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Quality Thank You Notes Can Improve Donor Retention, Here's How to Write One

biblical stewardship nonprofit marketing strategic planning Sep 02, 2022

 Has someone ever asked you how you were without stopping to hear your answer?


It’s almost impossible to describe the feeling of smallness that is experienced when you turn to share about how you’re doing and find that the person who asked is off to another conversation. 


Their question was simply a formality, not a genuine heartfelt inquiry. 


When fundraisers are unintentional with their thank you notes and send them simply as a formality, donors often feel small and a valuable opportunity to extend heartfelt warmth is lost. 


Thank you notes can be the deciding factor in retaining donors, receiving larger consecutive gifts, and cultivating invaluable relationships with donors. Sending an exceptional thank you note is not a task development professionals can afford to take lightly. 


Consider this article your thank you note bootcamp. We’re going to walk through how quality thank you notes impact donor retention, the three ingredients included in exceptional thank you notes, and IRS guidelines for acknowledgements. We also included two thank you note habits that you can customize for your needs!

The Power of Saying “Thank You” 

James Clear wrote, “I'm starting to believe that “Thank You” is the most under-appreciated and under-used phrase on the planet. It is appropriate in nearly any situation and it is a better response than most of the things we say.”


A primary reason extending gratitude is so powerful is that it puts the focus on the person being thanked. 


A friend of mine went shopping with a group of friends sometime ago. On the way out of every store her friends thanked the clerk closest to the door. This simple gesture made such an impression on my friend that she not only repeats the story, but carries on the habit. 


Store clerks are getting paid to run the store and register, but they are still human beings. A simple “thank you” shows that you appreciate and value the service someone else provided.


When we slow down enough to say “thank you” to someone or write a thank you note we are taking our eyes off of ourselves and putting them on someone else and how they positively impacted our lives. This is beneficial for you, but it is also beneficial for the person receiving the gratitude because they are reminded of the impact they made. 

Thank You Notes and Donor Retention

If you texted five friends and only one responded would you consider that a good response rate?


Most people would say “no!” Generally speaking we expect for the people we share a relationship with and common values or goals to respond to us. 


Unfortunately, this is not what we see in relationships between donors and nonprofits. 


For every five first-time donors only one will give again — that means donor retention rate is 19.2%. However, when donors receive a thank you note, donor retention is increased by 39% — which means three out of five first-time donors will give again!


Donors Choose researched the impact a handwritten thank you note had on donor retention and discovered a similar increase of 38% opposed to those who received no gratitude. 


Philanthropy Daily attributed the increased retention rates to a “visceral connection and an emotional bond sparked by the exchange of gratitude through a physical letter.” They also pointed out that, “The bond handwritten cards form is doubly potent for nonprofit organizations because these organizations already create strong connections through shared priorities and ideologies.”


One of the most valuable assets nonprofits have are their donors. Getting in front of potential donors and connecting with them in such a way that they want to support an organization's work takes a lot of time and resources. While it may seem easier to increase the amount of donors your organization has, most first-time donors don’t give large gifts. It’s the donors who have walked alongside your organization for years that make larger investments. 


Creating financial stability for your organization begins with retaining donors. And retaining donors often begins with a timely and intentional thank you note!

Three Ingredients of an Exceptional “Thank You” Note 

Have you ever received a “thank you” note that you knew was pre-written, printed, and mailed on command?


I have. And can you guess where those thank you notes went? Straight to the garbage can. 


No one wants to feel like an afterthought, obligation, or a random face in a sea of many, but that’s exactly how an unintentional pre-written thank you note makes the receiver feel.


It is possible to have a thank you note template that increases retention and makes your donors feel appreciated and valued. This feat is accomplished by including timeliness, personalization, and refreshes. 


Lots of people start diets and almost as many quit diets. Why? Because results are not instant. 


Prompt affirmation of our effort matters to us. This is true with our fitness as it is with donor relationships. Donors want to be thanked for their gift promptly — within two weeks of a gift being made. 


If you’re going to thank someone within two weeks of their gift that means you need to begin that thank you note two to four days after the gift was made. 


In the early 2000s only one in three donors received a thank you note within two weeks of making a gift. At that time 44% of donors said they would give again if they received a thank you note within two weeks of their gift. In 2003, when most people believed the timeliness of thank you notes had been resolved, this number dropped to 12% (Penelope Burk).


In other words, a prompt acknowledgement of a gift positively influences donors towards giving again. 


Three ways to send thank you notes within two weeks of receiving gifts include:


  1. Review gifts received everyday (at the very least Monday and Friday)
  2. Begin and mail thank you notes to any gifts received within that time frame
  3. Have a thank you note template so you can personalize without starting from scratch 


Whenever I see someone in public wearing Concordia gear I smile — I might even strike up a conversation with them! Why? Because Concordia (Moorhead) is where I went to school and spent some of the most formative and best years of my life. In other words, it’s personal. 


In donor relationships the personal connection very often already exists; it's just not as obvious as repping a shared value on your clothing. Fundraising professionals need to shine a spotlight on it and put it into words. 


You can do this effectively in two ways:

Use the Donor's Name

We love the sound of our own name. 


Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People said that we love our name so much that when we practice writing, out of all the words in the world to pick, we choose to write our own name. 


Resist the urge to get caught up on the proper title. It is of course encouraged to address a donor with the proper title and their last name when appropriate. However, addressing them vaguely such as Sir, Ma’am, Friend, or Loyal Supporter, in lieu of unknown their proper title is worse than addressing them with their first name. 


Since the beginning of time names have been important. God named the first man Adam before He called His creation good that day. Then God assigned Adam the task of naming all other things (Genesis 2). Names matter to God. Names matter to your donors. And names matter to your donor retention rate. 

Acknowledge the Donor’s Past Giving and Relationship Beyond Philanthropy

Have you ever stared at an empty card wondering what to write?


The family of one of my friends starts each of their birthday cards to one another with “Your most endearing quality to me today is…”. This cues writing about something specific and often includes a shared experience. Having a powerful prompt like this also ensures that meaningful words are in the card.


Development professionals can use this same idea to prompt meaningful words in their thank you notes with several questions including:


  1. What has this donor contributed in the past and what did it help the organization accomplish?
  2. How do I know this donor outside of their giving to this organization? What conversation have we had unrelated to philanthropy that I enjoyed? Did I notice something lately that reminded me of them?


While donors value their ability to contribute financially they have hobbies and passions outside of philanthropy. Connecting with your donor on a personal level is easily done through acknowledging their long standing commitment and impact on the organization or particular conversation you may have shared.


Have you ever had day-old sushi? 


It’s terrible! The rice is dried out and the fish isn’t what it was meant to be anymore. The boujee healthy experience vanishes when you eat sushi the following day. Bottom line, sushi is best the first time.


Donor thank you notes are best the first time, too. Do not reuse thank you notes for multiple campaigns or consecutive months.. Sending fresh thank you notes communicates to recurring donors that you don’t take their gifts for granted. 


Three ways you could refresh a thank you note are:


  1. Update what the intended use of funds will be 
  2. Instead of starting the note with “thank you” talk about what the donor’s gift is making possible
  3. Share a quote or story from someone a donor’s gift impacted


Your donors aren’t giving you the same money they gave you before; don’t send them the same thank you note you sent them before.

Two Thank You Note Habits 

Have you ever tried to establish a morning routine or have more regular devotion time and watched all your intentions evaporate?


More often than not we don’t follow through on our good intentions because we haven’t clearly defined what the new habit is. Implementing and sticking to a new habit or routine usually requires at least three parts:


  1. Make it clear. For example, “I’m going to workout for 15-minutes,” or “I’m going to write one thank you note a day.”
  2. Give it a time slot. For example, “I’m going to workout 15-minutes before I drink my coffee in the morning,” or “I’m going to write one thank you note a day before I leave work for the day.”
  3. Remove obstacles. For example, pre-select the workout video you’re going to follow so you can hit play after you wake up. For writing thank you notes, make sure you have everything you need easily accessible in one place so that when you’re wrapping up your day you can write and mail a thank you note without tracking down stamps. 


In my personal career as a development professional and now as a fundraising consultant I’ve witnessed countless thank you note habits. Here are two different habits that have been very successful and manageable.


My personal thank you note habit begins with an impossible-to-miss basket at my desk that includes:


  • my favorite pens
  • an assortment of beautiful note cards and pre-stamped envelopes
  • copies of my favorite thank you note templates


The work day isn't over until I've taken the last few minutes of the day to say thank you to the donors who made ministry possible that day. The last door I close each day should be the one at the mailbox! Is there any better way to end the day than to give thanks?!


The following is a thank you note habit we helped a parish pastor establish:


  1. At the start of each week, the Pastor Mary’s assistant provided her with five hand addressed, pre-stamped envelopes and notecards. 
  2. Pastor Mary wrote one highly-personal thank you note to a contributing member each day.
  3. Worst case scenario Pastor Mary has five thank you notes to write at the end of the week


Establishing a thank you note habit can feel clunky in the beginning, but it is one of the most effective ways to make sure your donors are being personally and regularly acknowledged!

IRS Guidelines

Do you know what the IRS provides guidelines for written acknowledgement of gifts $250 or larger?


I’m afraid I’ve seen too many congregations and small ministry organizations miss this completely. Or they wait until after year end and send a giving statement in a window envelope that looks more like an invoice than the genuine heartfelt thank you they are hoping for.


A written acknowledgement provides important information for individuals who want to get their tax deductions. 


According to the IRS website, “The written acknowledgment required to substantiate a charitable contribution of $250 or more must contain the following information:



  • name of the organization;
  • amount of cash contribution;
  • description (but not value) of non-cash contribution;
  • statement that no goods or services were provided by the organization, if that is the case;
  • description and good faith estimate of the value of goods or services, if any, that organization provided in return for the contribution; and
  • statement that goods or services, if any, that the organization provided in return for the contribution consisted entirely of intangible religious benefits, if that was the case.



In addition, a donor may claim a deduction for contributions of cash, check, or other monetary gifts only if the donor maintains certain written records.”


Donor thank you note resources encourage sending this acknowledgment with a thank you note or even creating a welcome packet that introduces your organization and including the acknowledgement in that.


Both of these delivery methods can lessen the warmth of gratitude a donor may feel when opening a thank you note. It is acceptable to send an acknowledgment of giving separate from a thank you note — this is the method we recommend. 

Why Writing Thank You Notes Should Matter to People of Faith

In the midst of your many duties as a fundraising professional or ministry leader, writing and sending thank you notes can feel like a hassle. 


But if you’re reading this post you’re most likely a person of faith, so may I remind you that God instructs us to be people who give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18)?


Giving thanks is an act of worship. When we thank donors, we’re also acknowledging God as the Ultimate Giver. Abundance would not be anyone’s to give or receive without His gracious gifts.


Writing an intentional and exceptional thank you note has powerful potential to increase donor retention, which is significant to any organization. But if there’s only one reason you prioritize thank you notes in your day-to-day agenda I hope it’s because through writing and sending them you’re honoring God and celebrating His very good and generous gift. 


If you need help prioritizing your donor retention strategies my team and I would be honored to support you. Schedule a call here to see if we’re a good fit!