Six Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Thank You/Receipt Letter

Heat Map

How you write the first sentence of your receipt letter (or autoreply email) makes a great deal of difference for whether your donor keeps reading… or not.

Let me give you five tips we live by at Better Fundraising.

Be Direct

The more direct and “to the point” you can be, the better. Here are two first sentences that I use all the time:

“Thank you for your generous gift of [GiftAmt]!”

“You are so generous, thank you!”

Using your first sentence to “send the main message” is an effective tactic in your donor communications. Your donor doesn’t have to read any further and she’s already received the message you’re trying to send.

Short and sweet

Think of the first sentence as the “on-ramp” to the rest of your note or letter. If the on-ramp is easy, your donor is likely to keep reading.

If the on-ramp sentence is long, with lots of clauses or jargon, your donor is less likely to keep reading.

Share the Outcome

Another powerful idea is to share the outcome of the donor’s gift. This isn’t always possible, but here are some examples:

“Thank you for your gift to put on this fall’s exhibit.”

“Thank you for your poverty-fighting gift!”

“Thank you for your generosity, your gift will fund vital research!”

It’s great if you can thank your donor and give her a sense of what her gift will accomplish – in one short sentence.

Start with the Beneficiaries

It’s always a good idea to mention the people or thing your organization serves! This results in first sentences like this:

“Thank you for your gift to protect endangered wetlands!”

“Thank you for your gift to help the children!”

“Thank you for preserving heirloom quilts for quilt-lovers to see!”

Use ‘You’

The word “you” is magical at getting your reader’s attention. It’s also a good way to signal to the donor that this piece of communication is about them – that they should be interested in this and want to read it.

“Your generosity amazes me!”

Use the word “you” early and often.

It’s Not About Your Organization

One of the secondary benefits of using the word “you” is that you’re not writing your organization’s name, or the words “we” or “us.”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with those words or your organization’s name. Just remember that the best Thank You’s tend to be about the donor and their gift – and not about the organization.

Final Thought

You want to write something that your donor is interested in reading, and makes her want to keep reading.

If it helps, here’s an example of what not to do. It’s my all-time favorite bad opening line of a thank you / receipt letter:

“Recently, we returned from an all-staff retreat.”

Ask yourself, why would a donor want to keep reading?

If you want your donors to keep reading, follow the guidelines above. Your Thank You’s and Receipt Letters will improve in no time!

What a Heat Map Should Teach You About Thanking

Heat Map

I want you to think about the graphic above the next time you look at your Thank You/Receipt letter.

Why?  Because let’s make sure you’re not accidentally hiding the main message you’re trying to send a donor right after they’ve given you a gift!    

Heat Maps

The graphic above is what’s called a “heat map.”  It tracks where reader’s eyes looked as they read this piece of direct mail fundraising.  It also tracks the order in which the Reader looked at each area.

Not all heat maps look the same, but they generally look like this one.

And if you look at any of them, you quickly see that donors tend to read the beginnings and endings of your messages, and not much in between. 

A Question for You

I want you to visualize your organization’s Receipt letters and Thank You letters.  Better yet, print them out and put them on your desk.

With this heat map in mind, do your receipt letters and Thank You letters actually communicate what you are trying to communicate?

Is it easy for a donor to read that she is being thanked, and that your organization is full of gratitude for her?

Or have you accidentally hidden the main message in places where your donors are less likely to read them?

My advice is to make sure that there is a clear Thank You in two of the following three places:

  • The first sentence
  • The last sentence
  • In the upper right corner

Why two of the three?  To increase the chances that a “skimmer” will read one of them.  Because you don’t know what part a donor is going to read!

Your Assignment

I could go deeper on all this.  But I’d rather you spend your time looking at your Thank You and Receipt letters.  Same thing goes for the email versions.

Make sure that your message of gratitude is easily seen at just a glance – because that’s often all you get! 

Does the rest of your message need to be well-written?  Of course (I talk about it in this post).  But a surprising amount of Thank You success is dependent on getting the top and bottom correct!

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!

Happy Thanksgiving!


Thank you for the work you do!

On behalf of your beneficiaries or cause, you make the generous act of asking donors to help. That’s a gift to who or whatever you serve, to your organization, and to your donors.

Fundraising is often hard, draining work. You have to see and hear so many stories that are tough. Then you have to share them. You have to be other-focused. All of which is wearing.

But there are so many parts of fundraising to be thankful for! For the funds you help raise that make your organization’s work possible. For increasing people’s awareness of what you’re working on and giving those people a chance to do something about it. For the incredible changes made possible by your organization.

You make the world a better place! As Dr. Martin Luther King says, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Thank you for “bending the arc” towards justice – and we at Better Fundraising love getting to be a small part of the great work you do.

Thank you for being a Fundraiser, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

~ Jim & Steven

Donor-Centricity and Boundaries

Line island.

A quick post about donor-centricity…

Based on my understanding of donor-centricity, I believe most of the critiques are targeting what I’d call “donor-centricity taken too far.”

And anything can be taken too far. No technology or tactic has ever been invented that hasn’t been misused or corrupted. But that doesn’t mean the technology or tactic is bad.

What IS Donor-Centricity?

Donor-centricity is a marketing tactic. The principle is borrowed from advertising and is based on the first rule of human persuasion: you must meet someone where they are before you can get them to go anywhere.

This shows up in fundraising writing. A donor-centric e-appeal might start off with, “You know how important it is to have enough nurses during the pandemic.” Where an organization-centric e-appeal might start off with, “Our nursing program produces the most qualified nurses in the tri-state area, and we’ve grown 140% in response to the pandemic.”

Donor-centricity is also an organizational stance, a “leaning in” towards donors and their needs.

This shows up in how an organization spends its time and resources. A donor-centric organization might send a hand-signed thank you note to each new donor within 48 hours of their donation. Whereas another organization might send thank you notes but “batch” sign them at the end of the month when it’s easier for the signer.

Neither is right or wrong. An organization’s level of donor-centricity depends both on how much it adopts the approach and on how many resources are available.

Organizations have adopted donor-centric approaches over time because they tend to result in increased money raised and increased capacity for the organization to achieve its mission.

However, an organization’s “increased capacity” is not more important than the organization’s staff or beneficiaries.


Organizations should have boundaries around their donor-centric approach.

For instance, an organization can practice donor-centricity and absolutely say things like:

Donor, you are not welcome at our events any longer because you make the younger staffers feel uncomfortable.

I’m sorry, Donor, but we can’t accept your donation and its requirements because that would change our mission.

Staff Member, I see that writing the daily Thank You notes is one of the things causing you to burn out. Let’s change that practice because you are more important than a marketing goal.

Donor-centricity should never harm your organization, staff, beneficiaries, or ability to perform your mission.

Knowing what donor-centricity is (a marketing tactic, an approach) and knowing what it isn’t (“the donor is always right”) can lead to an organization having both the fundraising and relational benefits of donor-centricity AND a healthy organizational culture.

Do These 2 Things If You Want to Keep Your Donors

Thank and Report

I’ve talked about this idea before, but after a year that saw charitable giving increase for many organizations, it’s an idea worthy of reminder…

You have to Thank your donors well, and Report back to them on the effects of their gift, if you want to have the best chance of keeping them.

Here’s the power of Thanking and Reporting, in the simplest possible terms:

  • Thanking your donor well tells her she’s important and that her gift is making a difference.  Almost no nonprofit clearly tells their donors this!  If every thank you letter, receipt and email clearly communicate her value, she’s more likely to give you another gift.
  • Reporting back to your donor on how the world is a better place because of her gift shows her that her gift made a difference.  And if your newsletter shows your donor that her gift made a difference, she’s more likely to give another gift to your organization.

It really is that simple.  It’s not magic.

But it IS why successful organizations spend money and time on Thanking rapidly and well.  And it’s why organizations with good donor-focused newsletters have higher donor retention rates.

Remember; each of your donors is giving to several organizations.  Probably even more so given the challenges of the pandemic.  Some of those organizations make her feel important.  Some of them make her feel like her gift makes a difference.

If your organization makes her feel important, and makes her feel like she made a difference, she’s more likely to stick with you.

And give more gifts. 

And give higher gifts.

So “close the loop” by Thanking and Reporting.

Keeping your donors for longer is one of the primary keys to successful fundraising.  And Thanking and Reporting will make you a pro at keeping your donors!

You Don’t Have to Thank and Report IF…

thank and report.

We talk a lot around here about how the three core functions of Asking, Thanking, and Reporting are necessary for fundraising success.

But there’s an exception.

There are some organizations out there that can succeed without Thanking and Reporting.

Here’s what those organizations have in common:

  1. They’re working on a cause or with a beneficiary group that a LOT of people care about. Think “kids in poverty” or “pets with large cute eyes” or “diseases that touch everyone’s lives.”
  2. They’re skilled at Asking. They have great offers and great stories.
  3. They have donor acquisition down to a science.

Why is this true? If a lot of people care about what you’re working on, there are always more potential donors out there. And if you’re great at donor acquisition, you can replace all the donors you lose each year – and more. And if you’re skilled at Asking, you’ll raise a lot of money from your donors before they move on.

These organizations don’t need to Thank and Report because they don’t need to keep their donors.

These organizations don’t have to worry very much about keeping their donors because it’s so easy for them to get new donors.

Story Time

We did a website project years ago for an organization that worked on a “brand name” disease.

Something like 40,000 people each month are diagnosed with this disease – which affects not only the patient but all of their loved ones.

Each month, many of the 40,000 – plus untold numbers of concerned family members – would go online to research their disease.

Many of them would end up at this organization’s website. Thousands would give a gift.

This organization was acquiring several thousand new donors every single month just by having a semi-capable website.

Meanwhile, the rest of their fundraising was atrophying. Their Thanking was rote and organization-centric. Their Reporting was nonexistent (though they did brag occasionally). Their donor retention rates were abysmal.

But they worked on a disease that a lot of people care about. And they were good at donor acquisition. Even though they were only adequate at Asking, they still raised increasing amounts of money each year as more and more people came online and made donations.

They “succeeded.” But they sure could have raised a lot more money (and done a lot more good) if they knew what you and I know.

What You Should Do

If your organization is one of the lucky few, who don’t need to Thank and Report while still raising more money each year, congratulations! You’ve won the fundraising lottery.

But if your cause is smaller, if your Asking could improve, if new donor acquisition is a struggle – then keeping your existing donors is paramount.

You have to get great at Thanking. Not simply acknowledging a donor’s gift, but making her feel like a meaningful part of your organization. And you have to get great at Reporting. Show your donor the outcomes of her gift, and give her the credit.

Do those things well, and you’ll keep more of your current donors, and raise more money every time you Ask them!

Thank Your 2019 Donors Meaningfully Right Away

Thank you.

We recommend to all our clients to send a meaningful Thank You to their donors in January.

It should be a non-normal Thank You. It should stand out from the rest of your donor communications.

We believe in this so much we invented “Thankuary” several years ago to help an organization do this. (That organization, by the way, just DOUBLED their year-end fundraising from 2018 to 2019.)

Because here’s the thing:

If you want to have the best chance of keeping your donors,

You have to Thank your donors well

Then later Report back to them on the effects of their gift.

Make It Meaningful

It’s January, which means you just Asked your donors quite a bit at the end of the year. (At least I hope you did). Which means it’s time to Thank your donors.

Here’s what to do:

  • Make it stand out in her mailbox. Send it in a larger envelope. Say “thank you” in audaciously large type on the envelope. Use a bold, exciting color.
  • Make it emotional. It should read like a personal note of incredible gratitude. Your ED might not like to sound emotional, but emotion is exactly what’s called for.
  • Do not initially thank your donor for supporting your organization. Instead, thank her for making a difference for your cause or beneficiaries. Thank her for her generosity. Thank her for her attention. Then, after you’ve done those things, you can thank her for supporting your organization.
  • Tell a couple short stories to illustrate donor impact. I’m talking two or three paragraphs each.
  • Send it only to donors who gave in the last twelve months.

This mailing doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. You don’t need photos. You don’t need charts, graphs or graphics.

You just need a letter that makes your donor feel thanked, like an important, valued part of your organization.

If you can’t send out a letter, do as much of the above as possible via email. But know that fewer people will read it, and it will feel less meaningful to them.

Ideally, you can do both. And in a best-case scenario: we have clients send an email to their donors to let them know the letter is coming.

The Effects

Can you imagine a better way – from a donor’s point of view – that you could start the year?

She’ll feel meaningful to your organization. She’ll know she’s appreciated. She’ll know that her gift made a difference.

She’s then more likely to donate when you send your next appeal.

She’s then more likely to donate next year-end.

She’s then more likely to keep you as one of her charities.

Seems like a pretty good return for the investment of time to send this letter, doesn’t it?

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!