The power of a thank you: The donor experience

 John Grain has over 25 years experience of direct fundraising, and coordinated a project by The Commission on the Donor Experience. John previously held senior posts within Oxfam and Practical Action, and was Director of Fundraising for Habitat for Humanity (Western Europe).


There should be delight in giving to a good cause. A sense of purpose, a satisfaction in doing the right thing, and the pleasure of knowing that in your own small way you have done something to help something you believe in.

The Commission on the Donor Experience ran a project looking at how to get relationships with donors off to a good start, and the project results make it clear that ethical fundraising should be a delightful experience all round, and for a donor it should deliver three things:

  1. A genuine proposition
  2. An unpressured opportunity to give
  3. A genuine appreciation for any gift received

Most responsible charities work very hard to provide the first two, but it is the last of these that can sometimes be somewhat formulaic and unimaginative, despite the fact we know just how much genuine appreciation for a kind act can mean to someone.

Making people feel appreciated

A few years ago my son and daughter were writing their Christmas thank yous to relatives and friends that we had not seen over the festive period. My daughter was hard at work creating individual thank you cards for each person with a drawing on the front and a handwritten note inside – a real labour of love. My son, eager to return to the new PS4, bashed out a few lines on the family PC and printed a few copies. He topped and tailed each at least, but the content was the same for everyone.

We sent the thank yous and a couple of months later, on our next visit to my in-laws, gran took my daughter aside and thanked her for her lovely card that was still stuck to the fridge. Later she took my daughter out for a couple of hours. They went for tea and cake and then to the bookshop where gran bought her a couple of novels and some stationery. When they returned my son was a bit put out – this wasn’t fair in his eyes, and eventually he asked gran outright why he hadn’t been invited. She explained that Esme had sent her such a lovely thank you for her Christmas present that had made her feel so special, she wanted to give her something else. My son protested that he too had sent a thank you to which she replied “yes you did, but it was the same thank you that everyone got and I don’t even remember what it said”.

Saying more than ‘thank you’

At a bare minimum a thank you must confirm receipt of a gift and reassure the donor how their money will be used, but the humble thank you has the potential to do so much more in the relationship between donor and charity.

A good thank you can inspire and motivate, deliver a message of genuine appreciation for the donor and perhaps most importantly celebrate in shared success. Our own research with donors to various charities found that more than seven in ten people felt that the thank you they received was one of the most important communications they receive, but the same proportion felt their acknowledgements were dull and predictable.

There are a number of simple things that can be done to make a thank you stand out and become something memorable, helping a donor feel more connected and engaged with the cause – get some tips on thanking donors in this how-to guide on NCVO Knowhow Nonprofit.

For too many fundraisers thanking remains the Cinderella of fundraising – oft neglected and sometimes even forgotten, but for donors it remains a crucial factor in judging a charity’s values, and a critical factor in any ongoing relationship.

We must stop paying thanking lip service and give it the credence and value it deserves.


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