Do you know what your donors want?

Research tells us that donors want very specific things. They aren't especially hard to do, yet most nonprofits aren't doing them. At least not very well.

In her seminal book, Donor Centered Fundraising, Penelope Burk found that the first thing that donors want is prompt and personal gift acknowledgement.

Let's look at those two pieces - prompt and personal - and how you can do them better.


The industry best practice is to thank your donors within 48 to 72 hours of gift receipt.

Further, Burk's research found that first-time donors who received a personal thank you within 48 hours were four times more likely to give again.

So, if you're trying to turn those elusive first-time donors into second-time donors, a great way to start is to thank them thank them quickly.


There's a difference between personalized thank you letters and personal ones.

Putting your donor's name in the letter and referring to the gift amount? That's personalization.

Acknowledging something special and specific that she did? That's personal.

Standardized thank you letters are easy to "write," but they don't show any donor love. They don't really acknowledge your donor as an individual or tell her how special she is.

And she deserves that.


Penelope Burk identified these 20 attributes of a great thank you letter. Take a look at the last thank you letter you sent. How does it compare?

  1. The letter is a real letter, not a pre-printed card
  2. It is personally addressed
  3. It has a personal salutation (no "Dear Donor" or "Dear Friend")
  4. It is personally signed (Laura's tip: use blue ink so it's obvious that it's an original signature)
  5. It is signed by someone from the highest ranks of the organization
  6. It makes specific reference to the intended use of funds
  7. It indicates approximately when the donor will receive an update on the program being funded
  8. It includes the name and phone number of a staff person whom the donor can contact at any time or an invitation to contact the writer directly
  9. It does not ask for another gift
  10. It does not ask the donor to do anything (like complete an enclosed survey, for example)
  11. It acknowledges the donor's past giving, where applicable
  12. It contains no spelling or grammatical errors
  13. It has an overall "can do," positive tone as opposed to a hand-wringing one
  14. It communicates the excitement, gratitude and inner warmth of the writer
  15. It grabs the reader's attention in the opening sentence
  16. It speaks directly to the donor
  17. It does not continue to "sell"
  18. It is concise - no more than two short paragraphs
  19. It is received by the donor promptly
  20. Plus, in some circumstances, the letter is handwritten


Let's talk about a couple of takeaways from Burk's list, then you pick the ones that you want to apply to your next thank you letter.

#14 and #15. Communicate the excitement, gratitude and inner warmth of the writer; grab the reader's attention in the opening sentence.

Too many nonprofits use canned thank you letters or boring templates. (The worst? The thank you letter that begins, "On behalf of the Board of Directors, I'd like to thank you for your gift...")

What you can do: Start your next thank you letter with an attention-getting opening sentence that's about the donor. ("You're amazing! Your renewed support means... Your gift is already helping... You have no idea how much we appreciate...")

#16. Speak directly to the donor.

Remember that your thank you letter is about your donor - not your organization. In fact, all of your donor communications should make your donor the hero. It's not about what you do, but what your donor makes possible.

What you can do: Strive for a 3:1 ratio of using "you" and "your" to "we," "us" and "our organization." Legendary fundraiser Jerry Panas called this the "BOY rule." Because of you. Tell your donor what will happen - or what will change - because of her support. What impact will her gift have? What difference will it make?

#19. Received by the donor promptly.

Burk's research found that prompt acknowledgement would influence 93% of survey respondents to give again and 64% of them to give more. In fact, Burk's research found that a simple thank you call from a board member caused both donor retention and gift size to increase.

What you can do: Strive send your thank you within 72 hours of receipt. And remember that you can (and should) thank a donor more than once. Send a letter, make a phone call, write a handwritten note. Get your staff, board and other volunteers involved in saying "thank you." The possibilities are endless.

#20. In some circumstances, the letter is handwritten.

Nothing will make your donor feel more special than receiving a handwritten note. They're the gold standard. You'll find it's well worth the time to handwrite letters to as many of your donors as you can.

What you can do: At a minimum, jot a personal note on your computer-printed thank you letters. Even better? Make this a weekly to-do: for instance, write one handwritten note every Monday. Write your largest donors. Acknowledge milestones, such as 5 or 10 years of consecutive giving. Again, the possibilities are endless.

The ideas above are just a few to get you started. Which will you implement?


The important thing to remember is that donors who are thanked well give more often. And they give more the next time they're asked.

So, be sure to thank your donors promptly, personalize the thank you letter and always make it personal.

When you thank your donors well, you'll keep more of them - and that means more money in the bank.

In the next post, I'll share some more of Penelope Burk's findings and what donors want.

I'll also share more examples of things you can do to keep more of your donors.

Because when you keep more of your donors, you'll raise more money.

Until next time.

This is the second post in a series on donor retention.

Photo credit(s): Pixabay

Need help writing better thank you letters? Or creating a donor retention plan? Laura Rhodes can help.

Send a message to start the conversation and learn how Laura can help you and your organization.

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