Why saying ‘Thank You’ is an art, not a process . . . and 3 tips to getting it right

Recently I've seen some great examples on the web of nonprofits saying thank you with style. The highlights would have to include:

It's great to see charities getting it right like this. But sometimes even the big guns get it wrong. Every so often, even the ones we admire most.

I think it's probably fair to say that Charity:Water are held in high regard by the majority of fundraisers. Certainly, when it comes to online fundraising, they set the bar extremely high.

But what about the way they say 'Thank You'?

Getting it wrong . . .

I'm not talking about excellent video thank yous like this one - but the way Charity:Water say thank you to everyone else . . . ordinary everyday cash donors. People like us.

Well, this is what they sent me . . .

Charity:Water have developed a reputation for doing the important things very well. And with style. So how come they're sending out such a stock, unimaginative thank you to new donors?

One explanation is that they're treating saying 'thank you' as part of a process, a box that has to be ticked. Another is that they're putting a lot more effort into their acquisition marketing than their retention strategy.

Either is a big mistake.

Retention begins with saying thank you. It's not simply part of a process that has to be done. If you're serious about making your donors feel good about their decision to support you - and most of all, if you want them to give again - it's something you have to do well.

Very well.

Treating it like a process is dangerous. Because it means you're not just paying lip service to the principle of gratitude, it means you're paying lip service to stewardship and retention too . . . and that, as many non-profits will testify, is a very costly game to play.

Getting it right . . .

When it comes to saying thank you, whether by post, e-mail, video or or phone, bear these three tips in mind . . . you have to: 

  1. Make it different -  not stock
  2. Make the donor the hero - not your organisation
  3. Make it from the heart - not a tick-box sheet

And it dosesn't have to be innovative, or expensive, or grand.

To illustrate the point, here are two examples of how a simple, ordinary thank you letter can be done well:

The first is one I received from Starship Children's Hospital in New Zealand:

Dear Mr. Brown,

When people ask me what difference a donation can make, I reply that donations to Starship transform lives. Parents have told me with tears in their eyes what it means to know their child is receiving the best possible care at Starship.

And behind every one of these children there are compassionate people like you dedicated to helping. Thank you.

Your donation will help Starship support children and their families at their moment of greatest need. It is at these moments, when a child’s life can hang in the balance, that your donation becomes truly transformational.

I have seen how a seriously ill child can face incredible situations with a maturity well beyond their years. These children can exhibit an inspirational ability to carry on with a smile and an amazingly positive ‘live life’ attitude.

But a positive attitude alone isn’t enough to get through a life threatening medical challenge - your donation means New Zealand children have a world class facility to give them the best possible hope for a full and happy life. This is the kind of care I believe every child deserves.

Best wishes...

They should be docked a point or two for not mentioning the amount I gave, but other than that, it's a pretty good thank you letter. It stands out above most I've received recently, and it certainly made me feel emotionally connected to the people my money was going to help.

The second is one of my own, written for CBM Ireland. And I'll let you be the judge:

Dear Joan,

Walking . . . the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other.

To you and I it seems so simple. But for a little child living with the agony of clubfoot, to walk without pain is beyond a dream.

Yet you've helped such a dream come true with your generous gift of €50 in response to my recent letter to you about little Sylvia. Thank you so much!

For Sylvia, every step of her life with clubfeet was agony, until a CBM supporter like you came to her aid. And now Joan, you have brought the same blessing to another child just like her. Your gift means a child like Sylvia will one day soon walk without feeling pain - go wherever the urge takes her - and run whenever she feels like running.

What a wonderful thing you have done.

On behalf of all of us here at CBM, I want to thank you deeply for your ceaseless kindness and generosity. Wonderful CBM supporters like you give me genuine hope for all our futures.

Yours, with my heartfelt thanks...

The important lesson to learn from all of this is that you don't have to be a large, pace-setting, multinational nonprofit to do gratitude well.

All you really need is a little know how and most of all . . . the right attitude towards your donors.

P.S. To pick up some great 'know how' check out Lisa Sargent's thank you letter clinic at SOFII!

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Reader Comments (4)

Another thoughtful post, as usual, Jules!

I've yet to see thank you emails done well. Aside from everything you pointed out, I would like to see an email that came from a human being - not a "team."

Thanks for being such an inspiration to us.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPamela Grow

Just to introduce myself, I am the legacy, trust and in memory fundraiser for St. Raphael's Hospice in London U.K. I wanted to comment on an example from Lisa Sargent's thank you letter clinic. Specifically on the 'In memorium' donation thank you letter samples: 'How to write lively memorial donation thank you letters.' These had a Before and After for the Civil Service Benevolent Fund U.K.

1)I agree with the tip of Personalise. If there is any personal connection with the donor at all, I would also mention that. (I know this is not relevant to all fundraisers but we are a 'local' charity and I live in the same town so there are often connections between myself and the donor- sometimes tenuous, sometimes stronger).

2) Avoid design tricks (agree). At one point we used handwritten thank you cards to differentiate ourselves from big charities and their mass produced thank you's but we can't do that anymore.

Agree with all the other points up to

9) Top Level Signatory? I disagree with this. I think it is better that the correct contact person's details are given. The person in charge of that particular sector of fundraising.

10) The use of a P.S. Interesting thought for other TY letters but not convinced about using it in an 'In Memorium' context.

In regards to the 'Before' letter from the CSBF U.K. This was clearly a situation where a donation had been received in memory of a loved one and the fundraiser was acknowledging this to the Next of Kin. The 'In Memorium' card is such a sweet idea. Certainly unique, at least in my neck of the woods.

The mention of the webpage i s akin to me mentioning Tribute Funds. It's moving the donor from a one off donation to a longer relationship with the charity.

I see though, that there is no mention of how the funding helps the charity, or what the charity's work consists of.

But the 'After' letter just has an element of slickness. Like every other letter from a major charity. It has lost the individual voice I could hear in the original letter.

Just my thoughts!

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Cleverdon

Hi SuperClev,

I've just had another read through the In Mem section of Lisa Sargent’s clinic again, and I have to say I agree with you. There’s much I prefer about the original too. Mostly:

1. The Personal Voice: The Before letter does indeed have a nice personal voice about it, and this is lost in the After. A great shame. The personal touch is definitely the way to go.

2. Better Donor Focus: The Before letter is actually more donor focussed than the After – all about the donors feelings and connection with In Mem giving. The after talks a lot more about the organization. Not good. I’m kind of surprised at Lisa!

I do think she’s correct about the signatory though. I personally believe that donors should feel emotionally connected to the principal of the organization (or to the usual signatory for outgoing appeals) and that includes thank yous. Yes, letters need to be in a personable style, but they should come from the person leading the organization/the person who solicited the gift in the first place.


November 16, 2011 | Registered CommenterJules Brown

Just a quick update - I received a tweet from Scott Harrison, founder of Charity:Water, during the week saying:

"I love your post and agree. Shared it with our team..."

I asked Scott to keep me posted on any improvements to their donor Thank You process, and will post back if I hear any more on the subject.


November 26, 2011 | Registered CommenterJules Brown

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