How hopeFound says ‘Thank You’ (And how they can help you say thank you too)

December 8, 2010

Today’s guest post is from Lisa Sargent.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Lisa for helping to educate me on donor retention and the importance of a thank you.  Lisa is a leading donor retention expert and copywriter who is well-known for her “Thank You Letter Clinic” on SOFII.  She agreed to provide one of her famous “thank you letter make-overs” to one lucky reader of The Grow Report.

You may be familiar with Lisa from her SOFII exhibit, one of the most-viewed on the site.  Now she’ll be featuring brand new re-writes on an all new “thank-you letter clinic” soon to launch on SOFII.  Are you a SOFII subscriber?  Sign up today to get the first alert for Lisa’s new exhibit.

Take it away Lisa …


According to their website, hopeFound is a nonprofit organization serving men and women in the Greater Boston area who are homeless.  So when Pam e-mailed to let me know they’d won the thank-you letter rewrite, I was excited that hopeFound was willing to share both before and after versions with Pam’s readers: Great cause, close to home… and the best part, willing to share!

Thank you, thank you hopeFound. Now let’s jump in…

1.) I’ve set this overhaul up like the online thank-you letter clinic I host on SOFII (link below). That means both before and after versions are fully annotated, so look to those PDFs and you’ll see what I did and why I did it.

2.) Then below you’ll find a brief review of hopeFound’s overall policies on thanking donors, and discover a few key areas they can improve.

3.) And at the end of this post you’ll find a list of resources, both online and print, to help you write better donation thank you letters.

Policies On Thanking Donors: What hopeFound does right

As described by hopeFound, this is their current process for thanking donors:

[The ‘before’ letter] is used for general donations to the annual fund. In other words, people who have made gifts in response to any of our newsletters, unsolicited gifts, and gifts made online. (Other annual fund gifts receive different letters, for example when people respond to the appeal and direct mail letters they get a different thank you that is written to reinforce/reflect the message of the appeal letters.)

Our goal is to send the thank-yous within two weeks of receiving the gift.

The letter is updated periodically but with no set schedule for updates.

Executive Director signs all letters but only writes notes on those in two situations; gifts over $500 or people with whom she has strong relationships.

Consider the above policies. Where does hopeFound get it right? They:

Send a thank-you. The charities that still don’t send thank you letters are legion. And as Ken Burnett noted so succinctly on his blog (quoting Jo Habib, link below), “Any fundraiser who doesn’t thank donors properly is an idiot as well as rude.” So, bonus points to hopeFound for acknowledging gifts. (And by the way, I base my ‘legion of non-thanking charities’ comment on current research, having recently sent a bunch of donations for which I’ve presently received thank-yous for about half. UGH.)

Send different versions of thank-yous to match the appeal that was mailed. Hooray! This is fabulous. When I write a special appeal, my first question will almost always be: what about the thank-you for this letter? It’s common sense folks: if you run a special campaign, then boy doggy, your thank-you should reference it. Bravo, hopeFound: more bonus points!

Hand-sign the letters – and have their Executive Director do the signing. Most larger organizations reserve hand-signing for mid- and/or major donors, but this is a great practice, as is using an executive level signatory. (My preference is for president, CEO or ED signatory, unless the appeal uses someone else – an emergency appeal, e.g, might use someone in the field.)

And improvements? I suggest two:

Send thank-yous sooner. Two weeks is too long: it’s an industry best practice to send acknowledgments within 48 hours (true). For new donors, follow up with a welcome pack. (And if you don’t have one, invest in a good copy-and-design team to create one. Or buy the book Keep Your Donors, link below, and follow Tom Ahern and Simone Joyaux’s advice for an easy D-I-Y welcome kit you can create from existing materials.)

Create a set schedule to update your thank-yous. I suggest quarterly (if you have a quarterly newsletter), or at the bare minimum, every six months. Otherwise thank-yous will be relegated to a dusty old corner, where they grow stale and outdated and become a mild irritation to everyone, especially your loyal donors.

Be sure to have a look at the rewrites featured below for specific tips on writing donation thank you letters.

Additional resources:

Thank you letter clinic on SOFII, with more before-and-after overhauls. (Full disclosure: I host the clinic. But people write me all the time – from well-known experts to development associates – to say it’s really helpful.)

Donor-Centered Fundraising, by Penelope Burk. This is, hands down, one of the best books ever on how to thank your donors.

• Ken Burnett’s blog post: ‘Now, say thank you nicely’

Keep Your Donors, by Tom Ahern and Simone Joyaux. Fundraising’s dynamic duo, without the superhero capes: everything they write is worth reading, more than once.


About Lisa Sargent:

Head of Lisa Sargent Communications, copywriter Lisa Sargent publishes The Loyalty Letter, a free e-mail newsletter for nonprofit and charitable organizations, which is read by subscribers all over the world. Sign up free on her website.

Sargent specializes in fundraising and donor development communications for direct mail and e-mail. She works almost exclusively with the nonprofit industry – often directly with mid-sized organizations that use in-house and remote creative teams. Past and present clients include Shriners Hospitals for Children, Best Friends Animal Society, Northwestern Memorial Foundation, Bryant University, Kids In Distress and Merchants Quay Ireland, among others.

A member of the DMFA, Sargent’s articles have been featured in Mal Warwick’s Newsletter, FundRaising Success Magazine and The Agitator, and her copywriting clinic on donor thank-you letters is one of the most visited exhibits on SOFII, the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Erica Holthausen December 10, 2010 at 5:48 am

My sincere thanks to both of you! Lisa, this is simply the best, most useful and most practical post I’ve ever seen on the importance of a good thank you letter! It should be required reading for all nonprofits — simple changes really can make a powerful difference. Pam, brava for having the wisdom to secure a guest post from a master! I probably share materials from your blog more than any other fundraising blog out there!

Lisa Sargent December 10, 2010 at 6:29 am

*blushing* Thank you, Erica! ‘Useful’ and ‘practical’ are my goals when writing this stuff, and I’m delighted you found the post helpful. We’re doing a clinic on in memoriam thank-yous over at SOFII soon, so have a look there for more in the coming weeks. Thanks again for your feedback… to me, you summed it up most masterfully: ‘simple changes really can make a powerful difference.’ All best, Lisa

Pamela Grow December 10, 2010 at 12:40 pm

I can’t wait for that one, Lisa. IMO organizations disregard in memoriam gifts. A friend of mine sent in a $1500 check to one national organization and received a stock form thank-you with no follow up whatsoever. Considering his own mother was ill with the same disease he could have easily been courted to give more.

Gail Perry December 13, 2010 at 8:38 am

Thanks Lisa for reminding us of these basics that so many nonprofits get wrong. Thanking donors properly sets them up for their next gift OR sets them up to drift away into that vast abyss of lapsed donors. Keep it up! We need your constant tips and encouragement!

Lori Jacobwith December 13, 2010 at 10:42 am

Lisa and Pam, Thank you both for this very helpful information about a topic near and dear to my heart!

A nice compliment to the thank you letter process is a thank you call. Our friend Penelope Burk’s research says that over 90% of donors never or rarely get a call from a charity unless it’s a solicitation call. Here’s a post from earlier this year with some tips for making thank you calls. http://lorijacobwith.com/2010/04/seven-tips-for-making-better-donor-thank-you-calls/

Bunnie Riedel December 14, 2010 at 7:21 am

Speaking recently with a donor, seems they gave to 3 organizations and only the organization I consult as an executive director sent a thank you letter! That resonated with the donor. Thanks for the tips!

Joanne Fritz December 16, 2010 at 11:03 am

Great rewrite, Lisa! I love the way you tackle the letter in whole, from the type face to the margins. All of these supposedly little things make a big difference in the look and readability of the letter. Bravo!

Sherry Truhlar December 16, 2010 at 6:06 pm

I love before-and-after examples, and this was a great teaching tool. Thank for sharing it!

Michele December 22, 2010 at 8:35 am

Thank you both for posting this article. Our fund accounting software company, Aplos, passes along great information to our customers in the nonprofit sector. This article is helpful for individuals who are just getting started and need to start off right as “thank you’s” are foundational to any organization.

Amy Eisenstein May 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Thanks, Lisa and Pam! Great tips for nonprofits getting started with the thank you process. This is so important for good donor retention. If having the ED sign all letters is causing the delay in getting them out the door, which it often does, I suggest having development staff or volunteers sign lower level letters on a weekly basis to get them out the door quickly.

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