6 Essential Elements of Donor Thank-You Notes
November 30, 2015

THANK-YOU 2smallerWhen one receives a gift, there are certain rules of etiquette that must be observed when writing a personal thank-you note. Miss Manners very graciously clarified all of that for us in our formative years.  We are grateful for her illuminating guidance which continues to serve as a beacon of proper personal and professional protocol in the abyss of an all-too-often ill-mannered universe.

As a Development Director, you are not only charged with solicitation of gifts for your nonprofit, but you are also responsible for graciously acknowledging receipt of said gifts. Best practice in development suggests that you send a combination gift acknowledgment letter/tax receipt within a week of receipt of the gift. That is a standard, minimum expectation, but often seems pretty impersonal, even when you adjust the acknowledgement merge letter template. Is there a way to make donors feel special?  Would handwritten thank-you notes be practical?

As we enter the official “gratitude season,” adherence to a custom of writing hand-written thank-you notes will be a labor-intensive proposition. Must all donors be thanked the same way?  Is there a way to make donors feel special? Who signs the notes? What are the rules?

I am happy to serve as Ms. Manner’s proxy and mount my soapbox to provide you with some general guidelines for expressing gratitude to your donors through the use of personal thank-you notes. Successfully written thank-you notes can dramatically increase donor engagement. In my experience, I have found the following six elements to be critical components when composing an artful and effective personalized donor thank-you note:

  1. SWIFTLY SENT:  Sending a timely thank-you note is both prudent and polite. The development profession is about developing and preserving donor relationships, communicating in a timely and appropriate fashion, and sustaining donor engagement. The thank-you note must always come as proximate as possible to the gift for it to have the most impact. While this may seem obvious, serious sins of omission often occur. Strive to send your note within 24-48 hours of receiving a gift.
  2. SIMPLY STAMPED:  Always affix a first-class postage stamp….never a postage meter stamp. A simple stamp signals and represents a personal touch, whereas a postage meter stamp subtly implies that the mail is automated and  impersonal.
  3. SHORT & STRATEGIC:  Although it should read as if it were effortless, the personal thank-you note requires significant thought and effort. Keep It brief, effusive, and neatly written on quality stationery. If executed properly, your 25 or so carefully chosen words can make a huge impression on your donor. It should be personal and emotional (for example, “Sue, I am so moved by your continued generosity”). You can deepen engagement by evoking donor feelings of importance (“Stan, what would we do without you?), or belonging (“Sally, Thank you for being a valued member of our community”). For new donors, thank them for choosing your organization (“Sam, we are so thrilled you chose to support us”).
  4. SINCERE & SINGLE-PURPOSED:  A thank-you has one purpose: to let a donor know their gift was received, sincerely appreciated, and will be put to good use. The emphasis is on gratitude and the work the gift supports. Some fundraisers are inexplicably tempted to include yet an additional ask in a thank-you communication, which is an egregious oversight. It muddles the message and makes your gratitude seem insincere. It can make a donor feel that their gift was not appreciated, or wasn’t large enough to be helpful.. Keep it simple; stay on message.
  5. SOLICITOR/SENDER:  With few exceptions, thank-you notes should come directly from the person who solicited the gift (and in coordination with the person responsible for managing the relationship moving forward). Major donor and board member thank-you notes should come from the Executive Director or Board Chair, and should be coordinated with the Director of Development, who can help script the content. Board-solicited gifts should receive acknowledgment from the soliciting Board member (again, coordinated with Development Director). If a client authored the campaign appeal solicitation, it can be quite powerful to have that client send a thank-you note, explaining the impact of the gift on their life). Similarly, a thank-you might be effective coming from the key program staff person responsible for delivering the services funded, and again noting the impact first-hand.
    A thank-you note for a gift is an extraordinarily easy way to make a donor feel special, and to let them know how much their gift is valued. While you can’t do this for all of your donors, you should send thank-you notes to specific donor segments, including:

Major Donors – Engagement of Major Donors is vastly improved with personalized thank-you notes, and Development Directors should take care to provide the special attention this prized donor class requires. In addition to the note, calls and updates may be in order as part of your ongoing stewardship plan.

Recaptured Lapsed Donors – Sending a personal note to a recaptured (formerly lapsed) donor is very effective because it expresses that they were missed, and welcomes them back. A personal note lets them know they are valued (not knowing this may have caused or contributed to their lapse).

First-Time Donors – Extra effort with first-time donors should be made, regardless of gift size. More than 50% of first time donors will not make a second gift. A prompt, meaningful expression of appreciation may improve your odds here. First-time donors should receive a special welcome message with information about the organization. Use the opportunity to introduce yourself as their contact, if you have not yet met. Simply stated, you will never have a second chance to make a first impression.

Long-Time Donors – Even modest gifts add up over many years. If a donor reaches a significant threshold of aggregate giving (which you define), be sure to acknowledge their extraordinary generosity and sustained support. In addition to an effusive, sincere,  personal thank-you note, consider featuring them in your newsletter. There is an opportunity and a duty to acknowledge these important benchmarks that is frequently missed.

I hope these guidelines prove helpful. The practice of handwritten thank you notes is a small, quiet and inexpensive gesture, but is sure to have huge impact and return on your investment of time and effort. Thanking donors properly is the right thing to do, and is just the first important step in a year-round cycle of disciplined stewardship. A future Solutions Newsletter will be dedicated to the discipline and application of artful donor stewardship.

If you have any doubt about the way your organization communicates with its donors, call us with your questions or to learn more about the benefits of a donor communication audit. We can also create a comprehensive custom donor stewardship strategy based on your specific needs.

Start the new year by resolving to improve your organization’s donor relations. It will result in higher donor retention rates for new and recaptured donors, increased engagement for returning donors, and opportunities to convert lower-level donors to higher levels of giving.

Call us to discuss your needs.

Because even the best organizations
sometimes need a little outside help.


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Finlay Consulting Services is a New York City-based fundraising and philanthropy practice specializing in Strategic Fundraising and Grant-Making, Board Engagement, Governance, Diversity, Executive Coaching, Staffing and Planning, Gift Stewardship, Donor Engagement, Revenue Diversification, Grantee Relations, Planned Giving, RFPs, Impact Assessment, Capacity Building, Retreats and Interim Leadership Engagements.
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