Before beginning freelance writing, I worked as a fundraiser for the University of Oxford, so when asked to write a post that would help Canadian nonprofits maximize their online success, I jumped at the chance.

Digital marketing is a growing part of fundraising campaigns, and we’ve already talked about ways that charities can market themselves online for free. Today, however, is all about one simple action with big results.

It helps organizations stand out from the crowd (almost half of charities don’t do it), boosts email opening rates (by 152%), and has the power to transform donor retention. Oh, and if you aren’t doing it, your fundraising campaign will probably take twice as long.

Saying Thank You

The humble ‘thank you’ email holds an epic amount of potential.

Now before you say “oh, my organization already sends thank you emails” and stop reading, ask yourself this: do you really send thank you emails? Or, do you:

  • Send automated donation receipts (definitely not the same thing)
  • Only send ‘thank you’ follow ups for donations over a certain amount
  • Send a generic automated thank you message from “no-reply”

Some neat “secret shopper” research has been done to show just how few charities bother to say thank you to low-level donors. You can see some fun examples here, and here.


Graphic from Jay Love’s great post on this topic via GuideStar blog.

Nothing makes me feel warm, fuzzy, and valued as a donor like a thank you message from the payment processor!

Because Donor Retention

Forgetting to say thank you is one of the reasons that charities sometimes struggle with donor retention.

Here is a seriously depressing stat from the 2016 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report:

For every 100 new donors gained across the nonprofit sector in 2015, 96 donors were lost through attrition. That’s a net gain of just 4 donors per year.

Crazy, right?

Not only are charities losing funds they would have received from a repeat donation, but they have to pour time and energy into recruiting new donors just to replace the ones they already had.

Across the board, less than half of 2014 donors made a repeat gift in 2015. The result? Fundraising campaigns take twice as long as they should.

Getting Better at Donor Retention

A thank you email is the first step towards a building a long term relationship with a donor.

According to the 2014 Burk Donor Survey, donors will give again and give more generously if a charity acknowledges their first gift promptly and in a meaningful way.

Does a thank you email guarantee a repeat gift? No. But it gives your organization an easy, authentic space in which to connect with a donor and get creative about next steps and secondary conversion opportunities.

The Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity in the UK is really good at this. Their thank you letters are often prints of drawings done by the kids in the hospital, and they’ll generally include some way to keep donors engaged.

My favourite are the posters they send out around Christmas so donors can help brighten up the wards:

Image from the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, drawn by patient Naseem, age 15.

What A Great Thank You Email Can Do For Your Organization

Here’s a story from long before I become a fundraiser.

This is an excerpt from the best Thank You email I’ve ever received (and I only gave five bucks!)

Dear Lucy,
Thank you for donating to the Wikimedia Foundation. You are wonderful!
You should know: your donation isn’t just covering your own costs. The average donor is paying for his or her own use of Wikipedia, plus the costs of hundreds of other people. Your donation keeps Wikipedia available for an ambitious kid in Bangalore who’s teaching herself computer programming. A middle-aged homemaker in Vienna who’s just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A novelist researching 1850s Britain. A 10-year-old in San Salvador who’s just discovered Carl Sagan. On behalf of those people, and the half-billion other readers of Wikipedia and its sister sites and projects, I thank you for joining us in our effort to make the sum of all human knowledge available for everyone. Your donation makes the world a better place. Thank you.

I loved it so much I posted it on Facebook, and guess what? 4 more people donated!

That thank you email probably increased the value of my tiny donation by 500%. Nice one, Wikipedia!

What Makes a Good Thank You Email?

The Abila Donor Loyalty Study showed that donors want short, easily consumable, and personalized content.

Basically, this means that short emails are just as good as handwritten notes, and even better than longer form letters or videos. The Wikimedia email above had zero formatting or images, and it was awesome.

A prompt reply is by far the most effective. Triggered emails (sent in direct response to something you donor has done) have a 152% higher clickthrough rate.

If you can find a way to thank a donor later in the year (for example, when a project goal has been achieved) they’ll be more likely to open your email. 

Chances are, email is already part of your digital marketing strategy. Now all you have to do is incorporate every opportunity you can to say thank you.

Don’t Leave Money on the Table

The Burk Donor Survey showed that Canadian donors could have given more last year, but many were “testing” charities to see if their donation was not only put to good use, but appropriately stewarded.

Do you think those donors would increase the value of their gifts if they didn’t receive a thank you note? Me neither.

There is a huge opportunity here. Canadian organizations reported greater funds raised in 2015 compared with 2014. It’s a great time for fundraisers, especially if we get smart about donor retention.

Thank you emails are a great place to start.

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