Five Effective Ways To Craft a Donor Update Letter [2023]

Megan Donahue
Megan Donahue

Do your donors know what’s going on at your organization? Have you shown them what their dollars actually do?

Too often, we ask donors for money, send a thank you when they give it, and then…

Nothing but tumbleweeds.

They never hear about it again.

This lack of follow-through is too bad, for several reasons, including:

  1. They helped make something good happen, but didn’t hear how it went. That’s a bummer.
  2. Silence leaves them to draw their own conclusions, such as, “XYZ organization must not be doing anything with that.” Or, “I’m sure that project is finished now.” Or, “Problem solved! They don’t need any more help!”
  3. They might forget about it entirely, which is sad (see #1)
  4. It makes fundraising more of a transaction, and less of a relationship. Transactions are inherently less meaningful.

Donors want to know they’re making a difference. Updating your donors shows them that they’re a part of the cause and that the impact of their gift continues to matter. Updates can invite donors to celebrate your progress, and even spur further donations. That’s why updates are built into CauseVox’s online fundraising platform.

Trust me, I get it. You’ve got a million other things to do. If you’re a fundraising department of one or part of a small team, you’re probably wearing more than one hat. Adding another task on your calendar seems impossible.

It’s can also be hard to demonstrate the dollar value of donor updates to a board or Executive Director. Unlike, say, grant proposals or direct mail appeals, there is no hard-and-fast way to measure if updating your donors “works.” This can make it easy to skip because it doesn’t feel like the stakes are too high if you don’t.

Sorry, the stakes of leaving your donors out of the loop are actually pretty high.

I probably don’t have to tell you that donor retention is a tricky business. Bloomerang reported that a combined 22% of donors who stopped giving to an organization did so for reasons having to do with communication—they thought the organization didn’t need them, didn’t get information on how the money was used or forgot they supported the organization in the first place.

Donor impact updates are one way to keep your donors engaged with your organization. Here are five kinds of updates that do the job without taking too big a bite out of your schedule.

1) Monthly E-Updates

I am a fan of very quick monthly e-updates. Calling them a newsletter is too grand. I’m talking a paragraph or two, one great image, and we’re done. This keeps you in front of your audience, shows them how things are going, and reminds them that they’re part of something great.

A monthly update would be worth doing even if the only benefit were that it gives your donors 12 chances to hear from you a year. But monthly updates also hold a storytelling opportunity to show a broader scope of your organization.  You can highlight seasonal and time-sensitive material, as well as the smaller happenings around your organization. Rather than focusing solely on your big accomplishments, monthly emails engage your donors in a more intimate way and give them a deeper look at the impact they’re making.

Email updates are also a good companion to campaigns. After your Year-End campaign is finished, plan to email donors regularly to report what their donations are doing. It doesn’t have to be strictly monthly, but consistent follow-ups demonstrate that their help made an impact.

Donor impact update

2) Newsletters

Print newsletters are a good vehicle for long-form content. You’ve got time and space to share interviews, explain complicated issues, and tell a vivid story. This kind of storytelling gives your donors the opportunity to engage emotionally with your work.

Newsletters have a longer shelf-life than an email since they can sit around on someone’s coffee table for a while. They aren’t the best for time-sensitive stories, but they shine when focused on profiles, stories of how a project developed over time, or explore the big issues of your organization.

Don’t start sending a print newsletter if you don’t already. That’s a big undertaking, and I just promised you that I wouldn’t ruin your schedule. However, if you already do have a print newsletter, dedicate some space to updating donors on how things are going.

Remember, your update doesn’t have to be a big announcement or only good news. Keep your donors in the conversation, even if your update is, “This spring, we were all set to get started on constructing the new dormitory until we learned we had to get the land re-surveyed, which brought everything to a halt. We anticipate breaking ground in August.”

3) Phone Calls

A real human calling to tell you how your donation is working for change is memorable. That kind of interaction isn’t a cold transaction.

I am a big fan of fundraising folks calling donors without asking for money. For one, it’s fun to hear people’s voices transform from suspicion to delight, as they realize you aren’t soliciting them. It’s potentially quick (most people won’t want an extended chat), and easy to fit into those odd little bits of time in your day.

Calling to say “thank you” is a great place to start. Use a  simple script, like, “I’m Megan, calling from XYZ Organization. I wanted to thank you for your support. Your contribution to our conservation project helped us put five new beehives up at the Botanical Gardens, and we couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks!”

If a donor has expressed a particular interest in a project or made a special gift towards it, call to check in. Let them know that the bees have settled into the hives, or the kids just had their first recess with their new kickballs, or the first performance of the play went off without a hitch. It’s a real and human thing to do, and your donor will know they’re a true friend of your organization.

It’s currently fashionable to hate the phone, but it has its advantages. There’s a reason the telephone company told us to “Reach out and touch someone.” The phone is personal, and you’ll learn more about your individual donors’ interests and priorities by talking with them.

4) Personal Letter

While you can’t send a truly personal letter to every single one of your donors, it’s a great thing to do for your major givers, and people who’ve expressed significant interest in a project.  Whether you send a short letter detailing the latest highlights of the project, or a little note card telling them what’s new, sending something in the mail deepens your relationship with the donor by making it more personal.

Most people don’t receive many nice, personal letters in the mail. Yours will stand out as a welcome piece of “real mail” amidst the bills and junk. Donors expect nonprofits to send form letters. A unique update, just for them, is unexpected.

You don’t need big news to send a note. Notes are good for short updates, personalized thank yous, and casual news.  The important part is showing the donor that you see them as an individual, remember what they tell you and that they matter to you.

If you stock up on neutral, pretty note cards and carry a few with you, you can turn annoying wasted time into donor update time. Waiting for meeting to start? Stuck on the train between site visits? Write a note.

5) Social Media and Web

This one could be a freebie. Take a look at your social media platforms. You might already be publishing regular donor updates but do you use your social media to demonstrate what donors help accomplish?

The benefit of updating donors on social media is that it allows you to congratulate and celebrate your donors publically. Recognition and appreciation matter, and on social media you can shout out your donors in front of their peers while educating the rest of your audience about giving.

Post on social media when you reach a campaign milestone, launch a new project, or finish something you started. Call attention to how many donors and how much money it took to accomplish something. Ask if you can tag donors to celebrate their contributions. Remind your audience how the things you do are funded.

Don’t be afraid to give your donors a shout out. Take a look at this Facebook post from World Bicycle Relief, which points their audience towards their annual report on fundraising.

Reach Out

So there you go, five ways to keep your donors engaged with your organization after they’ve made a gift. Remember: You don’t have to do all of these things every month. The important thing is to let your donors know that their contributions had an impact and to continue to engage them. Show them you value their relationship with your organization, and reach out.

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