Write a Better Thank-You Letter

Maybe you don’t have to perform miracles today, or slay any dragons. Sometimes success can come from ordinary, everyday things done extraordinarily well. A perfect case in point is the donor thank-you letter. Here are a few tips on writing an exceptional one.

THE DON’Ts

  1. Don’t start with a tired and predictable opening. You can do a lot better than, “On behalf of. . . ” or “Thank you for your gift of . . .”. Consider a feature lead approach, “Julie never imagined she would finish high school. Now she’s a sophomore at the university and we follow her progress each quarter. Success stories like Julie’s are possible because of donors like you. Thank you so much for your recent gift ..”
  2. Don’t speak in generalities about how the gift will be used. Don’t just cough up your mission statement or a bulleted laundry list of all programs. Don’t use language you use in every communication (opening page of your web site, speech, news release, brochure), since your donor has likely seen/heard that message already anyway.
  3. Don’t be depressing. Donors want to know that their gifts are helping, not that the gift will hardly make a difference because the need is so great. Reminding someone about the dire situation in your industry is a message for another audience at another time.
  4. Don’t use the same letter over and over. Donor cultivation is a process which, if it works, means that your best donors will receive a number of thank-you notes from you. Have a whole set on hand. Freshen them, rewrite them, and delight your reader with something new.

THE DOs

  1. Do explain how the gift will be used. It’s hard to be specific sometimes, especially when it’s general support, but do your best to convey how the money is most likely to be spent. Use an example in the present tense, like “We so appreciate your gift of $50, which provides three students with classroom materials for the entire school year,” or be as timely as you can with a sentence like “Money we’re raising this summer is helping launch the FirstUp program, which starts August 15.”
  2. Do suggest what’s next. Let your supporters know when they can expect to hear from you again. Will they be getting your newsletter or a report back on the program they just funded? Will they be invited to events? Is there something new on your web site that they might enjoy seeing? Do you have a standing briefing and tour of your operations each month? Are your donors aware of new volunteer opportunities–in case they want to take their support to a different level? This is not time for another ask, but rather, a way to continue to dialogue and the relationship.
  3. Do tell stories and use quotes. Your appeal letter or email probably used stories and quotes, so consider that same style-with a fresh twist-in your thank-you letter, like a bookend. For some reason, even savvy development professionals write lovely appeal letters and then send dry, officious thank you letters. Does the fact that you got money from the person mean that you can now dismiss them with a brisk formality? Just because a thank-you is mandatory for good etiquette doesn’t mean that it isn’t also a messaging opportunity.
  4. Do inspire optimism. Supporters want to feel really good about what they have done. Remember the exercise about elevator speeches and your “only-ness? Remind your donor, “You’re helping us deliver the only ____ program for _____ in ____ county.” It’s a win-win when you get a gift and they get the pleasure of knowing that it matters. Gratitude, optimism and ‘making a difference’ is the perfect launch pad to the donor giving again in the months ahead.
  5. Do make it personal. Thank you letters should be from one person to another. Personalize both the greeting and the signature block. How often do you see a handwritten envelope in your mailbox-and wouldn’t that catch your donor’s eye, even though the letter itself is word-processed?
  6. Do make it easy for fans to spread your message. Carefully select a few bite-sized facts and numbers in short, memorable bullets. One strong fact, i.e., “At Washington High School, the dropout rate last year was cut in half,” is something people will remember and repeat.

Special credit to Kivi Leroux Miller and her excellent work (www.nonprofitmarketingguide.com) for portions of this week’s TIP.