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Building Donor Relationships One Thank You At a Time

Author: Sayana Izmailova
August 24, 2022
🕑 7 min read

“The thank you is the single most important piece of communication that your donors get. They have a higher recall of it than the appeal that generated the gift.” – Dr. Adrian Sargeant

Are your donor thank you’s perfunctory or heartwarming?

Stale or emotional?

Boring or full of genuine gratitude?

I’m hoping the latter, because your thank you’s matter a lot to your retention rate and the lifetime giving value of each donor.

Although a great majority of thank you’s to supporters are letters or emails, there are plenty of other ways to express gratitude. Sometimes using a different medium will happily surprise a donor and make that thank you memorable.

And the more memorable, the more a donor recalls it — which is a great way to increase retention.

Why Do Donors Give?

To understand how to say thank you properly, we need to first understand why donors give.

  • Problem solvers: People want to solve a problem, whether it’s in their local community, state, nationally or globally.
  • Want to do good: People inherently want to do good and be helpful. They want to make the world a better place for everyone.
  • The larger “we”: People want to be part of a larger group or community. They will join with others to do good. Although giving is an individual decision, people enjoy being part of a successful venture.
  • Makes them feel good: There is a joy to the act of giving, the ‘joy of philanthropy’. Nothing wrong with wanting to feel good about helping others and doing what’s right.
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Elements Of A Good Thank You

Just saying “thank you for your donation of $50” is nowhere near enough.

In fact, if your thank you letters start like that, change it right away!

As Beth Ann Locke says: “It’s not the size of the gift that matters (generousness), it’s the act of giving (generosity).” The amount should not lead; proper gratitude for giving is how your letters should start off.

Want your thank you’s to help your future fundraising efforts? Then these are the elements your thank you needs to contain:

  1. Personalized: You know the name of the donor? Then address them by name! Dear Tatiana, Thank you Tatiana, You’re amazing Tatiana! Now it’s a one-to-one communication. Think relationships.
  2. Timely: Have you ever received a thank you letter/email 3 months after you donated and don’t remember making the donation? If the donation was made online, an auto email should arrive in the donor’s Inbox instantaneously. If sending a letter, best to mail it within 48 hours of receiving the gift. The goal is to acknowledge the donor’s generosity as soon as possible. Think higher recall.
  3. Impact: Your thank you’s should tell what I call the “story of one”: Show how the donation has had a positive impact on one of your service recipients. Remember that donors want to be problem solvers and want to do good. Your thank you is an immediate chance to help them feel that! Think higher lifetime value.
  4. Memorable: If your gratitude is what donors will remember (for good and for bad), then make it memorable. When donors feel like it’s a cookie-cutter letter and there’s nothing special about it, that will hurt how they view your organization down the road. Think retention.

This is a thank you letter a friend received. I have removed all identifying details at their request:

sample thank you letter

This letter:

  • Is personalized (addressed to someone and signed by the CEO of the organization)
  • Is warm and heartfelt (“truly made our day”)
  • Connects the donor to a larger community of people who support an organization dedicated to helping people with intellectual disabilities
  • Tells the story of one (Stephen) and
  • Begins and ends with gratitude.

This is the type of thank you a donor remembers. It doesn’t take much effort and time to craft a letter similar to the one above. It’s all about creating something memorable and full of genuine gratitude.

Diversifying Your Gratitude Portfolio

Fundraising experts will tell you that putting all your revenue eggs in one basket — for example, a gala event — is a bad idea. It’s best to diversify and have a number of revenue generators: Online giving, gifts in wills (legacy giving), foundation funders, corporate partners, monthly giving, stocks, events and more.

The same goes for your gratitude. It’s 2021 and there are numerous ways to thank a donor beyond email and a letter.


Do you remember this from 2011?

Bowling Green University wanted to say thank you to their major donors who helped finance the building of a new arena. They created a well-choreographed video which went viral.

But here’s the thing: You don’t need a Spielberg production to say thanks to donors. Simply turn on your phone, record and send. Film the CEO, a volunteer, staff member or service recipient thanking the donor (by name!) for their donation. Email it to the donor. Odds are they’ll watch it (especially given the amount of video people watch daily). It’s different and the donor will remember it.

Read More: The Ultimate Nonprofit Video Marketing Strategy + 5 of the Best Nonprofit Videos We’ve Seen


90-95% of people open a text within 3 minutes. Why not send a quick text thanking the donor (assuming you have permission to text them)? It’s one-to-one communication and odds are the donor is going to open and read it.

Remember to keep it short. Thank them for their generosity and let them know that a thank you letter is on the way.

Phone Call

Three data points to consider:

  • Phone calls made to donors within 90 days of a gift improves both retention AND subsequent gift amount.
  • Roger Craver found that a 3-minute phone call to say thank you boosts first year retention by 30%.
  • A University of Texas study from September 2020 showed that people prefer to connect with others via email or text when really a phone call is more likely to produce the feeling of connectedness they’re seeking.

A phone call is one-to-one communication, allows the donor to hear how thankful you are for their gift and it offers you a golden opportunity: to ask for the donor’s origin story.

Ask the donor how they first heard about your organization and why they donate. This information could be very useful in both your future communications with that donor and potentially can be used in your marketing and fundraising collateral.

Another idea: Instead of spending Giving Tuesday asking for donations, use it for a thank you phone-a-thon! Donors will be thrilled to hear from you and will appreciate a genuine thank you with no ask.

thank you phone-a-thon

Handwritten Notes

My 5th and 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Joan Greene, would be thrilled I’m including this!

We spend our day typing on various keyboards. How about you change it up and you send donors a handwritten note signed by the CEO or other staff member? Not only is it different but it’s something tangible a donor can hold in their hands and keep. It’s personal and helps to build the relationship.


I’m sure that many of you are all Zoomed out. But a video chat with a donor is one-to-one communication where you can see each other. A chance to genuinely thank the donor and cause them to smile. And like a phone call, it’s another chance to ask for their origin story.

Social Media

How about a shoutout on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram? You don’t have to say the full name of the donor. Create a post, thank them by their first name and send the donor a link. Add a picture, video or GIF to the post to add a little flavor.

For example: I heard of an organization that created a GIF of their CEO doing a happy dance which they post online and email that to first-time donors! A simple but memorable way to share your gratitude.

After Online Donations

A donor donates online. Do they receive a pop-up message of thanks? They should. It’s a chance to share an immediate heartfelt thanks.

Take a look at this online thank you page for Foodbank NSW & ACT (via the online giving platform, GiveEasy, and courtesy of Jonathon Grapsas of Flat Earth Direct).

thank you page

Notice that it leads with generosity (the act of giving) and the picture tells you the “story of one.”

If you want to do something a little more memorable than that, the RSPCA Victoria (courtesy of Jonathon Grapsas of Flat Earth Direct) has a great idea for their online donation thank you:

thank you video

It’s personalized (Ash is the donor). It leads with a video which is warm, genuine and lasts less than a minute. It’s the same video for every donor but it’s memorable and people will want to click and hear a thank you.


Here’s an idea you might not have considered: Check your database, find the date of a donor’s first donation and call/video/chat/email them “Happy Donorversary!”

It’s memorable, builds the relationship, is another way to demonstrate gratitude and makes your donors feel good.

Prepare In Advance

When preparing your fundraising campaigns, don’t forget to plan how you’re going to thank donors. Oftentimes the thank you is an afterthought but, if we circle back to the opening, it’s the most important piece of communications a donor gets. That means putting in the time and effort to ensure your gratitude hits the mark. Make sure it ties back to the campaign the donor donated to and demonstrates impact.

When a thank you is done right, donors remember it. The next time you communicate with them they’ll recall that “good fuzzy feeling” the last time they heard from you. That helps strengthen the relationship and boosts chances of another gift.

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