My mother always told me that writing thank-you notes was a lost art — and she’s right. I’ve written some terribly impersonal ones in my day (sorry, Mom), often letting so much time pass that sending one seems pointless. I’ve also been guilty of vagueness because I honestly forgot what the gift was. Awful, I know. But a few weeks ago I received a good thank you note. It arrived only a week after I had given the gift, and it was clever, specifically mentioning my gift including how and when it would be used (without sounding contrived!) — and as a bonus, it included a personal, inside joke.
It got me thinking about the many ways nonprofits thank their donors. From the time-tested, traditional letter to new social media opportunities being developed every day, no matter what the channel, each good acknowledgement has a few things in common:
• They are timely: No waiting months to hear if the gift went through or not.
• They are personal: At the very least, they should include the donor’s name and gift amount.
• They are specific: Donors want to know exactly what their gift is going toward … as explicitly as possible.
• They are donor-centric: They put the donor in the spotlight, showing them how vital they are to the cause.
There are so many channels in which to thank your donors, but it’s important to let them decide which channel they prefer. When they donate, let them indicate their preference for communication and make that your primary way of interacting with them.
But remember: Donor acknowledgement is not a “one-and-done” process, but one of multiple touches. Your goal is to create loyal, repeat givers — and this will not happen if you abandon them at the end of the donor journey. Yet according to Bloomerang, nonprofits in the United States lose 70% of their donors after the first gift. To retain these donors, a successful donor acknowledgement program should at least include a receipt with tax information, a longer, more specific thank you, and updates on what their donation is accomplishing. So let’s take a look at some good (and some bad) examples of a few of the best channels for acknowledgements so that you can begin finding the best mix of channels for your donors that will keep them engaged with and donating to your cause.
1. Direct Mail
Despite the rise of technology and the prediction that anything paper based would go the way of the buffalo, good old snail mail is still alive and thriving. Since email is now the communication norm, getting a good piece of mail has become the novelty. However, the one downfall of mail is that it’s slower than digital channels. So even if you are sending timely mail acknowledgements, make sure your donors are still getting something right away, such as an email receipt, so that they know their donation was received.
Check out this upbeat, personal, and very specific letter from the nonprofit Better Tomorrow. The tone is casual, the donor feels appreciated, and the organization specifies that the donor’s gift benefitted exactly 85 children. Everyone can take cues from this acknowledgement.
Ideally, all thank-you letters would be hand written to make them truly personal. But since that can be an arduous task to undertake and not an option for many nonprofits (although volunteers are good for this!), even a small handwritten note, signature, or P.S. as a part of your thank you can add an intimate touch, as seen in a mail acknowledgement Nexus Direct received from Children’s HeartLink after making a donation this year.
The biggest advantage of email acknowledgements is that they allow donors to immediately see how their gift is making a difference. The biggest disadvantage, however, is that emails are often seen as being transactional and impersonal. But even a simple email receipt can still have images, a casual or funny tone, and personal feel. Just make sure your donors are not just receiving something soulless like this:
No “thank you” messaging, no description of how the gift is being used, no images, not even a simple first name! Just because it is a receipt does not mean that it isn’t allowed to engage donors. An amazing example of an organization that uses emails effectively to further engage donors in their cause is charity: water.
There are several things worth noting in this email. The first thing that jumps out is the eye-catching images. Next, it doesn’t just acknowledge the gift, it is very specific about which project the donation is going toward and where the gift is in relation to that project’s timeline. This is not the first email that the donor has received, but one in a series of communications updating them on their support. Donors do not just want one note telling them that their gift was received. They want frequent updates on how their gift is working in the field for a cause they care about. Finally, notice the survey at the end. Adding something like this to an email is a good way to get feedback from donors. And sometimes, listening to your donors’ feedback is one of the best and most genuine ways to say thank you.
As donating through text continues to gain in popularity, so should the art of thanking donors via text. Text messages are unique in that they have a 98% open rate, almost guaranteeing that your donors will get your message — so make it a good one. And make sure your donors have opted in to receive texts from you … nothing makes people less receptive to a message than receiving unsolicited ones on their personal cell phone.
his first example below is from a blood bank in Sweden that texts donors every time their blood is being used by a patient, which both reminds them of their gift and further engages them with the organization. And in the sample text acknowledgement on the right, you can see how convenient it is to link your donors to your organization’s website or a video straight from text, giving them a second step to take in connecting with the cause and further advancing them along the donor journey.
4. Social Media
Since donors can now donate on platforms like Facebook, nonprofits should also spend some time thanking their donors on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Social media acknowledgements are easy to share with followers, inspiring more excitement around giving. Adding a field in donation forms to collect social media handles allows organizations to use them to give a shout-out to donors like the organizations below.
While it would be impossible to make a personalized video for each donor, a donor-centric thank-you video can really allow donors to feel special while also giving them a behind-the-scenes look at the organization. An acknowledgement video directed towards a group can be especially useful if it is an event-based thank you where a goal was met, or if it is project-specific. Videos can be embedded in acknowledgement emails, text messages, or available on the website and social media platforms. It can be a creative way to say thanks and to give an update to those who have donated. In the videos below from OneJustice and the Nature Conservancy, notice how many times the word “YOU” is said, really emphasizing the importance of the donor in achieving the good work the organizations do.
So while it may be true that the thank you note is a lost art, the good news is that, like other arts, it can be practiced and perfected. And these are far from being the only effective channels to appreciate your donors: try personal phone calls, donor appreciation events, gifts, yelling from the rooftops, or hiring a skywriter.
And while the correct channel for your acknowledgements can make a big impact, the most important thing about them is that you are genuinely saying thank you. Whether a first-time, small-dollar donor or a monthly major donor, each and every one of your supporters should feel that you couldn’t have done it without them.