7 “Must Do’s” When Thanking Donors To Win Their Heart

Thanking donors

There are two parts to thanking donors: Connecting with the donor’s brain by providing a gift receipt and more importantly, touching the donor’s heart by letting them know they are heroes for giving to your organization’s cause.

You make the brain connection when you give them the data they need for their records. You spell their name correctly and thank them promptly.

But there is so much more to properly thanking donors.

To touch their hearts, you have to make them feel fantastic about giving to your organization.

To do that, you have to connect with them emotionally through a story, a photo, and hero language that makes them feel special and important, like they personally stepped in and made a difference through their gift.

A perfect thank-you letter does both. It provides the donor with the relevant information and touches the donor’s heart.

Unfortunately, most nonprofits thank the donor as an afterthought.

They’re so focused on the money that they forget about the person giving that money, and don’t do a good job of thanking the donor or giving them a good experience.

But you’re here reading this, so you’re smarter than them!

It’s not that hard to thank a donor well. After thanking thousands of people over the past many years, I can tell you with full confidence that there are a handful of things you must do to get it right.

In fact, here’s my list of 7 ‘must do’s’ when thanking donors, so the donor feels warm and fuzzy about the donation they just made and is receptive to giving the next time you ask.

1. Take your time. Crafting a thank-you letter isn’t just a task on your to-do list that you mark off as fast as you can. Writing a meaningful thank-you note that will touch the donor’s heart takes time. As a general rule, spend at least as much time writing the thank-you letter as you do writing the Ask. 

Your goal should be to write a power-packed thank-you letter that makes the donor think “I love this nonprofit – they do such good work.” If you’re not sure what to say, here’s a list of sample phrases you can use to thank donors.

To hit the ball out of the park with your thank-you letter, you need just the right story – a story that captures your organization’s work beautifully and demonstrates how special and important your work is. This story should be short and to the point.

Here is an example:

We recently met  S., a mother of three who works in childcare. She had been saving for months to move from a motel to an apartment, but she was a few hundred dollars short. Thanks to generous supporters like you, we were able to move S. and her children into an apartment, provide furnishings in partnership with our local furniture bank, and enroll her in a certification program so she can increase her income. “I feel so safe and positive about my future now that we are out of that motel,” she told us. “I feel like a good mother for the first time in a long time.” 

Work with your staff and volunteers who work directly with the people you serve to capture stories like this one for sharing in thank-you notes. People who receive services often send texts or Facebook messages expressing appreciation and you can capture their essence to show donors how their support is changing lives.

You don’t need to dive into details or emphasize the tragedy and past trauma of the people you work with. Focus on the unique ways your organization uplifts people or animals from where they are and how donors make that possible.

thanking donors2. Send your thank-you quickly. Your email thank-you should arrive immediately after a donation is made online. You can automate this with your online donor management system. If yours is a young organization and still uses a spreadsheet, consider getting started with a low-cost donor management system now. Until then, make it a habit to send thank-you notes daily as part of your routine. Yes, daily!

Send thank-you letters immediately after depositing the donor’s check. Just make it part of your system for thanking donors. Donors lose trust in your organization when they only hear crickets after sending a gift. They wonder if you even received their check and if you are aware of who gave it. And they wonder if you have your act together. In short, your slow response time in thanking them may make them decide not to give again.

To ensure quick turnaround times, write a fresh thank-you letter at the beginning of each month. Also craft a new thank-you letter as part of any campaign or special fundraiser. If you wait until it’s time to send the thank-you to write the thank-you letter, you may rush the process and send out something that isn’t meaningful.

The point here is to prioritize thanking donors. There’s nothing more important you can do than thank a donor. Full. Stop.

3. Personalize your thank-you. Address your donor by name when you thank them. This is not the place to use ‘Dear friend.’ There is actually never a good time to use Dear friend that I can think of, but definitely don’t do it here! Your donor software should allow you to insert the donor’s name into the thank-you in either email or snail mail letters. Sending something generic tells the donor you don’t really care about them, just their money.

You can personalize printed thank-you letters by handwriting a note at the bottom. This is really important if you know the donor because it shows them you’re paying attention and noticed their donation.

If you don’t know the donor, look them up in your donor management system to see if they have given before. If they have, thank them for their loyalty and commitment to the cause. If they have not, welcome them to your organization and thank them for caring about the people or animals you support.

If they’re involved with your nonprofit, definitely thank them for both their donation and their service with something like “Thank you Jane for always giving and for serving on the gala committee. You are so important to our organization’s work!”

4. Write with warmth and sincerity. Your thank-you letter should touch the reader’s heart, not sound like an academic paper. So, write like you talk. Leave out the jargon, acronyms, and slang. Many donors won’t understand your insider language and will stop reading.

Use my Kitchen Table Exercise to develop your conversational writing voice. Imagine you’re sitting at your kitchen table with your donor. How would you say thank you? Write that. You wouldn’t say “On behalf of the Board and staff, please accept our deepest gratitude blah blah blah…” You would  say, “I really cannot thank you enough…”

Create a warm brand for your organization, one that speaks directly to donors in an open manner, treating them as the valuable partners that they are. “Our families have gone through a lot this past year and a half, but generous people like you remind them that they are not alone in their struggles and that someone cares about them.” 

Another example: “Our food pantry has more people seeking our help than ever before, and it’s a struggle to keep food on the shelves. Your donation makes it possible for us to provide food for more people. With your gift, we can buy the items we always seem to be running out of, such as shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, and hygiene items.”

thanking donors5. Write with meaning. Giving a gift to a nonprofit organization as a way of helping others is a meaningful act for the donor. Infuse your letter with language that acknowledges this meaning. Otherwise, the donation will feel like a transaction.

To infuse meaning, use heartfelt statements, such as “Your donation gives a Haitian child the opportunity to enroll in school, something both they and their parents have likely dreamed of for a long time but thought was out of reach.” 

Don’t exaggerate your organization’s work or the donor’s role. For example, “Your gift is the difference between life and death for the children of Haiti.” This is unnecessary, and your donor will recognize it as over-statement. Instead share the true situation of the people or families you serve and how the donor’s contribution will make a difference.

For example: “We have 34 children on our waiting list, eager to enroll in school. Your gift can get a child back into the classroom where they belong and on the road to a brighter future.” 

Or: “We know that dogs that are nervous and miserable in a shelter setting usually thrive in foster homes, growing into happy pets that can be adopted into loving, permanent homes. With your gift, we can place more dogs in foster homes and ultimately get more pets into permanent homes.” 

Or: “The men at our shelter have many needs and some are beyond what our small organization can provide. But we can give them a safe place to sleep, a hot meal, a hot shower, and a pair of socks and underwear. Your gift makes it possible for men to receive these basic needs and to know that someone cares about them.” 

Notice that all these examples contain hero language that’s meant to help the donor feel really good about the donation they just made.

6. Provide specifics. Make sure your thank-you note also serves as a donation receipt and gives all the practical information the donor needs including the amount of the gift, the gift date, and the reason for the gift. Provide a sentence stating that ‘no goods or services were received in exchange for the gift,’ if that was the case. Consider highlighting this nuts-and-bolts information by bolding or underlining or offsetting in a box, so the donor can find the information quickly if needed for tax purposes.

Save the donation details for the end of the letter. At the beginning, when you still have the donor’s attention, share your most meaningful story.

Some people like to send a nuts-and-bolts letter with tax information and then a separate, warmly written thank-you note. I don’t like this approach. It creates two pieces of mail or email for the donor to open and read. It’s confusing, and it’s too much for donors who all lead busy lives, which is all donors. Stick to one well-written thank you note focused on the meaningful, sincere language that cuts to the donor’s heart and includes the required tax information in a clear, concise manner.

7. Invite questions. Provide the name and contact information for the person the donor should contact should they have any questions. Most donors will not make contact, but it builds trust and strengthens your relationship with the donor to let them know you are open to answer any questions they might have. And make sure that the email you give out is monitored.

Thanking donors

A well-written thank-you letter will put the wheels in motion for continued donor support.

But that’s just the beginning.

There are additional strategies you can use for thanking donors to make sure your donor feels appreciated and needed. If you want to really nail this, create a Donor Acknowledgement Plan so you’re ready for thanking donors at different levels in meaningful ways.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Thank-a-thon. Gather up volunteers, staff, and Board members and call your top 10, 20, or 100 donors just to thank them. November is a great month for this but it can work any time of year.  Create a brief script for everyone to follow, then give everyone a few names to call. Ask them to jot down notes from their calls so you know who they reached, who they left messages for, and the donor feedback they received. Add the details to each donor’s record in your software so you know who was called and what they said.

Personalized thank-you video. Send your top donors a personalized thank-you video.  An ideal video gives a peek into your nonprofit’s work and shows the donor the impact their donation made. For example, if your nonprofit operates a mobile medical clinic, you could show the line of people waiting for the clinic to open and then a glance of a person receiving services. Shoot from a distance so no one’s privacy is violated, and don’t show faces or identifying features. Just give the donor a glimpse of the good work your organization is doing. You can do a voice over and subtitle the video to provide context. For example:  “Here is a glimpse of your donation in action. More than 100 people lined up in the Edgewood neighborhood recently to see our nurse practitioners. The first person in line had a sore throat and wanted to make sure it wasn’t strep. Supporters like you make our mobile clinic possible.”   

Your video doesn’t need to be professional quality. You can shoot the video with your phone and edit it on your computer. Keep the video short – less than 30 seconds is ideal. A video that is more than one minute is probably too long. Upload the video to YouTube and make it unlisted so that only someone with the link can view it. Then email the link to your donor and watch the magic happen! If the video is really brief, you can text the video to your donor.

Public thank-you video. Create a thank-you video intended for a broad audience, showcasing your organization’s work. Tell a simple, powerful story  to increase the likelihood of the video getting shared. Post the video on your website and social media platforms and email a link to the video to your list. Share it everywhere!