Does Your Organization’s Thank You Letter Suck?

March 6, 2010

Recently I made a donation to a local arts organization.

I’m pleased to say that, yes, contrary to the statistics, I did receive a thank you letter.

Granted it arrived approximately four weeks after the fact.

But I did receive one.

Sadly it was the standard thank you letter.

You know.

The kind that begins:  “Dear Ms. Grow (makes me feel like my grandmother):  Thank you for supporting XYZ with your gift of $XX.  We are delighted to welcome you to our esteemed group of friends and supporters.  We look forward …  We greatly appreciate your support of our mission to …”

“We, we, we” … I, me, mine.  In other words the kind of letter that makes you think “Oh, they got my check” midway into the second paragraph and toss it in with your tax papers until next January.

A lot of folk think that “donor-centered fundraising” is just another buzz word in the nonprofit world.

It’s not.

I would venture to say that donor-centered fundraising is the only legitimate – I would go so far as to say honest – method to long-term, sustainable funding.

What we fundraisers often forget is that the “who is so much more important than the what.”

We’ll spend hours crafting our mission statement or our organization’s story – without giving the slightest thought to the person who is reading it!

One of the most important things you can learn is how to get “into” the mind of your donor.

Think about it.

  • Over $308 BILLION was given in charitable donations in 2008 – and 75% of those dollars came from individuals
  • On average for every six new donors an organization acquires, it loses five existing donors
  • For every $6 raised, more than $6 was lost due to donor attrition

If you’re looking for long-term, sustainable funding, doesn’t it pay to give more than lip service to your thank you letters?  After all, your organization’s thank you after your donor’s first gift sets the stage for future gifts!

Here’s a sample thank you letter I wrote quite a few years ago for an inner city educational organization and why it’s worth adapting:

Dear First Name:

Thanks to you, Felicia is busy planning her future.

This year she’ll be graduating from St. Joseph’s University – the first in her family to graduate college.  She’s applied to nine medical schools with plans on becoming a pediatrician.

In 2001 when Felicia began the XYZ program, thoughts of becoming a doctor had never entered her head.  Her parents had arrived in the United States from Jamaica.  “They’ve supported me in everything I’ve ever wanted to do,” she says, “but they’ve never been to college.”

Your gift of $XXX has helped to buy the books, pay the teachers’ stipends and grow our summer programming so that kids like Felicia have a chance.

We look forward to sharing the program’s success with you in our quarterly newsletter.  In the meantime, if you would like to schedule a visit to see, firsthand, the difference your gift is making, please contact Mary Development at 555.555.5555.  Our sincere thanks for your support throughout the years.


John Q. Boardmember, President

First off, the letter starts out with a strong opening focusing on the donor.  Because of YOU!

Secondly, it tells a story and tells the reader exactly what you’ll be doing with their donation.

Third, the letter tells the reader when they can expect to hear from you and offers a phone number and a contact person.

Fourth, the donor’s loyalty is acknowledged.

Finally, it’s signed by someone from the highest ranks of the organization.

And the finishing touch was an enclosed thank you letter direct from one of our students, derived from a selection of hand-written notes compiled during one rainy summer day when we had given the kids the project of writing thank you’s to all of the people who made their opportunity possible.  The best were printed up.

For more on how to craft the perfect thank you letter – and why you should – download the free report created from the call I did last year with donor retention expert Lisa Sargent..

Be sure to also check out Lisa’s thank you letter clinic at

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Marlene Oliveira March 25, 2010 at 12:06 pm

So common and so true, Pamela. And what a great example you’ve shared. Organizations can spend so much time chasing prospects instead of cultivating donors with the kind of follow-up you suggest. Thanks for the post!

Eric Engwall March 31, 2010 at 4:05 pm

I recently had coffee with a friend who serves on multiple non-profit boards and has numerous others as clients.

While he didn’t reference the thank-you letter issue directly – he did say that many organizations have not quite grasped the notion that donors are “customers” of a sort. They contribute money, they have choices, and many want or expect a return of some type. A well-crafted thank you may be all the “return” they’re looking for – and a poorly crafted one is at best a lost opportunity to cement the bond between donor and an otherwise worthy organization. Nice post!

Laura M. Edwards April 19, 2010 at 9:10 am

Great post. And I keep thinking about how important this message is to convey to donors.

Here’s where I’m frustrated – as the sole professional fundraiser on my community boards, and with executive directors that like to do things the ‘way we’ve always done it’ I’m not sure HOW to orchestrate this important change — going to more donor-centered fundraising. I’ve suggested that the board undergo a strategic planning session so we have a road map for where we are going (yes, this is a pretty defunct board, but for a great cause, our local humane society so I’m not ready to give up just yet) but I think creating a culture of CHANGE is perhaps the most difficult part of solving this dilemma.

Thoughts? And thanks for sharing!

Beth Ann Locke May 27, 2010 at 11:42 am

Very much enjoyed this post. Sometimes the creativity appears to wane when it comes to thanking donors. “Just the facts” when in fact this may be one of the few pieces the donor will read closely – if only to see if the org got the name, address, designation and amount right! Thanks for reminding us and giving a nice sample! I enjoy visiting the blog – thought provoking.

Starlyn D'Angelo June 4, 2010 at 6:41 am

Writing the Thank You letter for our latest appeal letter was on my to do list today but I checked my e-mail first and saw your post. Thank you for giving me food for thought! I always spend quite a bit of time on the TY letter since it is an important continuation of the process of cultivating support.

Mary Cahalane May 12, 2011 at 2:37 pm

I kind of chuckle and cringe at once when I get a thank you from a former employer. I was there a very long time, but staff has apparently turned over a bit since… and the thanks is addressed to Ms. Cahalane. Really? I left my heart there, but now we’re back on a formal basis?
I’m sure someone’s thinking it’s polite, but here’s where a little more attention to the database might help.

Pamela Grow May 12, 2011 at 2:50 pm

So true, Mary. The beauty of being a tiny npo is that you CAN pay attention to these details (time allowing), but, in the end, it does boil down to your database.

Matt Dolman July 14, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Definitely agree with you that the “thank you” is key to sustaining relationships. I’ve also found that with older donors hand-written thank you letters/notes are even more well received.

Andy Huston July 20, 2011 at 8:07 pm

You are channeling the wonderful Penelope Burke. The book Donor-Centered Fundraising totally changed how we stewarded gifts. Personal and timely is key!

Radwan Chowdhury January 2, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Great, Thank you so much for sharing.

Sarah January 7, 2017 at 5:59 pm

This is great insight! Thank you for an alternative version to acknowledge sponsors/contributors.

Sheree Vandevander November 8, 2018 at 5:44 pm

Thank you, This is so valuable to the growth of our nonprofit. It’s so difficult to know if I am doing what’s wrong or right. This defiantly helps!

Ryan May 1, 2019 at 10:49 am

It’s better to make a video with a thank you message for the donor. This shows your effort and appreciation to the donor.

Pamela Grow May 1, 2019 at 9:16 pm

Thanks for commenting, Ryan! This is not a one OR the other proposition. We have often recommended thank you videos when possible. However, I wasn’t aware that the efficacy of a thank you video over a letter had been tested. The last research I’ve seen was the report from Jen Shang, Adrian Sargeant. And I know that Lisa Sargent has reams of research and results from the good old fashion thank you letter. I would love to see this testing and share it with my readers. At any rate, why not do both.

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