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Ah, the art of a well-crafted, gracious thank you letter.

I can’t begin to count how many I’ve written over the years. On the one hand, I still love the pause of appreciation that comes with writing one. On the other hand, however, when you are writing one after another (which we will all hopefully be doing towards the end of the year), it can be an exercise in creative endurance.

How to communicate heartfelt gratitude over and over again without sounding like some form letter spit out by a machine? 

Write to a living, breathing human being.

I find it always helps if I can visualize the human being I am thanking. Before writing a thank you letter to a particular donor, I’ll take a moment to first reflect on what I know about her, perhaps pull up her website, scroll her twitter feed or read up on any of her recent news. This gives me a little more insight into what may have prompted her to give and gives me something to work with when I write her.

How do you want the letter to land?

Consider how you want the donor to feel when she receives your thank you letter. Even better, put yourself in her shoes. How would you want to feel if you had just donated to a cause you love? Chances are, you’d want to feel appreciated. You’d also likely want to feel recognized and not just the recipient of an automatic tax receipt. Personally, when I am writing a thank you letter, I want the donor to feel like she is the most important donor I have.

Treat gifts of all sizes with joy.

Giving is relative. Because one donor gives more than another does not necessarily mean that the larger donation is worth more. We don’t want to just say that “any amount is appreciated”. We want to mean it. One way to express that sentiment is to thank all gifts, regardless of how much they are, with the same level of gratitude, thoughtfulness and respect.

Find some small way to personalize it.

Yes, this makes it a little more time consuming, but for the donors who are dedicated to your work, it’s worth it. I like to find some small mention to slip into the letter, something that I know the donor will find interesting. It could be a one sentence snippet on some detail of our programming that I know the donor is particularly passionate about. Anything that provides just a little more personal connection to the people I am writing to. They are supporting the mission. This is an opportunity to reinforce why they are.

Keep it upbeat.

Maybe it’s me, but I find serious thank you letters a little depressing. Genuine excitement, bubbling enthusiasm and even an extra exclamation point are all a go in thank you letters. Along with that, a sense of hope coupled with an affirmation that the donation will make a positive difference is critical. No sad, dreary stories in thank you letters. Save those for your next ask. (And it should go without saying, but never ask for another donation in your thank you letter.)

Nail the basics.

Is the donor’s name spelled right? Did you proofread everything? Is the date of the letter correct? (I am especially guilty of screwing up the date come January by still writing the previous year in the dateline).

Have you included all of the required language if you are thanking a donor on behalf of a 501(c)(3) organization? This would include the name of donor, the name of the organization receiving the donation, the amount of gift, the format of gift (i.e. check, bank wire, cash, etc.), the date that the donation was made and a statement about the tax deductible nature of the gift.

If there is a thank you gift being sent to the donor, you’ll also want to note when they should expect to receive it and a provide a fair market value of the gift.

Sign it personally.

I know, I know. If you have hundreds of thank you letters you need to send out in a timely manner, signing each of them personally can be onerous (and can induce a colossal hand cramp). Do it anyway. If you have to, pretend you’re a famous author in demand and stock up on arnica gel. Bonus points if you add a short, handwritten note at the bottom of the letter for extra flair. But please, whatever you do, no stamp signatures. (How to do this when sending thank you letters by email? Make sure the email comes your real account and not from some generic account such as

Don’t lallygag.

Be prompt in sending your thank you letters. Don’t wait months, or, heaven forbid, until next tax season when they need it. Get the thank you letters out the door to your donors within a week of their donation.

Share the love.

If the donation came in through an introduction or special outreach by someone in particular, send that person a short thank you note as well. Of course, only do this if it is appropriate and always omit the donation amount details. A short email works well here, along the lines of “Thank you so much for introducing [new donor] to our work! She joined our family of donors today, thanks to your special outreach.”

If this has been helpful to you, please consider making a donation! Your contribution is deeply appreciated and supports all of the free programming at Open Rivers.

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