First question: should you even bother? The anecdotal evidence for thank you letters is huge – many donors say they like them. Lots of opinion research shows that donors are more likely to give if ‘they know what their money was spent on’.
However, there is little data that we have access to that demonstrates that general thank you letters actually increase net life time value. Few charities have tested sending thank you letters to half their donors versus no thank yous for others - especially since it needs to be followed through for a minimum of 18 months, but preferably longer.
Without solid data, most charities make the decision based on policy or gut instinct. We know that gut instinct is often wrong though. For example, gut instinct (and donor feedback) contradicts the fact that generally, longer letters beat shorter and more mailings = better life time value.
We know that bequest income for many charities can raise more than direct mail donations, and a big influence on bequests is the relationship with the donor. So maybe being nice, despite a lack of evidence, is not a bad thing. Even though we can't prove that our lovely thank you letters helped secure some of those bequests.
On balance, despite working at a data-led organisation, and despite the evidence, I reckon writing thank you letters is a good thing to do.
So let’s be nice to donors.
Hang on! Don't rush and write thank you letters yet...
What I am not convinced about is whether there should never be an ask in a thank you letter. Lots of fundraising book authors say there should be no ask - but the evidence they present is what donors say they want, and not what actually has been proven to increase life time value.
I think, in an emergency, there definitely should be another ask for example, following a fire, flood, earthquake disaster).
But other than that I am not sure.
Despite all these warnings... if you are going to write a thank you letter - write a good one!
So, assuming we are writing a thank you letter that just thanks and does not ask, then these are the key ingredients for such a letter.
- The letter should be correct. Get the name and details right. For higher value donors, if there is any doubt, call and check the details.
- The letter should be personal – mailmerged, and extra personal touches where possible. Never Dear Friend. Apply the Pareto principle, more personalised for higher value donors.
- Personalised data should be:
- Amount donated (“Thank you for your donation of $50 in response…”)
- Acknowledgement of recent gifts (“I note that have supported before this year – your ongoing commitment is really appreciated…”
- Acknowledge other types of support (not necessarily them all, but certainly most recent). “This donation, along with you telling me that you have mentioned in your will tells me that you have a special place in your heart for .”
- Other information, even if used before. “Thanks also for completing the survey earlier this year – I remember that you ticked that you first supported because of . I just wanted to make sure you knew that your donation will go straight to our work in that area…”
- Anything else personal that you know for top donors. “I look forward to seeing you at the - I have just been told that you are attending.”
- The letter should actually say “Thank you for donating…”
- Unless in response to unsolicited donations, the letter should be tailored to the campaign the person responded to. “Thank you for your donation in response to my letter about Jane, who is recovering after a horrific car accident on Christmas Day”.
- The letter should be interesting (!) Update on the story that was in the campaign, have a quote from the case study or give some feedback on what others have said or done. “You will be pleased to know that, thanks to the support of you and loving and caring Australians, Jane has now made an amazing recovery. In October she walked to her local café for the first time since the accident…”
- Should be personal (as well as personalised). The above line would be improved with more personality: “Since I sent my letter to you in September, I caught up with Jane again, along with her physiotherapist, Philip, who is funded by your donations. I was brought to tears when the pair of them were telling me how, in early October, she managed to walk to her local café. She wanted me to share her thanks with you…”