“Thank You” Done Right Goes a Long Way
In a session she presented at the AFP International Conference on Fundraising in Atlanta earlier this year, Penelope Burk, president of Cygnus Applied Research, a research-based fundraising consulting firm located in Chicago, talked about a study her company had done in 2003. Questioning 267 charities and 145 donors, the study aimed to find out if improvements made to an organization’s back-end service — e.g., thank-you letters, personal phone calls, etc. — could increase donor retention and generate a more rapid increase in gift value among retained donors.
The study unearthed interesting findings. First of all, Burk says her company learned that most thank-you letters to donors are formulaic and predictable. Out of the 500 thank-you letters reviewed in the study, 80 percent began with “Thank you for your generous gift of … ,” or “On behalf of the board of directors, thank you for your gift of ... .” Used too often, the copy becomes tired and loses its impact.
“Over time donors lose interest in reading them because they pretty much all sound the same,” she says.
Successful letters began with atypical opening lines. For example, an opening line used by the Alzheimer’s Association read, “You remembered, for those who can’t.” It’s a brief, dramatic opening that’s almost poetic.
Forty-four percent of donors questioned in the study said that a meaningful thank-you letter can have a powerful impact on their loyalty.
“In fundraising, thank-you letters are generally viewed as the last thing that you do as part of the campaign that generated the gift. But a thank-you letter that is excellent is actually your first step in cultivating the next gift,” Burk says.
There are about 20 characteristics of a great thank-you letter. First and foremost, a thank-you letter should be sent promptly after a gift. A letter should be well written and have excellent grammar. It should be short; it can even be just a paragraph long, as long as it includes things that the donor needs to know at that time, e.g., where the money is going. The letter also should include a name and contact information of someone the donor can communicate with if need be.
It’s also important that the letter be signed by the “right” person, most often a leadership volunteer.
“They are the most influential people when it comes to elevating a donor’s interest in an organization that he’s already supporting. If a thank-you letter is signed by a member of the board of directors, for instance, it has additional clout and gets noticed,” Burk says.
Having board members make personal thank-you phone calls to donors is another acknowledgement method that Burk says can have a serious impact on donor loyalty and retention. This method also can more easily unearth major donors, and it empowers board members.
Penelope Burk can be reached via www.donorcentered.com