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Giving Meaning: The ‘write’ thing to do when thanking donors
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Giving Meaning: The ‘write’ thing to do when thanking donors

came home early and took in the mail. Thumbing through the envelopes, I came across one addressed by hand. After opening it, I read the note, which thanked us for being at a wedding and for our “generous gift.” There was one problem: I had no idea who it was from.

Later, my wife reminded me whose kid’s wedding we had attended and what we gave them. Thank God one of us has a memory. But it got me thinking about thank-you letters, including those from charitable institutions. Why send them? When and how are they effective, and, just as important, when do they lose their value?

Judaism puts a premium on expressing gratitude. From the moment we wake up in the morning and say “Modeh Ani” — “I thank you, God, for giving us life” — to the “Sheheheyanu” blessing that dates back to the Talmud (Brachot 54a), we are taught to express gratitude for reaching seminal moments. I sometimes wonder if the propensity to say “thank you” occurs so often in Judaism that it becomes all the more challenging to say it with sincerity. This is especially relevant to representatives of not-for-profits, who need to thank supporters repeatedly.

Most reputable charities send thank-you letters in response to donations. But that is not where appreciation should begin. Roger Craver, a nationally recognized expert on donor retention and direct mail, is quick to teach that the most important way to thank a donor, if not in person, is with a call. As he points out, “Testing clearly shows that a call improves retention between 25 and 40 percent.”

Organizations that do not have the “bandwidth” to make such a call after every donation should consider dedicating a morning or two each year for volunteers to get together and call supporters en masse. These calls should supplement thank-you letters. And the script will need to acknowledge that donations may have been made months earlier. To get the most out of these calling sessions, organizers should keep them informal, serve food, and make sure someone from the institution thanks the callers directly. Many people will be pleasantly surprised not to be asked for more money — creating goodwill that will linger when the next time you do ask. 

Now let’s discuss thank-you letters.

According to Carver, there are two considerations to an effective thank-you letter: timeliness and sincere expression of gratitude. Research has shown the ideal time to mail a thank-you letter is between 48 hours and a week after a donation is made. Even more important is that the letter be personal and heartfelt. This means, according to Craver, “tying the gift to the donor’s intent and assuring the donor that their money will do something great.” The more specific the example, the better. 

The most effective thank-you letters are handwritten. The reason is inversely related to the way we communicate today through social media. Handwritten letters take longer and by extension are rare. They are also more personal, and communicate a unique intimacy between writer and reader. When we get home and wade through the mail, we open the handwritten ones first — even if we are not sure who they’re from!

E-mail presents another platform to make a personal connection, albeit not as warm as pen and paper. Dr. Erica Brown, in Take Your Soul to Work, observes that the best thank-you notes are created when we “write a distinctive and personal thank you which could only come from you and could only go to them.” That distinctiveness will help mitigate an e-mail’s lack of warmth.

A mass-produced thank-you letter is what many donors receive after making a gift. These letters present the biggest challenge as a conveyer of sincerity, but as George Burns remarked, “Sincerity is everything; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Here are a few pointers:

Timeliness matters. In my experience, thank yous should come within two weeks of a gift’s being made. After two weeks donors are much more likely to become annoyed that their contribution went unnoticed, thereby neutralizing your message.

Keep it short. The message should express sincere gratitude, articulate how the gift will make an impact, and repeat the thank you. Like public speaking, the largest pitfall is length; no one ever complained to me that a well-written thank-you letter was too short. 

Include a signature. Letters, or as many as possible, should be signed, and, even better, should include a scribbled note on the bottom, if only to say, “This means a lot to us, thanks.” Eyes will gravitate immediately to that scribbled note before reading the rest.

The beloved children’s author/illustrator Maurice Sendak told of a child who wrote him a thank-you note in appreciation for one of his books. Sendak wrote the boy back and included a drawing of one of his “Wild Things” on it. Soon after, Sendak received a letter from the boy’s mother sharing that her son ate the note.

Are your thank-you letters good enough to eat?

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