THANKS(for)GIVING: 8 Mistakes Nonprofits Make When Thanking Donors

Are you focused on the gift or the giver?
Thanking donors is the one thing most nonprofits do not spend enough time thinking about. Too often I find that staff spend 95% of their time crafting the fundraising appeal and getting embroiled in project management – design; layout; printing, postage, etc.  Finally, the letter (or e-appeal) is ready to launch.  The mailing is dropped/the button is punched and… voila!  Gifts start to arrive!  But then what?!

After you’ve sent out your appeal is too late to start thinking about what your thank you letter or email will say. Or who will sign it. Or whether someone who donates online will also receive an actual letter. Or thank you call. Or who will make the call. Everything must be well thought-out in advance. You must be ready to go, with different templates and strategies for different target audiences, well before you’ve asked for your first donation.

What would Miss Manners have to say about the way we focus more on the gift than on the giver? She would not be happy.  Not happy at all.  So, let’s vow to remedy this situation before we kick into prime giving season.

Here are the 8 things to watch out for:

  1. Delaying. Your thank you should get out the door within 48 hours.  Period. No arguments.  People will try to tell you they don’t care if they don’t hear from charities for a week… a month… whatever.  Don’t believe them. Penelope Burk, author of “Donor-Centered Fundraising” has proved otherwise. If you don’t thank donors promptly, you’re destroying all the rest of your hard work. The most important predictor of likelihood to give is recency. If it takes you over a month to process a donor’s gift, then you’re missing out on their most-likely-to-give period.  Timely follow up matters. A lot.
  1. Misspelling. You absolutely must spell the donor’s name correctly.  There is no excuse for getting this wrong. None. It’s just plain sloppy.  And it borders on rude. How would your friend feel if you misspelled her name on a thank you card for your birthday gift?Your friend would feel like you didn’t know who they were.Enough said.
  1. Failing to personalize the salutation.It’s so easy to do this these days with CRM and mail merge programs.  Not doing it is lazy. Unless you absolutely know you have a constituent that prefers a formal salutation, use the familiar (i.e., first names).  Except for judges and elected officials and military personnel, almost everyone else goes by their first name.  And if they use a nickname (or have a pesky initial), then you’d better put this into the right field in your database.  There’s nothing quite as awkward as “Dear Ms. R. Beatrice” when the donor goes by “Bitty.” Remember: You’re trying to build a relationship.  Be friendly.
  1. Neglecting to mention something they asked you to do. If they asked for their gift to remain anonymous, the thank you letter should reflect this.  If they earmarked the gift for a particular purpose, they want to be reassured that this is how you’ll use the money. If they asked for pledge reminders, they want to know you’ll stay on top of this. And so on. Donors want to know that you listen. 
  1. Forgetting to tell them the specific impact the gift will have.  Even bar mitzvah kids know to tell folks that they really needed that fountain pen and they’ll be putting it to work immediately to write thank you notes! The donor wants to know (1) you really needed their gift, and (2) how wisely you will use their investment and for what purpose.
  1. Overlooking the opportunity to provide something of value.Remember, philanthropy is all about the value-for-value exchange. Good donor stewardship requires a give and take; a back and forth.  What gifts can you give? A way they can volunteer… a thank you from a supporter… a means to get involved as an advocate… a list of tips they can use?  Give your donor something of value now to continue the circle.
  1. Not including the name of a contact person. What if the donor has a question? What if you made a mistake in their letter? What if they want to do more for you?  How are they going to reach the right person if you don’t give them a name, phone number and email?  Again, this is about building personal relationships.  They must be able to reach you easily.
  1. Sounding like you’re asking for more.You’ll notice I didn’t say simply “asking” for more. And certainly this is a ‘no-no’. A thank you should be pure.  Sometimes however, even when we don’t ask, we sound like we’re asking.  Take a good look at your thank you letters.  Do they sound a lot like a solicitation?  Are you moaning about the need in the community; bragging about all the people you help, and adding that you couldn’t do it without the donor’s support?  Too often our thank you letters sound exactly like our fundraising letters. Strive for simple and warm.

If you’re serious about donor retention you may want to get  (1) my new 48 Hours: Donor Acknowledgment Solution Kit and/or (2) my newly revised and expanded  Special Guide: How to Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude and Keep Your Donors. The first gives you proof for your boss that this is important, a step-by-step process to speed things up, policies, procedures and more! The second is a handy no-nonsense workbook to help you put gratitude into practice on a daily basis.  Templates, checklists, samples, creative ideas, links to tools and resources – it’s all there. For what you get, I think you’ll find both to be a bargain. And if  not, you can always tell me.  I’m pretty nice about these things. To your success!

This is a reprint of an article originally published 11-18-12 on Clairification.

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About Claire

I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. Thank you Claire for some great tips! I will be sharing this with our board immediately.

  2. Thank you Claire for the great tips! I will be sharing this with our board immediately.
    Sheila Hull-Summers recently posted…Giving Tuesday – December 3rd, 2013My Profile

  3. Thanks Sheena. You are so kind. :-)


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