How ‘thank you letters’ can help you reach your major giving potential

There seems to be an outburst of appreciation for thank you letters/notes. Rightly so, because thank you letters/notes give a completely different feeling and satisfaction than thank you emails.

In the digital age, donors are constantly being bombarded with emails. So if your email is fortunate enough to be opened (and not spam blocked), many a time it is simply read and then deleted. The thank you letter/note, however, tends to be opened, read and placed on the counter, on the desk, or perhaps even attached to the refrigerator with a magnet. As fundraisers, we all aim to be remembered rather than deleted by our donors. The thank you letter/note thus effectively serves as a timely reminder of you every time the recipient sees it. Thus, thank you letters are a cost-effective way of building trust and rapport between charities and their major donors.

We receive a lot of advice on what to include in a thank you letter to major donors, but the format of the letter is still not talked about enough and its benefits are often overlooked. You can have amazing content within the letter, but if the letter fails to stand out in appearance, it might just land in the bin or receive only a cursory glance. Therefore your thank you letter/note must be attractive enough from the very beginning to encourage donors to open your mail, and even more importantly, read it.

The first thank you letter/note is particularly important, because you are still at a very early stage of figuring out what led this individual to donate to your cause. Thus, you might not have any immediate results which you can send back in response to their gift, to show how their money is achieving what they wanted to achieve. The first thank you letter, however, will tell them a lot about your organisation’s culture, attitude and how much you care for your top contributors.

Thank you letters and notes to major donors are at their best when, not only their contents are carefully written but, their outlook and overall presentation gives off an extra touch of quality. I have always found the five points I have listed below to work for me when it comes to sending thank you letters/notes to major donors:

1. It’s not what you say, but how you say it

We may be all-too-familiar with the phrase, “it’s not what you say, but how you say it’’, coined by Professor Albert Mehrabian. What the professor meant by this famous phrase, is that in effective communication- only 7% of the meaning lies in our words, with 38% in the way that our words are said, and 55% of the meaning in our body language whilst we say it. We know this applies to spoken communication, but if we twist this and apply the same rule in sending thank you letters to our major donors, 55% of effectively communicating our thank you letters should be in how we present it.

Small touches in a thank you letter can go a long way – whether that be in the type of paper used, font style and colour, handwritten elements, envelope type, and even the stamp used. All of these finer details will make your letter appear more exclusive, and increase your chances of receiving greater attention from your major donors. I explain these in further detail below.

Personal touches: If you have only a few thank you letters/notes to send out, why not hand-write them? I normally do this for my top 50 donors. If not, at least write a side note on the typed letter and hand write the top and tail- making sure that the name and address on the envelope is hand-written too. It is an unexpected pleasant treat for your donors which adds a personal touch- adding to the feeling of exclusivity that the letter they received has solely been sent to them.

Ink colour: Use black or blue ink and no other colour, as it is simple, yet maintains class and professionalism.

Legibility: You don’t have to be great at hand writing, but make sure your hand-written message is clean, legible and big enough in size to read. If hand-writing isn’t your strongest point, you can always ask a team member for help.

Packaging: Always use close faced envelopes when sending thank you letters/notes. Whichever envelope you decide to go for, be sure to never use white #10 outer envelopes, as they look too official and removes the personal feel you want to incorporate.

Postage: Always use a first class stamp when writing to your major donors, as this emphasises the urgency and importance of the letter.

2. Opportunity vs obligation

As fundraisers, we may be justified in thinking that thanking our donors is an obligation. But I believe we need to aim beyond that and view thanking our major donors as an ‘opportunity’. An obligation is something which you are morally bound to do as it is the ‘right thing’. But if we take thank you letters/notes as an opportunity, they become a way to build relationships through showing the appropriate appreciation to the right person, at the right time.

Treating the thank you letter/note as an opportunity may potentially reap two fold benefits. Firstly, you are increasing your chances to receive another, and potentially bigger, gift from your donor in future. Many a time major donors give their first gift as a ‘toe dipping’ gift- where they test the response of the charity before unlocking the full potential of their giving capacity.

Secondly, once your major donor is happy, they may share their experience with family and friends, which could mean more exposure for your charity organisation and donations in future. Thus the first thank you letters are a more cost-effective way to build a deeper emotional relationship with your donors, and fundraisers must ensure that we do all we can to maximise this opportunity.

3. Be creative

Being creative does not mean that you have to spend a lot of time brainstorming ideas on sending thank you letters. However, the more creative you become at sending letters, the more appreciative donors become. It could be simple touches which illustrate how much you appreciate your major donor. For instance, the letter or thank you note does not have to come from you, it can be from someone who is higher up in your organisation, such as a trustee, patron or CEO. This can be done by segmenting your donors where the size of the gift can determine who makes the thank you. This does not at all mean that the front line major gifts managers should not be sending thank you letters. The entire thank you experience can be split between the major gifts managers and leadership of the organisation. For example, frontline staff can thank the donor over the phone and the written letter can be sent from the leadership, allowing the fundraisers to utilise this opportunity to build a strong rapport with major donors.

4. Time your thank you

How quickly thank you letters should be sent out is a question that crops up time and time again. At my current organisation, we send thank you letters to our major donors within 48 hours, which are then followed up with a phone call. One rule may not fit all, so you can do this by segmenting your donors and create appropriate timelines accordingly for each group. For example, anyone donating over £10k will receive a call within 48 hours. However, delaying your acknowledgement may leave your donors in the quandary of wondering if their gift has been received or the recipient is just unappreciative. Thus, urgency in sending out thank you letters is of upmost importance.

5. No to pre-paid reply envelopes

As a major donors practitioner, I never send a stamped reply envelope in the first thank you letter for two reasons. Firstly, I do not want them to think that a free envelope is a signal for asking another gift. Secondly, a person who donates large sums is hardly going to be broken for buying a small envelope and a stamp.

Acknowledging the gifts of major donors doesn’t have to require large teams and big budgets, it can be done in organisations of any size. The key to building effective relationships and unlocking great stewardship lies in a little creativity. From written content to its overall presentation, it’s high time that fundraisers invest more in the finer details when writing thank you letters/notes, which can go a long way in impressing your major donors, and showing them that their support is recognised and appreciated. A well thought-out first thank you letter/note could be the best first step you can take towards building rapport with your major donors in a short period of time, and be a simple and effective tool to unlock the full potential of your major donors.

Ikhlaq Hussain is philanthropy and major giving specialist, currently head of major gifts at Orphans In Need, trustee at Mind in Harrow, co-opt board member at IOF, Mentor at IOF and Mosaic Enterprise Challenge, regular blogger on the topic of fundraising