The power of a memorable “thank you”

publication date: Jun 25, 2013
author/source: Janet Gadeski

Recently a reader tweeted that she was just sitting down to sign 210 personal thank-you letters for gifts ranging from $5 to $1,000.

A personal note for five dollars? Fundraising researcher Penelope Burk would heartily endorse that. (And as it turned out, it was one of her seminars that set that reader on a career-long commitment to personal notes, no matter what the gift value.)

Because it makes money

Why send personal thank-you notes for so-called “small” gifts? “Because it makes money,” Burk emphasizes. Through Cygnus Research, she’s followed donor reactions and behaviour for years. Personalized, powerful thank-you notes, she’s discovered, are always high on the list of factors that lead donors to do the three things we most want them to do: give again, give sooner and give more.

That, of course, leads to donor retention and higher lifetime donor value – the least expensive way to raise money over the long term.

Why don’t we do it well?

Why, then, are so many gift acknowledgement letters still late, poorly written, and even based on a boilerplate that hasn’t changed for months?

“Charities don’t understand how important it [a personalized thank you] is to profitability,” Burk explains. “If you see it as just a task without impact, you won’t put in enough time to do it well.” Even when the fundraiser knows better, she can be held back by the lack of good information to pass on to donors, especially in the area of undesignated gifts.

Burk also believes that the art of compelling communication isn’t taught to fundraisers. Except for appeal copy – a very specific writing assignment – being a persuasive writer isn’t named as an essential skill for fundraising positions.

Constraints on time and information, though, don’t change a core truth that Burk emphasizes: “Exceptional letters make donors take notice and remember the organization.” A vibrant, personal communication of gratitude makes the donors feel noticed and glad they’ve given. It builds trust, and that feeling lasts for a long time.

How to get it right

Since thank-you letters are so important, here is Burk’s list of the 20 things that make a thank-you letter exceptional, taken from her book, Donor-Centred Fundraising.

  1. The letter is a real letter, not a pre-printed card.
  2. It is personally addressed.
  3. It has a personal salutation (no “dear donor” or “dear friend”).
  4. It is personally signed.
  5. It is personally signed by someone from the highest ranks of the organization
  6. It makes specific reference to the intended use of funds.
  7. It indicates approximately when the donor will receive an update on the program being funded.
  8. It includes the name and phone number of a staff person whom the donor can contact at any time or an invitation to contact the writer directly.
  9. It does not ask for another gift.
  10. It does not ask the donor to do anything (like complete an enclosed survey, for example.)
  11. It acknowledges the donor’s past giving, where applicable.
  12. It contains no spelling or grammatical errors.
  13. It has an overall can-do, positive tone as opposed to a hand-wringing one.
  14. It communicates the excitement, gratitude and inner warmth of the writer.
  15. It grabs the reader’s attention in the opening sentence.
  16. It speaks directly to the donor.
  17. It does not continue to sell.
  18. It is concise – no more than two short paragraphs.
  19. It is received by the donor promptly.
  20. Plus, in some circumstances, the letter is handwritten.

So with these guidelines in hand, start taking the time to do a better job on every thank-you letter that you send. “It’s worth it,” Burk encourages. “It’s worth all the time, the practice, the self-doubt. The payoff is huge.”

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