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Lessons From Philanthropic Psychology: How To Thank Your Donors and Double Giving

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how to thank your donors

I’ve been preaching for 25 years about the importance of service quality in building donor loyalty. No, not the quality of service that your charity provides to its beneficiaries, but the quality of service that the fundraising team provides to its donors. Increasing donor satisfaction with that can massively pump donor loyalty, yet few organizations still get around to measuring it, and almost none follow this through to appraise their fundraisers based on what they are able to deliver. And it would start a revolution if fundraisers were actually to be remunerated (at least in part) for how great they were able to make their donors feel.

Getting off my soap box for a moment, what kinds of service quality issues do donors experience?

Poorly crafted thank yous would be at the top of my hit list. The thank you is the single most important communication a donor receives, and we know from research that they have a higher recall of communications of this type than the appeals that generated the original gifts. So why is it that so many gifts go unacknowledged?

Thank you’s are also among the most poorly crafted of the communications we produce. Almost all are formulaic. “Dear Adrian, thank you for your kind and generous gift of $50.” Little or no thought is given to how to craft them to make the donor feel good.

First, the thank you should be donor-centric, in that the organization is positioned as a conduit and doesn’t wind up taking all the credit for the great things that happened. What led to that great work was the donor and it is at their door that the credit must be positioned.

But credit for what? And what are we thanking the donor for? Are we thanking the donor for making the gift, thanking them for their impact, or thanking them for being the special kind of person that they are? Well, the second is more impactful than the first because everyone loves to feel that they have made a difference and feedback on that difference contributes significantly to well-being. But it turns out that thank you’s of that nature are particularly important early on in a donor relationship. When the relationship builds and the donor begins to define at least a part of who they are through their support of your organization then the thank you can shift in emphasis to making the donor feel good about being the kind of person that wants to save the planet, end the abuse of children, etc. So at this stage thanking them for who they are and celebrating that identity is much more impactful.

At this stage too, donors can be thanked for how they made YOU feel. When a donor identity expands to include the organization it can be immensely powerful to share how members of the team or perhaps the Chief Executive Officer feels, and how much the donor’s support has meant to them personally.

Then there’s the issue of when should you thank? Within a week or two of making the gift, right? Well on one level, yes, it does need to be timely. But thank you’s can and must continue to be offered throughout the communications cycle. Newsletters can celebrate what the donor has achieved, and on EVERY page, share the stories of the work the donor has made possible.

But thank you’s can also be timed to arrive 4-6 weeks before a campaign. In our recent testing we’ve shown that thanking properly and a few weeks in advance of a campaign can have a massive impact on the response to that campaign. We’ve seen hugely significant increases in response rate and gift size, so this is well worth trying for yourself. It will certainly be worthwhile in the digital space, but even print would be worth an occasional test.

To be effective though, avoid the formulaic approach that I complained about at the beginning of this piece. Thank you’s should not be generic. They should be genuine and delivered in a way that reflects the mission, and ideally, the personality of your organization. A little light humor can also work well, so long as such an approach is consistent with your values. It will be all the more memorable as a consequence. And if you’re not sure what I mean then check out some examples on the excellent website. Ken Burnett and his team have posted examples from copywriting legends such as Lisa Sargent (no relation).

Many organizations spend a lot of time on their campaigns and appeals, carefully honing and perhaps testing the approach. In my experience very few organizations spend time actually testing approaches to thanking their donors and measuring the impact on donor well-being when they do so. Remember, donors who feel they are treated well give significantly more and give for longer. Doubling giving is within reach but satisfaction is absolutely essential.

This psychology can make all the difference in building relationships with donors. That’s why it’s important to learn as much as possible about its impact. Check out this article by our friends at CharityHowTo for even more information about psychology and how it can help improve your nonprofit’s fundraising efforts.

If you’re interested in learning more about how the emerging science of philanthropic psychology can double giving, come along to the Double Your Income tour that I’ll be running in September with copywriting guru, Tom Ahern,

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  • Steven Shattuck

    Hey Amy, try
  • Amy

    If you click on "The thank you is the single most important communication a donor receives" and then go to that page, there is a link to a study which I would like to view. However, the link is broken. Please advise! Thanks.
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