How Should You Thank a New Donor?

This is an excerpt from What Your Donors Want...and Why. For more information about the book, click here.

By Tom Ahern

Research has shown that first-time donors who receive a personal thank you within 48 hours are 4 times more likely to give again. Yes, thanking in 48 hours equals a 400% improvement in renewal rates.
First-time donors are ardent, as I discuss in my book, What Your Donors Want … and Why. But that ardor cools fast if you don't sustain it. It's like a campfire ignited by match from tinder. It blows oxygen across an ardent new donor, keeping that small flame alive, excited by your mission, your vision, and our potential in their lives.

At the very least, a super-quick thanks gets your organization past what often happens in the same 48-hour period: buyer's remorse.

Look, the standard for thanking in the nonprofit world has fallen so low that any unusual gratitude on your part will probably net you far more friends.

In 2013, Roger Craver reported in The Agitator that "a three-minute thank-you phone call will boost first-year [donor] retention by 30%." In 2017, Leah Eustace at Good Works confirmed this phenomenon: "A one minute thank-you call to new donors increased conversion by over 30%." The Agitator chimed in again that same year with fresh data from America's public radio stations: "In its first year, the 'thank-you call' program generated 56% increase in first-year donor retention, 72% increase in first-year retention revenue."

Yet few organizations prioritize a new-donor thank-you program, despite the heavy expense of acquiring these first-time supporters. It's nuts. It should be in every fundraiser's job description: "You will manage an effective new-donor thank you program."
The ghastly truth is that most charities thank poorly (if at all). They predictably, relentlessly, remorsefully, and (let's hope) unwittingly, underwhelm their donors.
"The key period is the first 90 days," Jay Love observes. He's the founder of Bloomerang, a donor management software firm focused on donor retention. "You want to have as many touches as possible."

Elements of a great thank you letter

Tammy Zonker is a development director and consultant with an astonishing record of success. This is her personal checklist of recommendations when writing and sending a thank you letter:

  • You've sent the thanks letter promptly, within 72 hours or less of gift receipt.
  • You've triple-checked that the name (and everything else) in the letter is spelled correctly. You've also included the gift amount and any restrictions the donor has specified.
  • You've included a "grateful testimonial" quote, either from someone served or from someone in a position to know. ("As head of nurses, I can tell you quite honestly that your gift....")
  • Your pronouns are about the donor, with a 3:1 ratio of "You" vs. "We."
  • You're using phrasing that obeys what Jerry Panas calls the BOY rule: "Because of  you...."
  • You've included what Tammy calls "mission impact statements." These are evidence from the field that your programs work. Keep it short.
  • The "best person" really has signed the letter. In other words, if you were a donor, who would you like to hear from most? Maybe a mother whose child was saved? Or maybe you'd prefer the board chair?
  • You've included a handwritten personal message. For many readers, this will be the "warmth highlight" of the letter.

Should I include an "ask" in my thanks?

Lisa Sargent, a specialist on thanking, says, as a rule, "never, ever, include an ask in a thank you. And never, ever, include a donation reply slip." However, "I reserve the right to change my mind based on results."
Jeff Brooks has had different results. "We've found," he wrote in 2014, "that it's best to include a reply coupon in receipts (plus a return envelope). It dramatically increases response, which leads to better retention. The thing NOT to do is use standard ask techniques, like sad stories, negative photos, urgency, and the like. The tenor of the package must be thankfulness and good news. You're talking to someone who really gets it, and is emotionally well positioned to give again."

Lisa continues to test her "never" premise, but so far it's held up with her clients. One of them does add a Business Reply Envelope to every thank you, as a convenience if someone wishes to send a check. But there is no reply device with the envelope, nor does the thank you letter ask for a gift.

Like Lisa, keep an open mind.

Angel Aloma, executive director at Food for the Poor, reports, "On average, we get more than one fifth of our net income from direct mail from our thank you letters...." Like Lisa, he does not make an ask in these letters; but he does include an envelope and a reply device.

But even Angel doesn't always include an ask. In 2012, he ran a test with 50,000 of that charity's top donors:

  • 25,000 received an extra thank you at the beginning of the year. This mailing was a simple expression of gratitude for past generosity. There was no ask or reply device included.
  • 25,000 did NOT receive this extra thanks.

Twelve months later, Angel reviewed the results.

Both groups had given the same number of gifts. But, tantalizingly, the group that received the extra thank-you note was more generous. That group gave almost $450,000 more in total during the year than the group that did not receive the extra thank you.



Tom Ahern is author of What Your Donors Want … and Why, from which this article is excerpted. His other books, published by Emerson & Church, include Making Money with Donor Newsletters, Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes, and How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money.