Can a Thank-You Letter Contain an Ask?

A thank-you letter to a donor can certainly contain an ask for another gift along with a response envelope. However, should it?

NO!!!

This is not just my opinion. Penelope Burk, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising, also feels that a thank-you letter should be a demonstration of appreciation and not another solicitation.

Over the past few months, on listserves and LinkedIn Groups, there have been a number of discussions on the subject of the appropriateness of including an ask in a thank-you letter. Some development folks say that they generate a number of additional gifts by putting an ask in their thank-you letters or, more passively, simply putting a business reply envelope in with the thank-you letter. However, if two percent (not necessarily an actual result) of thank-you letter recipients respond with an additional gift, that means 98 percent do not respond. And, the questions must be asked: How many of the 98 percent are put-off by the ask in the thank-you? How many will decide never to give to the organization again? How many will decide to give again, but will give less? While a long-term study of donor giving and retention, with a control group and test group, is the only way to determine the impact of a thank-you/ask letter for your organization, most organizations will not or cannot conduct such a test. So, in the absence of such test data, the default position for nonprofit organizations should be to use thank-you letters to simply thank donors.

Think about it. What message would you be sending if you include an ask in a thank-you letter? I think the message would be, “Thank you for your donation. It was not enough. So, I’m enclosing an envelope so you can give us more money. You know, the money you should have given us in the first place if you weren’t such a tightwad.” I don’t think that’s the way to build a long-term relationship with donors.

Burk reviewed hundreds of thank-you letters for her book in which she outlined 20 attributes of great thank-you letters. I felt so strongly about her list that I cited it in my own book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing:

  1. The letter is a real letter, not a pre-printed card.
  2. It is personally addressed.
  3. It has a personal salutation (no “Dear Donor” or “Dear Friend”).
  4. It is personally signed.
  5. It is personally signed by someone from the highest ranks of the organization.
  6. It makes specific reference to the intended use of the funds.
  7. It indicates approximately when the donor will receive an update on the program being funded.
  8. It includes the name and phone number of a staff person whom the donor can contact at any time or an invitation to contact the letter writer directly.
  9. It does not ask for another gift.
  10. It does not ask the donor to do anything (like complete an enclosed survey, for example).
  11. It acknowledges the donor’s past giving, where applicable.
  12. It contains no spelling or grammatical errors.
  13. It has an overall “can do,” positive tone as opposed to a handwringing one.
  14. It communicates the excitement, gratitude, and inner warmth of the writer.
  15. It grabs the reader’s attention in the opening sentence.
  16. It speaks directly to the donor.
  17. It does not continue to “sell.”
  18. It is concise—no more than two short paragraphs.
  19. It is received by the donor promptly.
  20. Plus, in some circumstances, the letter is handwritten.

Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog by Kivi Leroux Miller contains additional tips for writing great thank-you letters. She states, “Sending out really good thank you letters is an incredibly savvy marketing strategy, simply because so many other nonprofits are doing it so badly.  It’s an easy way to stand out. A very easy way.”

So, make sure that you do not include an ask, either active or passive, in your thank-you letters. Also, pull out a copy of the thank-you letters you are using and see if you can make them more effective by following the tips from Burk and Miller. It’s a good investment in the relationship with your donors. You’ll be rewarded with happier donors who renew their support for years to come and increase their giving over time.

That’s what Michael Rosen Says… What do you say?

UPDATE: 600 Acknowledgement Letters for Free Download

If you need some ideas for putting together a powerful thank-you letter, be sure to visit the Donor Relations Guru website where you’ll find 600 acknowledgement letters, categorized and available for download. The website is a fantastic resource.

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25 Responses to “Can a Thank-You Letter Contain an Ask?”

  1. I have always maintained thank you letters and acknowledgements are separate entities with different purposes. Acknowledgements are “tax papers” and we include another opportunity to give. This works quite well with no complaints from donors. Thank you letters are just that: expression of thanks. No ask is nor should be involved. In general terms, it is personal, as you stated, and it is an individual piece. I hope that this helps…

    • Truecomfort, thank you for sharing an interesting thought. I’m pleased to know that your primary thank-you letters are ask-free. As for including an ask with the acknowledgement/receipt letter, I have some mixed feelings. While not your primary thank-you to the donor, it is still part of the thank-you process. If you include an appeal in the acknowledgement letter, you’re trying to accomplish two different tasks. Generally, I’m more of a fan of communications that focus on a single task. Have you tested the long-term impact of your approach against a control group and against a stand-alone direct mail appeal? For example, research shows that including an appeal with a newsletter can produce results. However, sending a stand-alone appeal shortly after sending a newsletter can yield even stronger results.

  2. Michael, I believe you are wrong.

    In a robust direct-response fundraising program where you have thousands of donors, an ask in the thank you letter has produced over 10% of a non-profit’s total revenue. For some organizations I’ve consulted with, that equates to millions of dollars a year.

    Also, I’ve been involved in multiple testing scenarios with many different clients and adding an ask in a thank you letter as part of an aggressive welcome series to new donors not only increased revenue, but higher retention rates and higher long-term value.

    Now, where you are right is if you are thanking a major donor who is part of a caseload or a gift of a specific amount that the executive director is personally responding to. That is where another ask would be inappropriate because you have a specific plan for that type of donor.

    However, for a donor that is part of your one to many, direct-response program an ask in the Thank you letter is a MUST, especially if they are a new donor. Why? Because a new donor is most excited about the organization they just gave to within the first 30 days they give a gift. All of the testing and data that I’ve seen shows that the sooner you can get a donor to give a second gift after the first gift, the better the donor, both for short and long term.

    I’m sure Penelope Burk is a nice person. However, in my opinion she is doing the fundraising world a huge disservice by spreading her “truth” based on opinion survey’s rather than actual data.

    This drives the direct-response fundraising folks nuts because what people say and what people do are at odds with each other. The DM fundraising world knows that the more opportunities you give donors to support your mission, the more they will give. The more they give, the more loyal they become. Every donor base I’ve analyzed holds this truth…and it’s based on actual data.

    Penelope Burk doesn’t have actual donor behavior data that backs up her claims. She has survey results. It’s actually quite irritating.

    Thanks for bringing the subject up.

    • Jeff, thank you for taking the time to share your experience. You might be somewhat comforted to know that I actually agree with virtually everything you’ve stated. I’m a direct-mail/telephone fundraising pioneer, so you shouldn’t be too surprised with that. My major point of disagreement with you is simply that the thank-you letter is not the best place to make that important, next appeal. You’re quite correct that, often though not always, the sooner you can get a new donor to give again, the stronger the relationship will be. I’m just not convinced that putting the next ask in a thank-you letter versus a stand-alone direct mail appeal is the way to go.

      The only way a given organization can know what approach is most effective long-term, is to do a long-term test involving three test cells: 1) thank-you letter with no ask and standard direct mail regimen, 2) thank-you letter with an ask, 3) thank-you letter with no ask followed up soon thereafter with a direct mail appeal. Then, the organization would be able to track response rates, average gift size, and donor retention rates over, say, a five-year period. With that data in-hand, the organization would know what is best for itself. However, whatever the results, one would not be able to extrapolate the outcome for all nonprofit organizations. Does the testing you have done look anything like what I’ve suggested? If so, I’d love to see the data. In the absence of overwhelming sector test data or test data for the particular organization, I continue to believe an organization should err on the side of “first do no harm.” In other words, the default position should be to keep thank-you letters ask-free.

      While she does not need me to come to her defense, I will anyway. Penelope Burk’s research has not been limited to attitudinal surveys. For her book, she has invested a great deal of effort in the analysis of lifetime giving value. While I’m unaware of any donor behavioral data she may have collected related to the issue of asks in thank-you letters, I continue to believe that her advice on the subject makes an appropriate default position for charities.

      Finally, I just want to underscore that you have raised an important issue. Yes, it is important to establish the case for another gift and ask. And, there is research to suggest that doing so sooner rather than later, as it relates to a first gift, works best. I simply continue to question whether the appropriate place for that next ask is the thank-you letter itself instead of a stand-alone appeal. Burk has done some excellent donor behavior analysis regarding how donors are cultivated and then asked following their gift. In the absence of concrete data for an organization that suggest otherwise, I will continue to advocate for maintaining the purity of the thank-you.

  3. 1. The non-profit sector is far too diverse to make any sweeping generalizations, so, “it depends” should be the default, not a binary “yes” or “no”

    2. It depends on the type of gift, if this is the first gift or the 51st gift made by the donor – in other words, it depends on how strong or weak the relationship is between the donor and organization.

    3. It depends on if this is an annual fund, endowment, revocable, or irrevocable life income gift. I almost always advocate for the triple ask (annual, endowment or quasi-endowment, and deferred), so if this Thank You is for one type of gift, here’s a chance to bring up the other types of giving that exist. If this was a CRUT, for example, I might suggest that the donor consider contributing one or more quarterly payments back into the Trust as a way to build principal and as an easy way to make an additional gift.

    4. It depends if this gift was solicited or unsolicited. If solicited, one might assume the gift officer already made the triple ask and the donor is considering one or both of the other two options which means you can also thank them for considering the other gift(s). If unsolicited, it’s a great time to mention that the need for the other two types of gifts are important stabilizing gifts, etc…

    5. It depends on the need of the organization – there might be short-term needs that the donor might be unaware of such as a campaign or unusual pressures from the macro-environment.

    6. For some donors, especially the busy types, this might be your one shot to get a message across.

    7. A Thank You isn’t just a “Thank You”. It’s an opportunity to define or redefine the relationship between the donor and the organization. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge appreciation while reminding the donor that the need doesn’t go away once their check is cashed.

    8. Finally, it’s important to re-state the fact that “it depends”. Not all thank you’s should contain an ask, but an organization should have the flexibility and insight to know when to put one in.

    • John, thank you for taking the time to share your detailed thoughts on the subject. While we tend to disagree on this one, I welcome your different perspective, and I encourage others to provide feedback to your comments. I also just want to point out that our disagreement is not 100 percent. I do believe that, on occasion, an ask might be acceptable in a thank-you letter. However, I’m guessing that I would find far fewer acceptable occasions than you might. I continue to believe that in most situations, a thank-you letter will be stronger if it is stand-alone. And, an appeal will be much more impactful if it is stand-alone (though it should recognize and briefly thank donors for past support).

  4. Do you notice that every one of Michael Rosen’s responses begin by thanking the writer for sharing their thoughts and taking the time to write in? Great stewardship and really drives his point home.

    • Sean, thanks for noticing and for commenting. Thanking folks who write-in has always been an automatic thing for me to do from the beginning of my blog. It just seemed the right thing to do since folks are taking up their time to comment and share something of themselves. I always appreciate the feedback even when I don’t agree with it.

  5. Thank you for beginning an enlightening discussion, Michael. For many years I took the position of “thank you only” as well. When I came to my current position a few years ago, I was aghast that thank you notes always included a reply envelope. As I began explaining why the reply envelope was counter to good fundraising, I was told “this is what our donors expect.” And you know what? They were right. In fact, some donations include a note saying “send more envelopes.” It was a good reminder that even the most accepted rules should bend when the donors are clear about what they want and expect.

    • Daniel, thank you for sharing your insight. While some of your donors might actually want more envelopes, I doubt that they all do. The question is: How many donors are really being alienated? Without doing careful testing, you have no way of knowing. Another question is: Is there a better way for you to fundraise that might be even more effective? For example, if you have a large group of donors that want more envelopes, perhaps you should launch a monthly donor program allowing folks to give via electronic funds transfer.

  6. Excellent response, Michael. We test constantly to match donor preferences with giving opportunities. As my wife noted, in an entirely different context, one-size-fits-all doesn’t fit anyone well, it only misfits in different areas.

  7. From a direct marketing perspective I certainly see the point in Jeff’s comments. “Strike while the iron is hot.” And, yes, the longer I work with various organizations the more I see how impossible it is to make generalizations.

    Your readers might be interested in reading this debate, between copywriter Lisa Sargent and Sean Triner “To ask or not to ask” on SOFII’s site: http://www.sofii.org/node/270. I address this topic a bit as well in my free ebook, The Lifetime Donor Attraction System, which is filled with ideas to steward your donors throughout the year: http://www.pamelagrow.com/1462/free-ebook-lifetime-donor-attraction-system/

    • Pamela, thank you for sharing the two links. I agree with you that generalizing is almost always difficult and often inappropriate. However, I also believe that a nonprofit organization should first seek to do no harm. So, unless an organization has tested and proven the effectiveness of a thank-you/ask letter over a few years — tracking average gifts, response rates, and retention rates — the organization should not use such a letter. In the debate on the SOFII site, Lisa Sargent writes, “Ask for gifts in your thank yous and you may get the fast money, but lose a friend. Say thank-you the right way – without an ask or upgrade – and win donors for life.” I agree with her. The opposing point of view was presented by Sean Triner. While he says the numbers are important, he does not present any long-term data, particularly about donor retention. Also, he advances a common but false argument: He suggests that it is important to ask for gifts and to do so soon after a donor’s first gift. The implication being, that you either ask in the thank-you letter or you’re not going to ask. Of course, there is a third way: You can send a stand alone direct mail appeal shortly after you send your stand alone thank-you letter. I’m all for asking. I just don’t believe you have to do it in a thank-you letter. When organizations put their own interests first (i.e.: it’s cheaper to ask in a thank-you letter than a stand alone appeal; it’s easier to send one letter instead of two; etc.), they often underperform. We need to be donor-centered in our fundraising programs. Sargent points out that donor retention rates, already pretty poor in the U.S.A., have dropped even further. We need to reverse this trend. Being donor-centered can do that.

      Finally, I’ve downloaded your e-book and look forward to reading it. I hope others do likewise. Thank you for making it available.

      • Good comments everyone. Michael, in your last post here why are you assuming asking in a thank you letter is not donor-centered, but organizationally centered. The organizations I worked with did not use this strategy to save costs but to help build donor loyalty. I know if “feels” counter-intuitive, but after tracking new donor behavior over a three-year period those donors who gave using the thank you package had higher retention and LTV than the donors who did not respond. Also, I think Lisa is great, but again, I disagree with her assertion that asking in the thank you letter will drive donors away. The empirical data that I’ve seen suggest the opposite.

        Jeff

      • Jeff, a thank-you/ask letter is inherently not donor-centric. It’s all about what the organization wants/needs; it’s not about the donor. And, that’s one major problem I have with such letters. Your donor behavior analysis over the three-year period is interesting, but may actually prove my point rather than yours. You say that those who give again remain more loyal. I have no doubt of that. However, could you have secured even more donors by sending a stand-alone appeal shortly after sending a stand-alone thank-you letter? Was that even a test cell in your campaign? Also, you say that those who responded had a higher lifetime value (LTV) than those who did not respond. I suggest that there are two reasons for that: 1) Donors who give again are more likely to continue giving; however, you have not demonstrated that the next appeal must be in the thank-you rather than stand-alone in order to be effective. 2) Those who did not respond might have been ticked off by the ask in the thank-you letter and, therefore, did not become loyal supporters; this is where you might be proving my point. The data you have shared simply support the notion of asking for another gift soon after the first. I support that. However, the data that you shared does not necessarily support including an ask in the thank-you. At best, it simply demonstrates the importance of asking. I respectfully suggest that your results would be at least as great, if not greater, over a three-year period if you did a stand-alone thank you followed soon after by a stand-alone appeal. At the very least, I encourage you to do a comparative test with my suggestion as a test cell.

  8. Actually Michael, we did a two-year test with 18 different panels. Then followed up a third year to see if it was holding up. This exhaustive test was conducted on new donors. We specifically tested an ask in a thank you, a welcome package with a donor communication preference card (including another ask), followed by another appeal. All of this happened within three weeks from the first gift received. Once they went through the “control” welcome series, they then over the course of one year received 18 other appeals, newsletters and touchpoints. We tested a plethora of combinations of the welcome series (including no ask in the thank you) and another of other combinations of no asks, etc. in addition to a reduced number of fund appeals. BTW, if a donor gave they received a thank you package with an ask in it.

    The client urged us to create this test because their bias was that we were too aggressive in our communications. After two years, there was a clear winner… that was the control, or as the client called it, The Kitchen Sink. In addition to the actual data, we conducted a phone survey with donors from each of the 18 panels to see how they felt about the communications they were getting from this particular client and their attitude and feelings, because our client thought that the donors were feeling very negative about all this communication from them. The results were startling to the client. The control not only brought in more revenue, more gifts per donor, less attrition and more LTV than any of the other remaining 17 panels, their survey results were the most positive about how they viewed the organization and how they communicated with them.

    Finally the client was convinced. And, we actually presented this study to the DMA Conference in New York a few years ago. So, according to this study the most donor-centered strategy was to throw the “kitchen sink” at our donors…including putting an “ask” in the thank you receipt package.

    Jeff

    • Jeff, thank you for sharing additional information about your very interesting test. For this particular client, it appears that including an ask in the thank-you letter may not have been harmful and may have contributed to lifetime value, as you have indicated. However, I would still be cautious about extrapolating these results across the entire nonprofit sector. As I suggested in my original post, testing is an essential part of any direct response program particularly when looking to buck the standard practice of an organization. Your test and its results, as you’ve characterized them, underscore the enormous value of testing.

      Because you’ve obviously been willing to go public with your test, and because such test data for the sector is limited, I would like to encourage you to submit an article detailing your test. It would be a real service to the nonprofit community that could encourage others to test. The ideal publication for it would be the peer-reviewed International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing published by John Wiley & Sons. Alternatively, you could submit it to Advancing Philanthropy published by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. If you’d like me to assist with the submission, feel free to contact me off-blog.

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