Completing the Circle: The Art & Science of Giving Thanks

Every relationship we have is based on exchange. The dynamic of giving and receiving allows meaningful relationships to continue and deepen over time. Knowing this, and seeing dozens of acknowledgment letters each week, we thought to offer some cues and clues about how your thank you letters can better serve your donor relationships.
 
Thank you letters must be personal. The primary purpose here is not to provide a tax letter - although it is required for gifts of $250 or more. The purpose of your letter is to acknowledge the donor, their generosity, and their impact. Details of the gift and its tax-deductibility are relevant (though maybe less so in light of recent changes to tax law), but what matters is recognizing the donor. They are giving through you – not to you. Show that their choice to invest in your work matters and that it makes a difference. For many, how your letter makes them feel will determine what, if any, future gifts follow.
  • Don’t use ‘To Whom it May Concern.’  If you don’t have a name, at least address it to “Dear friend of”
  • Do use a Word merge to insert the donor’s name
  • Don’t fill it with ‘we’-centric content about how awesome your organization is
  • Do make sure the number of “you” outnumbers ‘us’ and ‘we’
  • Do highlight how the donor is central to the story
  • Do use a live signature and a brief handwritten note whenever possible
  • If your gift volume is high, set a benchmark – for instance, gifts of over $250, $500, etc. will receive a live signature
 
Keep your letter short. The donor has demonstrated buy-in on your cause, you do not need to sell it or prove to them. Show impact and the donors’ connection, lose the organizational history.
  • Don’t use small fonts, consider using 14 point font (we see or squint at a lot of 10 point letters)
  • Don’t go beyond one page
  • Do highlight a single impact story – that one story is better than a bunch of statistics or numbers
 
Make thank you letters a high-priority - adopt a goal of sending them within two days. Everyone in the nonprofit realm has a lot to do. We all have competing priorities. But, stewardship of donors should always be at the top of the list. Your letters are more vital to your stewardship plan than lunches, galas, or cocktail parties. When someone receives a letter three months, six months or more after a gift, they will question repeating their gift at best – and your organization’s capacity at worst.
  • Some gifts reflect important dates for your donor – timely acknowledgment of a memorial gift or loved one’s birthday is especially important
  • Consider creating efficiencies like using a Word merge to generate and personalize letters
 
Thank you letters should convey warmth. Gratitude warms the heart of the giver. Your thank you should speak to that feeling.
  • Don’t use the acknowledgment as a follow-up ask (we see a lot of this)
  • Don’t use the acknowledgment as an opportunity to talk about ‘meager salaries,’ ‘lean staff’ or other tribulations (we see a lot of this, too)
  • Do consider your mission – for instance if your organization provides housing, talk about the feeling of home, as made possible by the donor
 
Thank you letters should reflect the donor’s wishes. If they gave specific instructions for the gift, acknowledge them in the letter. Include details about gifts in memory or in honor of someone, or designated for a specific project. When you reflect a donor’s wishes, you show that you value their donation beyond dollars and cents.
  • Take care to acknowledge gifts from Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) accurately – don’t forget:  there is usually a donor behind them
  • Do address or reflect on any comments made with the gift
  • Do the math – if any portion of the gift is not tax-deductible, spell it out, don’t make your donor do homework (one letter we received included formulas!)
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