How We Can Get Rid of That Terrible Thank You Letter

by Barbara Barron | Posted September 7th, 2022 | Subscribe to this newsletter

Recently, I completed an advancement appraisal for a great little school.

They are doing most things really well. And it shows – school spirit is high, they have terrific parent engagement, everyone gives, and their fundraising numbers are up. They’re in a good place. Still, I believe the Head was wise to request that I take a closer look…

Why? Well, because they have some new people in key roles so are in a moment where they can make smart adjustments to their practices. They are actively setting themselves up to be in the best shape possible as they prepare for some big initiatives in the next couple of years. It was brilliant.

Still, not everything was perfect. It never is.

One of the things I called out as an “area of improvement” was something that I see at almost every school I’ve ever consulted with. Even the really sophisticated schools with huge development teams and even bigger fundraising numbers seem to struggle with this one thing.

It’s the thank you note. It’s really bad.

What Makes a Thank You Note Bad?

Someone must have gotten the idea a millennia ago to combine the thank you letter with the tax receipt. Likely they were short-staffed and figured one letter could do both jobs. Maybe they thought it was helpful to the donor?

I’m sure their intentions were good — or likely the casualty of the lean administrative support most schools endure. But that’s of no matter. It’s still bad. And it’s time for it to change.

Then, because on some level everyone knows it’s bad, they put lipstick on that piggie by having someone, like the Head, jot a little scribbly note at the bottom. As if. They are fooling no one that this is not a basic form letter they are trying to disguise or dress up a bit. Nope.

The first time I recommended to a Head that instead, we move to actual handwritten thank you notes, he said I was crazy. (Well, he didn’t actually say those words but his expression did!)

He insisted that it would be far too time-consuming. I pointed out that the time he took to write his scribbly personal note at the bottom of each form letter (which were actually highly customized and excellent messages) was significant. I said he’d simply do the same thing, write those same three nice sentences, but on a bonafide (lovely) card. We’d insert a separate, tax receipt into the card before mailing.

Perhaps he sensed I was on to something or just wanted to try it so he could prove it was a nutty idea, but we did it.

What Happened?

Yes, there were about 6 weeks from early November to winter break when he likely wished he’d never agreed. But to his credit, he remained silent and kept writing. He must have realized he’d have been just as busy writing notes anyway that time of year. We just changed the vehicle.

And the result? He was stopped at basketball games and at drop-off by families who were blown away that he took the time to write and thank them personally for their gift.

Same scribbly – (nice) – note. But before, it clearly hadn’t felt like a personal note. They may not have even read it. And he’d spent so much time!

Now, spending the same amount of time but using a different format had a far bigger impact.

If I’d really had my way, we’d have omitted the receipts and sent one, comprehensive receipt to all donors the second week of January for their giving the prior year. That’s the time when we all start pulling together our tax documents. Schools live in a fiscal year. Donors don’t.

Plus, how often do you get calls in the spring from donors requesting a duplicate receipt because they have misplaced the original? Of course, they have. It was a dang form letter!


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The End Result

Small change, big result. Giving grew steadily, significantly. I am not claiming that was merely the result of changing the thank you note but it contributed. The approach was part of an intentional effort to stay focused on the donor experience, on leadership giving, and on more customized stewardship – the grandmommy of them all.

ProTip: Be sure to give your Head a “cheat sheet” so she s/he can quickly write great notes. Include the gift amount, if it is an increase, the name of the student, and anything current and interesting (i.e. she’s been cast in the school play or they are loving soccer this fall).

Also, insist that you get the completed notes back, so you can scan them before mailing. You’ll be grateful you did this next year so the Head doesn’t write yet again about the student loving soccer – unless they are now captain of the team!

I urge you to give it a try. I’d love to hear how it goes.

Be well,

Barbara Barron

[email protected] // @BBAdvancement


About the Author

My name is Barbara Barron, and I’m writing this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for over 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful fundraising plans and programs for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at The Carey School, Marin Primary & Middle School, Woodside Priory, Crystal Springs, Presidio Knolls, Sage Ridge, and San Diego French American, and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do this, together.

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