A System to Thank the Right Donors the Right Ways at the Right Times

Envelope with a thank you note.

I want to share some simple best practices for your Thanking system.

Think of these as our recommended “default settings” for a system that thanks the right donors the right way at the right time.

And I want to acknowledge right away that you don’t have to do exactly what I suggest below. But in my experience, you want to be close.

There’s no magic to any one of these things. But there is fundraising magic to doing all of them on a regular basis.

Here’s the list…

  • Mail out a printed receipt letter, within 24 to 48 hours, for all individual gifts.
    • You don’t need to do this for monthly donors.
    • Include a reply card and a reply envelope. Here’s why.
  • For gifts received via your website, your system should send out an immediate autoreply.
    • For smaller organizations, I recommend sending a printed receipt even if you send an e-receipt. For those smaller organizations who struggle to find new donors and keep their existing donors, being “extra thankful” to a donor is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.
  • Make sure the receipt letter (printed or electronic) directly reflects the donor’s intent when they made the gift.
    • This means you want to have custom receipts for each piece of fundraising you send out. For instance, if your appeal asks donors to “give to help during the summer slump,” the first paragraph of your letter should say something like, “Thank you for giving a gift to help during the summer slump” and then reuse words and phrases used in your appeal. Why do this? Because when your donor gives to the summer slump (or to your event, or whatever) and you send her Thank You that talks about your 14 programs and how effective your organization is, she thinks you did not do with her gift what you said you were going to do. You want to avoid that!
  • The text/letter portion of your receipt should be more about the donor and less about your organization.
  • All gifts over a certain amount should receive a call and a hand-written note from your Executive Director/CEO within 48 hours. You get to decide what that amount is, based on how much time your ED/CEO will allot to make those calls and write those notes. In other words, if your ED is willing to call five donors a week for this program, lower the gift threshold so that she gets to make about five calls a week.

Thanking Systems can get super complex. This one should get you started. Tweak it as necessary per your organization.

But remember: build your system to Thank and retain the donors who are giving the highest amounts!

How to Thank Your Donor So She Actually Feels Thanked

Thank You.

The goal of your Thank You and/or Receipt package is not just to acknowledge your donor’s donation.

Any organization can do that.

Any autoreply or receipt letter can do that.

Your goal should be to make your donor feel thanked, appreciated and important.


I shared this last Friday, but it’s worth sharing again…

thank a donor graphic email.

When you thank her for helping your organization do its work, you’ve make it about you, about your organization.

What you want to do is make it about her. So, thank her for her generosity. Tell her what her gift is going to do (instead of saying what your organization is going to do). Tell her how important she is to your organization.

When you do that, you’ll find that most of your Thank You/Receipt copy is about her. And less of it is about your organization.

Less about You, More about Her

Donors are inundated with requests for support. In the United States, there’s one nonprofit for every 200 people. And almost all of those organizations talk about themselves. Endlessly.

But a very few of them have learned the secret: your donors are more interested in themselves – their lives, their values, their impact – than they are in your organization.

So if you talk to donors about their lives, their values and their impact, they will finally feel like a nonprofit “gets” them. They’ll feel that there’s a nonprofit that’s working on their behalf – trying to help them do what they want to do – instead of just another nonprofit trying to sound great to get their next donation.

Do you feel the fundamental difference? The posture of gratitude for what the donor did, not for what she helped your organization do?

If you can embrace that fundamental difference, and start communicating to your donors that way, you’ll begin to build a tribe of loyal donors who will give you more gifts, larger gifts, and will give to you for longer.

Your Nonprofit Is a Gift to Your Donors

Your Nonprofit Is a Gift to Your Donors.

Your organization is a gift to your donors.

You help each donor to do good that they could not do by themselves.

Because your donor doesn’t have programs. She doesn’t have program staff. She can’t do all the things that you do.

Your donor has not organized her life – as your organization has – to help people as powerfully as you do. What a gift that you’ve created this organization for your donor to tap into!

You help each donor experience the joy of giving.

Remember, your donors LOVES giving. Gets a real joy from it. So when she makes a donation to your organization, she benefits, too!

Off the top of my head, remembered from peer-reviewed research I’ve read:

  1. Donors are physically healthier than non-donors.
  2. Donors feel more connected than non-donors.
  3. People who donate are more likely to earn more the following year than non-donors.

(I wish that more Fundraisers – and their bosses – remembered this more often. When you own the idea that donors love giving, it makes you approach fundraising differently, and causes you to raise more money.)

You are her partner.

As much as I rant against using the word “partner” … I think that most donors, if they really sat down and thought about it, would think of the charities they give to as their “partners.”

(But always remember, from her perspective, who is partnering with whom.)

And you know what? You are her partner. She’s able to do far more to make the world a better place with your organization in her life.

She’s on a quest to make the world a little better, and you are her needed partner on her quest.

So in the craziness of year-end fundraising, remember that your organization is a gift to each of your donors.

You’re helping each donor make the world a better place – and helping each donor be happier and healthier – one gift at a time.

Act Yourself into Gratitude

Act Yourself into Gratitude.

Two simple quotes for you today about gratitude.

First, from Millard Fuller, the Founder of Habitat for Humanity:

“It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.”

Second, from yours truly, who stumbled onto the same idea on Twitter a few months ago:

“Most people think that it takes a happy organization to show real gratitude to their donors. In my experience it’s the opposite: the organizations who choose to show real gratitude to their donors become happier.”

Look, there are lots of ways a fundraiser can show real gratitude to their donors. Off the top of my head, look up @LeahEustace on thank you calls increasing donor retention, or @johnepp and @agentjenlove on their incredible “Gratitude Reports” (instead of “annual reports”), and of course @thattomahern on donor-focused newsletters that give credit to donors.

But I’m not talking about that now.

I’m talking about what’s holding your organization back from doing those things.

I have two words for you…

Just Start!

You won’t be great at it at first. But your donors will feel it.

You’ll stumble. But your future fundraising results will improve.

You’ll even shoot yourself in the foot by saying things like “Thank you for supporting us as we do incredible things…“

You can make all kinds of errors. You can be the most self-centered Thanker of all time – and still you’ll raise more money! Why? Because…

Donors Love to Feel Needed and Important

Showing real, emotional gratitude is one of the primary ways you can make a donor feel needed and important.

Get good at that, and you’re on your way to raising a lot of money.

So start! Start acting grateful to your donors, and sharing your organization’s gratitude, and you will become a more grateful organization.

Are your receipts and thank you letters dripping with gratitude, or filled with marketing copy?

Is your newsletter about what the donor did, or about what your organization has been busy doing?

Just start! And I suggest that this January, immediately after a lot of your donors have just given, is a great time to start!

We’re Having a Sale

Would you breathe a little easier as you start 2019, knowing that your appeals, e-appeals, and newsletters are going to work better than they ever have before?

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A team of experts from Better Fundraising can create your appeals, e-appeals and newsletters for you. You’ll free up a time to focus on important things that aren’t getting done now, and your fundraising will raise more money. It’s like an “EASY” button for your fundraising communications, and your first month is free – an average savings of $3,500. Wonder if it’s a fit for your organization? Fill out this super-short form and we’ll get in touch!

The “Dreaded Thask” – Thoughts on Asking while Thanking

The “Dreaded Thask” – Thoughts on Asking while Thanking.

I was in an email conversation recently about “the dreaded Thask – when an organization asks for a donation in their receipt.” In other words, including another Ask in your receipt when you are Thanking your donor for a gift.

The conversation was with a bunch of professional fundraisers.

Everyone was against it – except me.

But I Should Be Specific…

I do not advocate for asking for a donation in a gift receipt.

But I do advocate for including a reply card and reply envelope in mailed receipt letters.

That may seem like splitting hairs. Let me tell you why it’s not…

I know from testing that including a reply card and reply envelope with most receipt letters – when done in a certain way – is good for your organization in the short term and in the long term.

Below is the email that I sent to the group. You’ll see how to do it in a way that raises more money (and keeps more donors) for your organization.

Hi There,

Here’s we learned through testing over the years…

In a nutshell, “thasking” is a bad idea, but “thanking and providing an opportunity” is a really good idea. (Apologies for the ungainly name, I just made it up.)

In our experience, when “thanking and providing an opportunity” is done well, two good things happen:

  1. More gifts come in. In other words, response rates to Thank You / Receipt packages increase.
  2. Donor retention goes up. When we tracked the donors over time, their giving and loyalty went up compared to donors who received the standard treatment. These were direct, A/B split tests done with tens of thousands of donors.

In my experience, there are a couple details to get right:

  1. The receipt letter itself needs to be only about Thanking. Zero mention of any future giving. (And be donor-centric, be full of gratitude, tell her what her gift is doing, not what the organization is doing with her gift, etc.)
  2. The letter needs to be specific as to what the donor’s gift was about. In other words, if the donor gave to ‘provide a night of safety for a homeless mom and her kid’ the letter needs to tell the donor that her gift is providing a night of safety for a homeless mom and her kid. It doesn’t work as well when the letter is a general thank you letter: “Thank you for partnering with us as we help families experiencing homelessness…”
  3. The reply card does not ask the donor for a gift. It just says something like “my next gift” or “I’d like to do even more.” That positioning is really important. Because as humans we KNOW it’s impolite to ask for another gift at that moment. However, we also know that many donors are thrilled to be well-thanked (or even thanked at all). And that some of them would love to give another gift right then and there. The “I’d like to do even more” positioning avoids the impoliteness.

When an organization really has its act together on this stuff (again, in my experience), they usually see about 1% response rates to Thank You’s / Receipt Letters. Those gifts can generate up to 5% of an org’s total direct mail revenue. And again: no long-term negatives to file health.

Are there exceptions? Sure. I don’t do it to major donors. I wouldn’t do it in Thank You cards. Wouldn’t do it after a donor took a survey. But the majority of the time an organization receives a gift and sends a printed receipt, it’s the smart thing to do.

To summarize, I agree that “thasking” is a bad idea. But I think that making it really easy for a donor to make another gift if they would like to, in a polite way, is the right thing to do most of the time. And when it’s done right, I’ve seen no measurable long-term negatives.

I hope that helps takes any fear out of including a reply device in your standard receipt letter package.

And that it helps you increase your revenue and your donor retention!

How To Thank A Major Donor So She’ll WANT To Give Again

thank a major donor

I have a theory you’ll probably agree with:

How well you thank a major donor has a big impact on whether they give you additional gifts in the future, and how large those gifts will be.

If you agree, keep reading. Because we’re about to share what we’ve learned over the years about Thanking major donors. We’ll talk about the tactics to use, and about the message you want to convey.

Jim Shapiro, my partner in crime here at Better Fundraising, taught me most of this. And even though it’s really simple, I’m going to break it down into easy steps.

Thank a major donor five times

Why five? Because you want your major donor to feel that their gift really mattered. Not “know” their gift matters. That’s a simple fact that they probably already know (especially if you’re a local charity). That can be communicated with a receipt and a thank you note.

You want to do more. Because your goal isn’t your donor knowing. Your goal is for them to feel your gratitude and appreciation. And you need multiple touches for that.

By the way, you don’t have to do any of these things. You can not even acknowledge gifts and some donors will keep giving to you. But why leave it up to chance? Most of the steps below don’t take much time and can make a big difference over time . . .

The easy three ways to thank a major donor

These are simple to do. Every single organization should be doing these. Think of them as ‘a cost of doing business’ if you want to keep your major donors giving to your organization.

  1. Call and say Thank You. Have the highest-ranking person available in your organization call within 24 hours of receiving any gift from a major donor or that qualifies for major donor status. It doesn’t have to be a long call, in fact they are usually less than 5 minutes. But call them.
  2. Send a receipt. Send a printed receipt within 24 to 48 hours. Pro Tip: if the gift is a major gift or from a major donor, have your ED write a note on the receipt before it goes out.
  3. Send a Thank You note. Use a Thank You card from Hallmark, or a special branded card from your organization that you use only for this. You want this to feel special, and have it not look like what you normally send.

The tougher two

OK. You’ve done the Easy Three ways to thank a major donor. But you want to do a couple more things over the next few weeks to communicate now that you’re looking at this as a relationship, not a transaction.

There is no ‘one perfect thing’ for every organization. But here are two themes to follow. Try to do one of each theme each time a major donor makes a gift. And you’ll notice that the key here is that they are personal; either personal from the person doing the Thanking, or personal for the donor . . .

  1. A personal Thank You from someone at the organization. What you’re trying to do here is have someone important (either high-ranking or a beneficiary) communicate their Thanks to the donor. :
    1. Make and deliver a handmade gift. We have an ED who makes cookies for her donors. We have a CEO who makes pies for his donors. We used to work with an organization where the MGO hand-made wooden pens for his donors.
    2. Have a beneficiary write a thank you note, and send that note to your donor. We’ve seen kids at camp, hospital patients, students, and beneficiaries of all kinds write thank you notes to donors.
  2. A personal value-add to the donor’s life. If you know your donor has a specific interest (a sports team, model trains, the Arts, etc.) you can send them something about their interest. At the end of the note, say something like, “…and thank you again for your incredible gift!”

Main messages missing?

There are two powerful messages you should communicate when you thank a major donor. Most organizations completely miss these — but donors LOVE hearing them.

Tell her that her gift was needed. Most organizations are not good at being vulnerable with donors, and a byproduct of that is that most organizations rarely communicate to donors that their gifts are needed. But donors love to know that their gift was needed because it makes them feel great about giving the gift!

How great do you feel when you help a friend who says, “Oh! That was exactly what I needed!”?

Tell her that her gift is going to make a difference. Most organizations, in their receipt letters and thank you notes, don’t actually say that the donor’s gift is going to make a difference. They say things like “Thanks for joining our mission…” and “Thank you for your partnership! Our programs are the best of their kind in the region…”

Remember that she gave a gift to make a difference, so tell her that she’s going to make a difference! (And then later, Report back to her to show her the difference she helped make and “close the loop.”)

So I would include a sentence that says something like, “Mary, your gift couldn’t have come at a better time! It was needed. It’s going to make a difference, and I can’t wait to get in touch with you in a couple of months to show your impact to you!”

Listen to her

Of course, if your donor says not to contact her, honor her. If she doesn’t want to be in relationship with you outside of her giving, pay attention. If she wants to be anonymous, let her stay that way.

But don’t assume any of those things. Assume she’d love to be well-thanked. 1 in 25 times that will put you in an awkward situation. 24 out of 25 times that will make you more likely to get another (and larger) gift from the person.

Relationship, not transaction

Relational Thanking is showering your major donors with personal touches so that they feel your gratitude.

Transactional Thanking is a receipt, a mention in the annual report, and a request for a larger gift 11 months from now.

Each of your major donors have LOTS of choices for where they can give their next gifts. Which type of organization would you rather give to? One that communicates through their actions that majors donors are small cogs in a big machine, or one where donors feel like their gift was needed, appreciated, and is going to make a difference?


Embrace Your Smallness

If you’re a small nonprofit, embrace it. Use it to your advantage. Especially when you are thanking your donors.

Here’s how to take advantage of your smallness and local-ness to Thank your donors in powerful ways.

Hand-write Thank You notes to Every Donor

Say you have 200 donors. You can send a handwritten thank you note to every single one of those donors. The vast majority of your donors will never have received a handwritten thank you note from a nonprofit before, let alone one signed by the Executive Director or a Board Member. You’ll make a big impression. And your chances of retaining that donor just skyrocketed.

Mention That You Are Local

I read recently that an increasing percentage of donations are moving from large, national charities to smaller, local orgs. That’s great news for you, and means that you should be mentioning your local-ness in your fundraising.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

  • Say you’re helping local middle-school kids improve their math skills. You should mention local middle schools by name and neighborhood. Say things like, “Your gift is going to help kids at Kennedy, and at McLure in North Ballard. These are local kids you’re helping. You see them playing on the soccer fields you drive by. And the next time you drive by, they are going to be better at math — thanks to you!”
  • This works even if you’re helping people on the other side of the world. You can say things like, “Thank you! You are supporting a small, local organization with an international impact. We’re located just South of downtown, over by the old brewery. We all live around here, and we love helping you make the world a better place.”

Do you get the idea? Do you see how rooting your organization in a place that the donor knows makes you more familiar and trustworthy? That’s a big deal (and getting bigger).

Show Her How Important She Is

If you only have a few hundred donors, every donor you have is more important to you than she is to the big national organizations she also gives to. Have you told her that?

Tell her by thanking her! Say things like, “[NAME], it’s you and about 250 other generous, compassionate people that make this organization go. You make it possible. So when I tell you that you’re an important part of what we’re doing, I mean it. You are a big deal to me, and your support has a big impact.”

If your donors are a big deal, by all means tell them they are a big deal! Too many small, local nonprofits get stuck trying to communicate as if they are a big organization. And they miss the beauty and power of their smallness.

Elbow Grease and Shoe Leather

We have a client where the executive director (a man, by the way) bakes pies and delivers them to top donors. We’ve worked with organizations that hand-deliver thank you cards from beneficiaries, crafts from Africa, hand-made pens, even a jug of home-brewed beer. Those kind of touches that can make a big impact.

The ‘National Big Disease That Your Uncle Has Foundation’ isn’t doing that for their donors, my friend! And when you do it for your donors, they will notice.

Good old-fashioned elbow grease and shoe leather will take you a long way.

If You Have A Few Too Many Donors For This . . .

Maybe you have 2,000 donors and can’t treat everyone this way. You can sure treat your major donors this way. Jim says this all the time: figure out how many people your human resources will allow you to give the special treatment to, start with your most valuable donor, and work down from there.

In Closing

If you’re a small, local nonprofit, your goal should be to act like the local hardware store that’s friendly and knows everybody by name. Don’t try to be Nordstrom’s. For one, you don’t have the resources or budget to pull it off. You can’t, and donors can smell it. Second, there already IS a Nordstroms! Be yourself. Embrace your strengths.

If you do this stuff, you’ll run circles around the really big nonprofits.

Because listen, most donors out there want to know two things: that their gift makes a difference, and that their gift matters. Embracing your smallness, especially when you’re Thanking, is one of the very best ways you can really show your donors that they and their gifts matter.

A Benediction For Fundraisers

I’d like to propose a benediction for Fundraisers. The close of one year and the open of another seems like a perfect time, no? I shared this with our email list members a few weeks ago thought you would enjoy it.

This is unabashedly based off a poem by Teresa of Avila (1515–1582).

Donors Have No Programs

Donors have no programs but yours.
They have strong hearts, but no body that helps people.

Yours is the mouth that tells donors of the ills of the world,
Yours are the feet that take her to where she can see the need,
Yours are the eyes that help her see what needs to be done,
Yours are the hands that do what needs to be done.

Yours is the Body, that makes it all possible.
Hers is the Generosity, that makes it all possible.

Fundraiser! Yours is the responsibility to Ask for her help,
And the responsibility to Report on her successes.

How much more good can she do with you, than without?
How much more joy can she have with you, than without?
For she has no programs on earth but yours.

My friend, may you have an incredible 2018. Fundraising is the best job in the whole world.

Podcast: The Right Way — And Wrong Way — To Thank Your Donors

Today I’m excited to share Episode #103 of the Fundraising Is Beautiful podcast that I host with Jeff Brooks. In this episode, we discuss why nonprofits should avoid using the word “partner” as a verb, the importance of a thank you letter, and the necessity of focusing on what the donor did rather than their relationship to your organization. Enjoy!

Play Episode #103: The right way — and wrong way — to thank your donors (right click or “save as” to save the file for later).

Subscribe to Fundraising Is Beautiful on iTunes.