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The Power of “Thank You”

Did your mom make you write thank you notes for all of your Christmas and birthday gifts? My mom did. It was a priority in her book. And I hated it. I would much rather be playing with my new Lincoln Logs or riding my new bike than wasting precious time sitting at a table trying to write notes that were long enough to satisfy my mother’s demands.

“Why? Why do I have to do this?” I would ask my mom. Her answers were, in no particular order:

  • “Because I said so.”
  • “Because you can’t watch TV until they are done.”
  • “Because Aunt Martha won’t give you another present if you don’t send her a thank you note for this one.”
  • “Because I’m trying to teach you a valuable lifetime habit.”

It is no surprise that I grew up thinking of thank you notes as obligatory and perfunctory exercises, something that had to be done, and done quickly so I could move onto what I really wanted to do. I would bet that many people still look at writing thank you notes with the same attitude of disdain, even as grownups.

And as a donor, I know that some nonprofits take that attitude as well, sending out the bare minimum receipt for tax purposes, sometimes long after a gift is received.

That tax document is not only a requirement, but there is also an ethical obligation to thank donors. That obligation is outlined in the Donor Bill of Rights adopted in 1993 by the four leading philanthropy associations, Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP), Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and The Giving Institute. Links to each of these organizations can be found on the Resources page.

What happens if a charity is not diligent about giving thanks? Nobody is going to go to prison, but every charity has more than a few Aunt Marthas, who not only expect a timely thank you, but will cut a nonprofit off if they don’t receive one. For the other donors, there is a subconscious impact of not saying thank you in a timely and appropriate way. As Maya Angelou so eloquently stated, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Not saying something, not doing something also has an impact on how people feel. If a nonprofit fails to leave a donor feeling good about a gift the chances of getting another gift are significantly reduced, the chances of that donor increasing their gift in the future drops to nil.

Saying “thank you” is critical to donor retention. But there is more to the power of saying “thank you” than meeting basic obligations to keep in the good graces of donors.

As a kid I totally missed the point that a thank you is supposed to be an honest expression of gratitude for someone’s generosity and support. When that happens, opportunities arise. The power of saying “thank you” is that it opens doors.

A well crafted “thank you” opens the door for an organization to:

  • Deepen the relationship with that donor – People give because they want to support the mission of a nonprofit. A “thank you” is a perfect opportunity to tell an organization’s story, to explain how it is achieving its mission. It is an opportunity to share how their donation is being used. It is an opportunity to show the impact of that donation with specific examples that will resonate with the donor. These are opportunities which will deepen the donor relationship.
  • Make a donor feel appreciated – While donors may not give in order to feel appreciated, they do like to feel appreciated. They like that their generosity is recognized, some prefer public recognition in print and on walls, some prefer personal recognition, but all like to be acknowledged. Donors who feel good about a gift are more likely to continue giving and consider giving more.
  • Making a donor feel part of a larger effort – Donors like to feel like they are part of a community, on a team accomplishing a goal. Communication that emphasizes working in concert with other donors and showing community impact reinforces that feeling of teamwork.
  • Developing a sense of pride and ownership – By showing the impact of donations in a “thank you” a nonprofit instills a sense of satisfaction and happiness in the donor, and makes the donor feel more connected to the organization.
  • Donors sharing their support with their peer group – By reinforcing the organization’s mission, what it is doing and how that impacts a community in a “thank you” it provides the donor with information to share and make more friends for the organization. The donor may in turn encourage some of those friends to become donors.

When a nonprofit unlocks the power of saying “thank you” by expressing gratitude appropriately it opens all kinds of doors that can lead to continued support and growth.

Creating a Thank You System

Every organization should have a system for showing appreciation for donations.

There should be established, written procedures on how to process donations from a bookkeeping standpoint. In addition, there should be established, written procedures on how to thank donors. This process should start with a written and mailed letter for every single donation. This letter should be as personalized as possible.

If an organization has multiple programs that people donate to, there should be a letter for each program. There should be different versions for people who give in memory of or in honor of someone else, including notification of the deceased’s family or the honoree. These letters should go out within 24 hours of a donation being deposited, preferably daily.

As discussed above, the object of the letter is to not just acknowledge receipt of the gift for tax purposes, but to honestly express gratitude for it. Post card and email thank you notes have gained popularity in recent years due to soaring postage and printing costs. Post cards are cheaper to print and mail than letters, emails cost almost nothing. The process of sending post cards or emails can be highly automated, therefore less time consuming. But I can’t think of anything more impersonal than a post card or an email. Many people don’t even bother to open emails. These two methods may acknowledge the gift but defeat the purpose of using that acknowledgement to start building a relationship. Stick to good old-fashioned letters.

Here are some links for tips on writing effective thank you letters:


A thank you letter for a donation is the just the first step in a year-round Thank You System, which is simply another name for a Stewardship Program.

One of the biggest complaints that donors have is that they don’t feel appreciated by some of the nonprofits they support. They only hear from some groups when they want money. That makes the donors feel like ATM machines, not partners in the charity’s mission. Don’t be one of those nonprofits, be the opposite. You cannot say “thank you” enough, you cannot make someone feel over appreciated. Different experts say a donor should be thanked anywhere between three and seven times for each donation.

Successful fundraising organizations have systems in place that address how donors will be recognized and appreciated throughout the year. They have different plans for different types of donors, first time donors, long-time donors, big donors, unexpected large donations. After an initial thank you letter for a gift, gratitude can be expressed in many, many ways. That’s the time to use post cards and emails, as well as phone calls, video messages, and face to face conversations and any other way you can put into action. Publicly gifts can be recognized at donor events, in annual reports, on donor walls, and social media to name just a few examples.

One of my favorite ways of expressing appreciation is having board members call donors a few weeks after a gift to say a special “thank you.” This can lead to productive conversations, which both the board member and the donor enjoy. And even if the board member just leaves a message, it is universally appreciated by the donor.  As a side benefit, it is a great way to make board members feel engaged.

Put some thought into how you are expressing gratitude for your supporters. A solid stewardship plan will not only result in improved donor retention, but it will also lay the groundwork for better and more productive relationships with donors for years to come. Planning how to treat donors in advance allows a nonprofit to be proactive and unleash the power of “Thank You.”

Let’s have a conversation. What are some fun ways that you have thanked donors? Have you ever had a negative reaction to a “thank you” effort? Have you had any unexpected positive reactions to a “thank you?” Post you thoughts in the comments section.

Drop me a line if you’d like a copy of my two-pager on my favorite ways to say “Thank you.”

2 thoughts on “The Power of “Thank You””

  1. I keep every thank you card ever sent to me. Unless they are rote and perfunctory. If it feels authentic and sincere and sounds like the person who wrote it. I am touched they took the time and thought of me.

    I wish more people would develop the habit to use this lovely practice. When a board member of an organization I support calls me, just to say thank you, I am dazzled.

    Great post!

  2. This should be included in every packet for board members. It is an easy way to stand out in a world that has become automated and text centric. Getting an old fashioned ‘written thank you ‘ note makes you memorable your organization a stand out because of the communicating style. I send notes to people who have hired me and also to people who come to mind and I appreciate and miss. Good piece!

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