Posted October 1st, 2008

Writing the Right Way to Donors

We have all seen a letter come across our desk with typos, bad grammar, misspelled words, punctuation errors, and sloppy printing. And, rightly or wrongly, we probably formed a negative opinion about the person who sent that letter. What are your own letters saying about you? Here are some factors you may want to consider as you sit down to write to your most important associates—your donors.

What comes after the “Dear” ?

As you compose your letter, do you begin with “Dear Jane and John” or “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Doe”? Or perhaps “Dear Friend”? The appropriate salutation depends on two primary factors:

  • How well you know the donor. If you are writing a thank-you note to a donor whom you know very well and with whom you are on a first name basis, “Dear Jane” is appropriate. If, on the other hand, you are writing to a donor you have never met and do not know well, address him as “Mr. Doe” in your correspondence. Many would advise that you should continue to address him this way until he requests that you call him by his given name.
  • The subject of the letter. If you are composing a cover letter for a mass mailing on wills and estate planning, you should consider using “Dear Friend” as your salutation. Because of the highly personal nature of the subject of wills, most donors prefer the more formal approach of this less direct salutation. While some direct mail tenets say that a more personalized approach is best, we have found over the years that some older persons may perceive that approach as inappropriate when it comes to the subject of estate and financial planning. In other words, less may be more.

Remember to always double-check the spelling of the donor’s name and to use the correct title when appropriate. Medical doctors, Ph.D.’s, J.D.’s, married women, single women, etc., most likely have titles and/or suffixes they prefer. Find out what these are and use them correctly! Be especially wary of the use of the “Ms.” salutation with elderly women. Experience has shown that a significant number still prefer “Miss.” It is advisable to never change a “Miss” salutation to a “Ms.” without being requested to do so.

Who signs the letter?

Obviously if a letter is from you, you should sign it. But you may want to consider having someone else write a cover letter for your organization. For example, a testimonial-style letter from a volunteer or an actual donor may be both appropriate and compelling. There is nothing quite as moving as the personal story of a donor’s affiliation with and belief in the organization told in his or her own words. Many organizations we work with have used this testimonial approach with great success.

Another alternative may be to ask your president or board chairperson to write certain letters, such as thank-you letters for significant gifts or cover letters for annual appeal mailings. Correspondence from the highest-ranking person in your organization may be very meaningful to high-profile donors and prospective donors.

And remember, no matter who signs the letter, be sure that someone does! A letter without a signature can be seen as a sign of carelessness and not only reflects poorly on you, but on your organization as a whole.

Even if you can’t sign a letter yourself, have an associate sign for you with his or her initials after your name.

Looks count, too

Whether it is a letter for a mass mailing or a handwritten thank-you note, every letter your organization sends should be printed or written neatly so that it is easy to read. On printed letters, check that the type is not printed in a hard to read color or too faint. Also make sure that the text is centered correctly on the page. Consider the font size of the text. Is the font large enough for older readers to read comfortably? Avoid using a font size smaller than 12-point. Considerably larger type may sometimes be appropriate if you know that virtually all of the recipients of the letter will be persons of advanced age.

On handwritten letters, check for smears or smudges of the ink. Make sure your handwriting is legible—this may mean getting a second opinion from someone else in your office! Remember, even a quickly written note reflects on you and your organization and could have a lasting impact—either good or bad—on a donor.

In the development profession, when you send carefully thought-out correspondence to donors, it becomes more than just a matter of etiquette or good manners. It shows donors that you care about what you do and the impression you make on behalf of your organization. And when they know you care, they are more likely to care as a result.

Editor’s note: Excerpted from the session “Creating Proposals and Other Written Communications” in the seminar “An Introduction to Planned Giving.” See page 3 for more.

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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