Thank-you letters should vary with time, says Philanthropy Centre study

Its latest report says donors respond differently to thank-you letters depending on how long they have been involved with charities

The report
The report

Charities should vary thank-you letters to donors according to how long the donor has been giving to the organisation, a study by the Philanthropy Centre suggests.

A report, Learning to Say Thank You: The Role of Donor Acknowledgements, published by the research company today, says that donors respond differently to thank-you letters depending on how long they have been involved with a charity.

It says that donors respond best to highly emotional individual beneficiary stories in thank-you letters when they are also able to see that the charity’s work makes a difference in the long term or on a wider scale.

The study, conducted over two years, found a varied approach to sending out thank-you communications increased donor wellbeing and the likelihood that they would donate again.

It involved interviews with donors, a review of previous studies on gratitude and a series of test letters sent out to charity donors.

The first set of tests found that, after a supporter took their first action for the organisation, "sending a prompt, short, but interactive email where people can affirm the contribution that the action has made to their wellbeing" would help to boost how good people felt about contributing.

After the first donation and before they have given as often as the charity’s "average" donor, the report recommends that thank-you communications should focus on thanking people for the differences that their donations have made.

Once they have given more than the average donor, the report recommends organisations send out a letter thanking donors for the long-term relationship that they have had with key stakeholders or personalities at the charity, or for "being who they are".

These rules help to increase the response rate and the average donation amount, as well as helping donors to feel they are making a difference, are able to express their beliefs through the donation and are connected to the cause, the report says.

The second set of tests looked at what sort of feedback donors should receive about the impact of their donations. It found that when a beneficiary story was only "mildly emotional", donors were more likely to donate again and felt a stronger sense of wellbeing when the communication thanked them and mentioned the beneficiary but did not mention the wider benefits.

But where a beneficiary story is "highly emotional", the report recommends that the communication should give an idea of the "vastness" of the donation’s impact – for example, by talking about the difference it has made over a whole year or for many beneficiaries – in order to boost donor wellbeing.

If highly emotional beneficiary stories cannot be used in communications, the report says, the donor can still be made to feel a sense of wellbeing about their giving if they are told about the vastness of the charity’s work and made to feel connected with it.

Adrian Sargeant, chief executive of the Philanthropy Centre, said a focus on thank-you letters was "long overdue" and would "lead to a dramatic shift in the nature of the donor experience as for the first time fundraisers genuinely reflect on how best to contribute to the wellbeing of their supporters".

He said: "How we make people feel must surely be at least as important as how much we can raise from them to pursue our cause."

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