Communicating with Donors the Old-Fashioned Way: Tips on Writing Letters | Sharpe Group
Posted December 1st, 2015

Communicating with Donors the Old-Fashioned Way: Tips on Writing Letters

Dear letterBy Elizabeth Smithers

In this digital age, communicating by text and email is convenient, quick and efficient. However, for many there’s still something special about receiving an ink-on-paper, addressed-to-you, rip-open-the-envelope, hold-it-in-your-hand letter. They are tangible, personal and, in today’s screen-based world, can be much appreciated.

That being said, writing a personal note or letter does require some thoughtful consideration. 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 or do not know well, address your correspondence to “Mrs. Doe.” It is best to continue to address donors this way until they request that you call them by their first names, especially older individuals or those whose roots may be in a more formal culture.
  • The subject of the letter. If you are composing a cover letter for a mailing on wills and estate planning, for example, consider using “Dear Friend” as your salutation. Because of the highly personal nature of the subject of wills, many donors may 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 seniors may perceive that approach as inappropriate when it comes to the subject of estate and financial planning. In other words, less may be more and you may want to err on the less personal side.

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, members of the clergy, married women, single women, etc., may have titles and/or suffixes they expect to see. Find out what these are and use them correctly.

Be especially wary of the use of the “Ms.” salutation with senior women. Experience has shown that a significant number still prefer “Miss.” It is advisable to never change a “Miss” or “Mrs.” 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 chief executive 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 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.

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. If you handwrite a note or letter check for smears or smudges of the ink. Make sure your handwriting is legible–this may mean getting a second opinion from a colleague. Remember, even a quickly written note reflects on you and your organization and could have a lasting impact–either positive or negative–on the recipient.

In the case of 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. Larger type may sometimes be appropriate if you know virtually all of the recipients of the letter will be people of advanced age.

Don’t forget handwritten notes and cards. Handwritten notes can have a powerful impact in the proper circumstances. The biggest advantage is that the recipients see them as very personal and clearly not another mass communication. Likewise get-well, greeting, sympathy, holiday, birthday and other cards that are signed and hand addressed continue to stand out.


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. ■

For information on scientific research regarding print vs. digital communications, see “Think Print Is Dead? Think Again” in November 2015 Give & Take.

Elizabeth Smithers is a Senior Editor at Sharpe Group.

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The publisher of Sharpe Insights 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 Sharpe Insights 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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