An Unfortunate Thanking Adventure in Three Paragraphs

Today I want to share an example of an unfortunate Thanking experience that happened to me.

It’s from a small, under-staffed organization. I’m not throwing rocks here – I love the organization, we’ll donate again, and I know full well the challenges of doing all this stuff well at a small shop.

But it’s a real-life example of how a Thank You can get off-target in just three short paragraphs.

The Salutation

“Dear Stephen.”

Ouch. Not a great start to misspell my name (especially after spelling it correctly in my email address), but we’ve all done it.

The First Paragraph

“Your generous donation is greatly appreciated!”

That’s a great first paragraph. It starts with the word “you.” It’s short and easy to understand. The exclamation point makes it feel human, not corporate. Great stuff.

The Second Paragraph

“You are cordially invited [Organization Name]’s Giving Circle and gift a free membership to the [Organization Name]’s Health Advisor Training Program to anyone of your choosing. You can find an explanation of the giving circle here:”

This is where this short Thank You email loses track of its job, its purpose. A Thank You should be about the donor and the gift they just gave, not about the organization and the donor’s next gift.

A one-sentence Thank You followed by an invitation to give more is not what I’d recommend when thanking a donor for a gift.

The Third Paragraph

“Please find attached a personal thank you from [Name], Executive Director of [Organization Name]. If you would like to receive a magnet ([Organization Name]’s logo) in the mail, please reply to this email with your physical address. Again, thank you for your support!”

As a donor, I wondered why the Executive Director didn’t send their Thank You to me directly. The subtle message to the donor in a situation like this is that “I’m not important enough to hear directly from the highest-ranking person.”

As a fundraising professional, I marveled at the email bringing up another thing for me to do. If you’re scoring at home, that’s three (join the giving circle, give a free membership to something I’ve never heard of, and get a magnet), which is two too many.

The Lessons

There’s a lot going on in this little three-paragraph Thank you. But here are three lessons you can use to make sure your Thank You’s are on target:

  • I said it earlier, but it bears repeating: a Thank You should be about the donor and the gift they just gave, not about the organization and the donor’s next gift. Use your Thank You’s to make your donor feel appreciated and special. Save any overt talk of further giving until later communications.
  • Keep it simple. Sharing a way a donor can get more involved is a great idea – the magnet in this email is a nice touch. But giving a donor three different things is too many. There should never be more than one.
  • Save it for later. There’s a lot of great content in this email; it’s just too much for one email. Save some things for later (or your New Donor Welcome stream), and use them as reasons to contact the donor again. For instance, this organization could send me a separate email about the free membership that I can give.

If you want to go deeper, I recently shared a free template for a Thank You/Receipt letter, and an 8-minute video walking you through the template, over at Work Less Raise More.

The Thank You section of that letter is a great example of a short, powerful Thank You.

Good luck with your Thank Yous!

Answer Her Three Questions

Answer her questions.

Here’s a little checklist I use to create powerful receipt packages, autoreplies and thank you letters.

I make an assumption that after a donor makes a gift to a nonprofit, at some level she’s asking herself three questions:

  1. Did you receive my gift?
  2. Did you appreciate my gift?
  3. Are you going to do what you said you were going to do when you asked for my gift?

When writing and designing receipts and thank yous, I make sure the answers to those questions are the very first things communicated.

It’s a simple strategy, I admit. But it works for organizations that are trying to make the shift from organizational-centric communications to donor-centric communications, because it helps them avoid the common mistakes.

Notice What’s Not There

Notice something powerful…

Her questions are not about your organization. Her questions are not about your programs, your mission and vision, or your effectiveness.

Her first questions are about her and her gift.

Is there anything inherently wrong about talking about your programs, your vision and mission, or your effectiveness?

No. Of course not. But I would talk about those things after you’ve answered her primary questions.

“Did you receive my gift?”

This is more important than you think.

And if you think that most donors aren’t worried whether their gifts were received or not, I encourage you to go talk to lots of older donors who give through the mail. They often wonder this, especially when it takes more than a couple days for them to receive a receipt.

“Did you appreciate my gift?”

Donors want to feel appreciated. Valued. Meaningful. Very few nonprofits ever tell their donors that.

If you communicate to your donor that she’s appreciated, valued and meaningful – don’t you think there’s a much better chance that your donor will give you another gift down the road?

“Are you going to do what you said you were going to do when you asked for my gift?”

Most organizations make asks of their donors in specific situations: “please help us raise $400,000 at the event tonight” or “please give a gift to support the annual fund” or “your $25 gift today will introduce a local child to the opera.”

But then those organizations send boilerplate thank-yous that don’t acknowledge the specific ask. They ask you to “introduce a local child to the opera” and then send a thank you letter that says, “Your gift is supporting our 11 programs to support the arts in our county.”

To a donor, this causes disconnect. She wonders, “Hey, did the organization not know that I was giving to introduce a kid to the opera?”

You don’t want your donor wondering things like that!

It leaves the impression that a) the organization doesn’t have its act together, or b) it’s cavalier with donors’ gifts.


You don’t want to leave that impression. Especially if it’s the first thank you/receipt a donor receives.

The solution: customized thank you copy for each specific ask/event/offer you put in front of your donors.

My Suggestion

Answer her three questions first. Then the rest of what you put in there is up to you.

If your organization is exceptionally effective at using her gift, that’s of value to her. If you know she supports the same vision you do, that’s of value to her, too.

Just start by answering the questions she’s asking. That strategy will rarely lead you astray.

Your All-Important First Thank You/Receipt

New donor reading thank you letter.

My theory is that the Thank You/Receipt you send to a brand new donor is one of the most-opened, most-read messages you will ever send.

With your first touch point after a donor’s first gift, she begins to form her opinion of how important she is to your organization… or not.

Is she important and meaningful… or a small cog in a big machine?

Are you going to talk to her about her gift… or tell her more about yourself (your organization)?

Are you going to use boilerplate language that’s about your whole organization… or customized language that speaks to the specific event or offer she gave to?

Ask yourself: what kind of letter would YOU like to receive? Which kind of organization would YOU rather give to?

Your New Donor Gives to LOTS of Organizations

She’s constantly scanning for organizations that help her make the change she wants to make in the world.

And she gave your organization a gift. She picked you!

How will you respond?

You’ve already made a favorable impression on her – she gave a gift, after all.

But this is your chance to confirm her first impression.

This makes the first sentence of your Thank You/Receipt copy the most important sentence.

It’s your first sentence that tells your donor:

  1. Are you really grateful for her gift, or are you just writing to acknowledge it?
  2. Are you writing to thank her for her generosity and what she’s going to accomplish, or are you writing to tell her more about your organization?

Because your donor is trying to get a feel for your organization. She’s trying to decide whether her gift to you was a good idea… or not.

So go look at the language – and especially the first sentence – of the Thank You/Receipt package you send to first-time donors. Make sure it acknowledges that it’s her first-ever gift. Make sure you mention your donor twice as much as you mention your organization. Make sure your first sentence is short, easy to read, and makes a great first impression!