When a charity reaches out asking for help with their fundraising, especially if they’re facing challenges such as low second-gift rates, high attrition, and limited interest in legacies, my first reaction is to hop online to get a first-hand experience of being one of their donors. 

I’ll go straight to their website and hand over £50 or so. After hitting the ‘donate’ button, I’ll hear a friendly ping of acknowledgment, accompanied by a few words of thanks as an automated email drops into my inbox. Then, there’s a few days of anticipation as I wait to see what happens next. 

I’m hoping to feel a sense of human connection, a sign that someone at the charity recognises what I’ve done and welcomes me as a new supporter, eager to join with them to make the world – or at least a small part of it – a better place.

Every now and then, a second email will arrive within a few days. This might thank me again and perhaps offer some additional insight into how my gift will make a difference. If I’m very lucky, I might come downstairs to find a real life thank-you letter on my doormat. 

However, more often than not, the next thing I’ll receive is the first of an automated series of communications that will focus on telling me what the charity is doing or asking for more money. It’s rare that I get a sense that I’m part of a conversation or feel that there’s an open door to getting more involved.

This never fails to surprise me. If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to build a bond between a donor and a charity, it’s a great thank-you. However, it seems that, for many fundraisers and charities, thanking can be an afterthought. There’s even a school of thought in the sector suggesting that donors shouldn’t expect much of a thank you – and that they should be commending us for our hard work instead!

But that completely misses the point. The truth is, a well-crafted thank you can be the glue in a fundraising strategy that holds everything else together, turning a single gift into a lifetime of support. To understand how a few well-crafted emails or letters can have such power, we need to delve into the role they play in creating a connection between a charity and a donor. The act of appreciation is not just a polite gesture, but a cornerstone of building lasting relationships and, more importantly, sustaining a healthy philanthropic ecosystem.

To demonstrate what I mean, here are some stats: 

  • The fundraising agency, McConkey Johnston International found that first time donors who received a personalised thank you within 48 hours of making a donation were FOUR times more likely to give again.
  • Penelope Burk’s donor survey found that when it came to repeat gifts, 45% of donors reported that it was a great thank you letter in response to an initial gift that inspired them to give again.
  • And in the UK, when Bluefrog introduced dynamic thanking (I’ll explain more about this later) to a client’s established IG programme, income increased by two-thirds over the course of three years.

There are four key reasons that great thanking can have such a massive impact on a charity’s bottom line.

First off, a personal thank-you demonstrates to the donor that they are valued. One of my favourite fundraising books is Designs For Fundraising by Harold J Seymour. In it he recounts the findings of a research study from Cornell University that identified a powerful universal aspiration – “every person wants to feel like a worthwhile member of a worthwhile group”. This principle guides us at Bluefrog, influencing every aspect of our work. 

This aspiration recognises that the work of the charity is the most important element in the relationship. In our research, we find that’s something that all donors would agree with. However, it also considers the donor’s desire to believe they have a role in helping you to achieve your goals. And that is why so many great fundraisers keep emphasising the importance of using the word YOU in fundraising copy. YOU isn’t there to fluff up a donor’s sense of self-importance. YOU operates as a powerful invitation for a donor to be part of your work.

Second, saying thanks goes a long way in building trust and demonstrating reliability. It’s no secret that bad news about mishandling funds or causing harm can make people hesitant to give, particularly to new charities. If you’ve read the recent report we produced with F&P on why donors switch or stop giving, you’ll recall how doubts can make people feel stuck, especially when it comes to supporting new causes. Unanswered worries can act as an ethical roadblock to giving.

The fact is, giving is different to commercial transactions. There’s no box to open or service to experience. The only way we really know if we’ve made the right decision when we give, is by looking at what the charity tells us and how it treats us. In light of the Oxfam safeguarding failure in Haiti, one donor put it perfectly when suggesting how a charity could regain trust: 

“(They have) to do something that’s very different. That feels real and takes us – the people that have been funding them to become who they are – that makes us feel that (they) care about us as well, because we put (them) in that position of trust and (they’ve) betrayed our trust… how else are we going to know if (they) have changed?”

Third, as I mentioned at the outset, a great personalised thank-you is quite rare. By taking the time to send one, you’re already setting yourself apart from other organisations. When a charity puts in the effort to show they value a gift – no matter what size, it sends another powerful message. Our recent research also showed that small regular gifts to large charities were most likely to be cancelled in the face of an economic squeeze, simply because donors believed that large organisations wouldn’t notice the absence of a small gift.

Finally, by showing gratitude, you’re actually inspiring advocacy! And any effort that sparks positive word-of-mouth support for the sector should be encouraged. Here at Bluefrog, we speak with hundreds of donors each year. And whatever country we focus on, not just in Australia and the UK, but all around the world, we get to hear about which charities that have driven engagement and loyalty and the ones that didn’t quite hit the mark.

Favourites are the charities that demonstrate the impact of the charity’s work and show they also value supporters as being part of the team. Donors are always quick to shine a light on charities that have given them a positive experience. But here’s something concerning – it’s often younger donors who are just starting out on their giving journey who are most likely to express feeling let down by the lack of recognition or sense of belonging from the charities they support. This sense of disappointment can decrease their likelihood of giving to other charities as they question if they and their contributions actually matter.

Which brings us to how you can put a plan in place to make sure you build the type of thank you strategy that brings donors closer. But first off remember, at its core, will be letters in the mail. Even if a donor gives online, it’s essential to send a thank-you letter through the post as well as those emailed receipts and acknowledgements. Real letters have an impact that should not be under-estimated.

But, regardless of the medium, here’s my recommendations about what you need to include if you want to nurture long-term support:

Personal touch: Begin by addressing the donor by their name and acknowledging the specific amount or type of their contribution.

Respond quickly: Being prompt shows that a charity is on the ball and well-organised.

Present impact: Show how the donation will be used and demonstrate the positive effect it will have on the charity’s mission. This level of transparency reassures the donor that their contribution is making a meaningful impact.

Include the donor in your story: Extend the narrative from your initial appeal materials. Illustrate what unfolded next and highlight the vital role the donor played in making it all happen – this is where the magic word “YOU” comes into play. Tell the donor what their gifts are making possible. Not what the charity is doing. It’s a subtle but important difference.

Use a warm and familiar tone: Keep the register of your language inviting, friendly, and natural. I often suggest to struggling copywriters that they should write the letter as if they were sending it to their grandmother. It usually does the trick and helps them avoid overly formal or generic language.

Add a touch of personal flair: In addition to the letter, consider including extra elements in your email or envelope – photographs, a hand-written post-it note or card, or even a copy of a relevant newspaper article. These additions show the donor feel like they’re connecting with likeminded, genuine, caring individuals.

Regular updates: I used the term dynamic thanking earlier. At its core, this approach involves regularly updating your materials, so a donor doesn’t receive the same thank you twice. For example, consistently remind the donor of their contributions over the past few years, update case studies or include different personal touches in each piece. Think about ways you can pleasantly surprise and delight.

By infusing these elements into your charity’s thank you strategy, you’ll be well on your way to nurturing strong and lasting support from your donors. They’ll not only feel appreciated but also genuinely connected to the cause they’re supporting. If you are facing some of the symptoms of disengagement that I mentioned at the start of this piece such as high attrition, poor second gift rates and limited interest in legacies I’d strongly recommend revamping your thanking programme as your route to turning the situation around. Not only is it a great deal cheaper than implementing a rebrand or appointing a brand-new agency, it is also far more effective. 

This article was first published in the Summer (that’s winter up here in the northern hemisphere) copy of F&P magazine.