Want to know one of the most important lessons we’ve learned about engaging donors?
It’s that the real work of engagement doesn’t end with the gift. In fact, that’s just the beginning.
How many donors have you lost touch with due to uninspiring, inconsistent, or—worse yet—nonexistent stewardship efforts?
When it comes to keeping donors in the fold, showing you authentically care on a regular basis is essential. If you don’t communicate your gratitude and the impact of a donor’s gift, why would they keep supporting you? A key part of donor stewardship is the thank you letter, but how do you know whether your institution is getting it right?
This summer, we researched a variety of donor thank you letter templates available online for institutions and organizations. What we found was a need for more intentional and flexible approaches to this often oversimplified step in stewardship. While some institutions have staff members specifically devoted to thanking donors, not all fundraisers have access to such resources. That’s why we’ve used ALUMinate co-founder Esther Choy’s IRS (Intrigue, Rivet, and Satisfy) structure for good storytelling to create a customizable template for an authentic donor thank you letter. A leader in data solutions for higher education, ALUMinate is now part of Affinaquest.
Esther was the Chief Operating Officer of ALUMinate and is an expert in business communication, storytelling, and design thinking. She is the author of the book Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success and her work can be seen regularly on forbes.com, virgin.com, entrepreneur.com and ama.org.
What makes a thank you letter fall flat? When it reads as insincere and unemotional. Story can solve that.
Overview of the IRS structure:
- Intriguing beginning (pique curiosity, get the donor’s attention—this is the hook!)
- Riveting middle (escalate tension, sustain the donor’s interest)
- Satisfying end (make sure the donor finds fulfillment in the conclusion)
Our template includes customizable sections and guidelines for how you can tailor it to your constituents and school or organization. Yes, this is a template that you can steal, but it’s so much more! This letter is designed to inspire your donors to take action and stay involved.
To use this template:
Fill in the relevant information in the sections in bold, capital letters. Use the italicized sections in brackets to customize the letter.
Please note, this is purely a thank you letter. We recommend sending receipts of gifts for tax write-offs separately.
Included after the template is a checklist for how to strategically thank your donors!
Pro tip for letter writing:
For medium-sized gifts, set aside one day per month where your staff calls and thanks donors. Make it a fun team activity and a break from the usual work schedule by ordering pizza and workshopping thank you scripts with your colleagues for feedback. For larger gifts, have your trustees or board members call and thank donors. Donors will be grateful they took the time to do this and, most importantly, this is a great way for your staff or board members to learn about donors’ lives and their philanthropic goals. Be sure to update your CRMs after!
The Thank You Letter Template
Dear FIRST NAME,
Do you remember our conversation X DAYS/MONTHS ago, when we originally started discussing your impact on INSTITUTION OR ORGANIZATION NAME, and you said that VALUE/ISSUE/GOAL was very important to you? I’m pleased to say that your contribution to the institution [can be more specific here / include an amount] has helped us achieve X and Y [name specific programs or milestones] to help meet your original goal [or “vision” or “your main intention for giving”]. Here’s how…
[Keep this 2nd paragraph short and moving. Put the impact of the gift on display through context. Here, we suggest using one or both of the following options:
1 – Concisely tell the riveting story of a specific student, program, or group on campus that was impacted by the gift. We suggest getting this story as directly from the source as possible, as in, from the actual impacted student or from the actual faculty or staff running the impacted program. In fact, it may be useful to quote that person directly in this story. Include visuals as appropriate and relevant.
2 – Provide statistics that clearly demonstrate the impact of the gift. Mini-infographics, like a well-designed pie chart or graph, may be useful here.]
Thank you very much for your gift. [If this donor has a history of giving, it is important to put the current gift in the context of that history, and thank them for the long term commitment to the organization.] I originally became a YOUR PROFESSIONAL TITLE for…
[Here, include 1 or 2 personal reasons for your interest in higher education philanthropy and working with major donors. For example: “As a first generation college student, I became a development officer because I wanted to help marginalized and low-income students by finding donors for scholarships and programs that directly support those students.”]. Being able to connect a philanthropist [or “alumni”/ “supporter”/ “donor”] with a cause that they’re passionate about is why I do this [or “when I feel most successful” or “when I remember why this work is essential”].
OPTIONAL: As a sign of my [or your department / organization’s name] appreciation, I’ve included GIFT DESCRIPTION HERE.
[Including a gift with your thank you letter is optional and should be carefully thought through. You don’t want to dilute the message you’re sending with items the donor doesn’t want or need. While opinions differ about including a gift, if you do decide its right for your organization and donor, keep the gift moderate in expense. The point is more the thought you put into it than the money you’re spending, which they know may come from the gift fees. Aim for experiences over objects. We recommend avoiding mementos or trade show type giveaway items that don’t serve a function and may just be put away somewhere or thrown out.*]
I also want to personally invite you to EVENT OR ACTIVITY, DETAILS HERE.
[Here, in the call-to-action, we recommend one of the following options:
-Invite the donor to a specific, relevant event on-campus or at your organization, or to one you’re holding in their area.
-Invite the donor to be profiled in your website or newsletter.
-Invite the donor to be included on a recognition wall.
-For the most elite group of donors, send them an invitation to a donor recognition dinner or donor recognition program with your board members and/or president.]
To RSVP, please contact NAME at EMAIL AND PHONE. If you’d like to know more about the impact of your gift or have questions about the gift agreement, please give me a call at YOUR NUMBER or email me at YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS.
I’d love to grab coffee next time you’re in town [or “on campus”].
My best to you and your family!
YOUR NAME AND CONTACT INFO
[Optional: A small headshot.]
*Good gift options include:
1 – Something that you know they’ll personally enjoy based on your relationship or reports in your CRM.
2 – A gift that is directly linked to the impact of the donor’s gift. For example, a donor we know who made a major gift to her alma mater to contribute to a new athletic facility received a commemorative piece of wood from the floor of the old basketball stadium that was torn down. This gift is unique, tactile, plays on nostalgia, and reminds the donor of their gift whenever they look at it. The donor still has this gift displayed in her office.
3 – If logistically appropriate, something that brings them back to campus or organization, like an exclusive tour or tickets to a campus play, concert, or other experience that isn’t usually free and isn’t necessarily sports-related.
4 – Avoid gift cards, which can be impersonal, unless they connect the donor back to the organization or institution, like a gift certificate for a university bookstore.
The Stewardship Best Practices Checklist
▢ Have a strategy in place for who gets thanked, when, and how (snail mail vs. email). Decide which member of your team will write the thank you, who will put it in the mail, and how the process will be set in motion automatically as soon as the gift is received.
▢ Dedicate a day of the week or month to send thank yous.
▢ Be sure you can answer the following questions: Why is this letter relevant to this donor? What is in it for them?
▢ Do a dive into the data you already have on the donor to decide what to include in the letter.
▢ When relevant, include color, images, and video. Build a brand and style for your thank you letters that reflects your other outreach and marketing materials, and the institution’s broader identity. For example: Help donors visualize your progress by using a thermometer that shows amounts raised for a campaign.
▢ Be concise. Keep paragraphs short. Proofread and then do it again.
▢ Be real. Show you are a person and not AI. Include your photo beside your signature, name, and title.
▢ Get (appropriately) personal. According to a 2016 study by Abila, “Approximately 71 percent of donors feel more engaged with a nonprofit when they receive content that’s personalized.”
▢ If you’re handwriting a note, type or write out your message beforehand as a reference.
▢ Show (don’t just tell) the impact. We recommend doing this with a story. Using a story to illustrate your point goes farther than “you made a difference.”
▢ Donors like to feel needed. Share the impact of their gift through stats and numbers, but explain what those numbers mean.
▢ When relevant, include progress reports.
▢ Have a call to action or direct donors somewhere. The last thing you want is a grateful and inspired donor holding their thank you card, unsure of what to do next to stay involved with your institution or organization. Ideas:
-A signup form or link to volunteer.
-A link to a unique survey.
-A way to refer a friend.
▢ Don’t ask for another donation in the thank you letter. Instead, include a non-monetary call to action.
▢ Be sure to let them know who to contact if they have questions, and include that person’s contact information.
▢ Brainstorm ways you can tie in social media or drive the donor to your website.
▢ Check (at least 2 times!) that you’re using the correct name, spelling, honorific, title, and pronouns.
▢ Read the letter aloud to yourself or a colleague to check for any errors.
▢ Include a real, handwritten signature if possible.
▢ Consider both form and content. Think about how this letter should best be packaged and presented.
▢ Send donation receipts separately.
▢ Be consistent. Record any stewardship action in your department’s CRM.
▢ Maintain an indexed library of thank you letters for future reference. Ask your team to save thank you letters that they’ve personally received from other institutions. Reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of these letters together can be a useful exercise for your team as you become experts in the art of gratitude. You won’t ever have to start from scratch again.