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[ASK AN EXPERT] What Are The Cardinal Thank-You Letter Sins?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity. Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on the top three things to avoid when thanking donors: 

Dear Charity Clairity,

I’d really like to step up our gratitude game, as I keep hearing how important it is for donor retention. I’m sure we’re committing some cardinal sins, but I’m not sure what they are. If you had to pick the top 3 things to avoid when thanking donors, what would they be? I need something to share with my boss.

— Grateful

Dear Grateful,

You’re right to prioritize the thank you process! I often tell folks if they ask well, they’ll get one gift. But if they thank well, they’ll get a lifetime of gifts. And sustainable fundraising requires a focus on donor lifetime value, not simply one-time gift transactions.

I’ve got a list of unpardonable sins per your request. But first, let me state the WORST sin is not thanking the donor (1) promptly, (2) personally, and (3) in a manner powerfully indicative of the impact of their gift.

You can do these things, though, and still fall short.

Here’s my top 3 list of additional things to avoid when thanking donors

1. Don’t ignore what the donor tells or shows you

You probably ask the donor a number of questions on your gift remit or donor landing page. Most obvious is how much they want to give. And you no doubt leave space in your acknowledgment template to fill in this amount. Guess what? You need to leave space for other personal items too. Acknowledge everything they communicate to you in the body of the thank-you letter. This shows them you pay attention, you know them, and you can be trusted to follow through. And trust is the foundation of any lasting relationship.

For example, if you ask:

  • Would you like your gift to remain anonymous, and they tell you they do, it’s important to state: “As requested, your gift will remain anonymous.
  • Have you made provision for our cause in your estate plan, and they tell you they have, it’s important to state: “Thank you for letting us know you’ve included us in your estate planning.”
  • Would you like to receive pledge reminders, and they say they would, it’s important to state: “As requested, we will send you quarterly pledge reminders.”
  • Would you like to earmark your gift for a particular program, and they do, it’s important to state: “As requested, your gift will go directly to [XYZ services].”

There are other things the donor will simply show you, even if you don’t ask. It’s important to be on the lookout for these indicators.

For example, if the donor does one of these things:

  • Changes the spelling of their name when they return the remit envelope. Be sure to record this change and use it in the thank-you letter salutation.
  • Crosses out the name of a spouse. Be sure you don’t send the thank-you letter to the couple. [You might also take the opportunity to do some research to learn if the spouse is deceased. If so, you can add a warm note of condolence in the body of your letter.]
  • Gives more than they did last year. Make sure you notice and thank them for their increased gift and impact. [If it’s significantly more, you may want to move them to a portfolio of donors with which you’ll endeavor to build a more vibrant relationship.]

2. Don’t fail to suggest what will happen next to continue the relationship

Most donors are looking to join a like-minded community that shares their values. A thank you that is no more than a “got the money” transactional receipt will not make them feel connected.

Here are some ways to suggest relationship-building next steps:

  • Tell them when you’ll be in touch again. “I’ll send an email next week with some dates for you to attend an upcoming open house.”
  • Tell them ways they can get involved. “I’ve attached a list of volunteer opportunities should you or anyone you know be interested.”
  • Invite them to free networking events specially designed to help them become more involved (for example, open houses, trivia nights, or lectures targeting young adults, singles, families, or seniors). Brainstorm what you might consider offering to more actively engage your supporters.
  • Give them contact info in case they have questions or want to get more involved.“If you ever have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact our philanthropic giving officer, Claire Axelrad, at …”

3. Don’t make the thank you sound like an appeal letter

Even worse than a dry “got the money” letter is a “the need is still so great; will you give more?” acknowledgment. It’s easy for this to happen inadvertently. You’re so used to talking about your needs and the numbers needing help that you forget to focus on the positive impact the donor’s gift will make right now.

A thank you is a place for focusing on the here and now in terms of outcomes, not past or future needs.

Take a look at your thank-you letter and see if you’re talking too much about yourself, and too little about the donor. Make them feel like a hero. Donors are on a constant search for meaning – all people are—so make sure your thank-you letter makes them feel fulfilled.

Donors just want reassurance you (1) hear them, (2) appreciate them, and (3) their investment in your cause is being applied toward results that are lasting and effective. Consider your gratitude program as a way to be a helpful, caring friend your donor will never want to let go of.

— Charity Clairity (Please use a pseudonym if you prefer to be anonymous when you submit your own question, like “Grateful” did.)

What would you add to the list of things to avoid when thanking donors? Please let us know in the comments below.

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