (3-4 paras plus a P.S.)
      b. Add required tax-deductible language
      c. Share with them “all your gift makes possible...”
13. Use more “you” than “we” and “our.”
14. Say thank you more than once.
15. Proof your letter:
      a. Use spellcheck
      b. Print the letter and read it out loud, word for word
16. If you can, hand-sign them all. If you have too many donors, determine an
      amount at which you or a board member will hand-sign. And an amount for
      a phone call.
17. Make sure your donation thank you does NOT include:
      a. An additional “ask”
      b. An upgrade to monthly giving or other program
      c. A gift reply envelope (even if there is no ask)

About Lisa Sargent and Sargent Communications:

As president of Sargent Communications, Lisa Sargent is dedicated to helping her nonprofit clients keep their donors. Specializing in post-acquisition fundraising and development communications, known as donor retention communications, Lisa Sargent can help you keep donors connected (and giving) to your cause.

Just call +001 (860) 881-7009 to get started, or email Lisa at

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