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Mayes Wilson & Associates

How to craft a better thank you letter

Julie Whelan Capell |

‘Tis the season for annual appeals, and that means it’s also the season for sending thank you letters to donors. If you’re like most nonprofits, you’ve put a lot of thought into the appeal letters, but your thank you letters will be a tired rehash of the one you sent last year, with the obligatory “No goods or services were received in return for this gift” at the bottom.

But that thank you letter is an extremely important piece of communication.

It’s the first time the donor is hearing from you after deciding to invest in your organization. A lot is riding on this letter. This thank you letter could determine whether you ever get another gift from this donor.

The other day, I heard from a board member who was making thank you calls to donors [another great best practice I talk more about here ]. He called a longtime donor who gives multiple times a year. She was pleased to get his call, but took the opportunity to tell him all the ways the thank you letters she was getting were off the mark. The first thing she mentioned was that the letters sounded like tax receipts.

The organization learned a lot from this donor–let’s call her Lucia–about what they were doing wrong with their thank you letters.

Lesson #1: Tax acknowledgement not always needed

There is no legal requirement to put any special tax language in acknowledgement letters for contributions of less than $250 unless the donor receives something of value in return for the gift. (Different states have different rules; always check your state disclosure requirements). So for small donors who are giving a straight donation, you can omit the legalese and keep things simple.

Lesson #2: Customize EVERY letter

On the call, Lucia also told the board member she was a bit put off that she got the exact same letter every time she donated (she made several gifts every year). Never mind that the executive director wrote a personal note on each letter, Lucia felt each letter should be different.

Thank you letters should be customized. It’s a good idea to have different templates for different situations. Someone who’s a first-time donor shouldn’t get the same letter you send to a longtime donor. Someone who’s giving multiple gifts per year should get updates, not just a generic thank you.

Lesson #3: Tell a SPECIFIC story about what the donation is accomplishing

Lucia said she wanted to know what the organization was doing with her donations. Now, that doesn’t mean your nonprofit has to explain how many pencils they bought with the $100 one donor gave. It does mean you might not be communicating very well that the donations you receive are needed, and what you are accomplishing.

Your thank you letters should tell a specific story about a specific person who is benefiting from the donations you are receiving. Use the present tense to say “Your gift is helping kids right now.” Don’t thank the donor for helping your organization do great things. That is centering your organization. Thank the donor for what SHE did. Thank her for donating money, tell her how valuable her gift is and how much it is needed right now. [Find more on storytelling in direct mail here  ]

With a little extra effort, your thank you letters can become a powerful part of your overall fundraising toolkit.

If you need help crafting thank you letters, or any other fundraising communications, give us a call, we’re here to help!

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