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My mother was right: sending handwritten thank-you notes makes a difference!

In this week's issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, author Eden Stiffen makes a compelling case for the power of handwritten thank-you notes in engaging donors>

by Eden Stiffman

The Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind has many faithful donors, most of them from the United States. Now, after a few small changes, even more donors are becoming as loyal as the Labradors and Golden Retrievers the center provides to assist blind Israelis, autistic children, soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, and other people with special needs.

Specifically, the 25-year-old charity is combining the power of peer-to-peer giving with personal, “handwritten” communications. The strategy is boosting revenue and inspiring donors to give again and again.

The peer-to-peer component of the strategy relies on American Jewish youth who choose fundraising for the center as a service project during their Bar or Bat Mitzvah preparation. Often these 12- and 13-year-olds bring in support from 50 to 60 friends and relatives who had not previously supported the charity. Last year, donors made 771 gifts in honor of a “mitzvah project,” raising close to $100,000.

The challenge, however, is getting those new donors to give again.

In the past, the charity sent a thank-you note signed by Michael Leventhal, the charity’s executive director, along with a profile of a blind person who has been helped by a service dog. But something was lacking.


Total 2015 contributions: $1,847,897

Average gift: $623.03 (this is skewed by several large gifts)

Number mailed: 4,000 to previous donors

2013 donor retention rate: 31.1 percent

2016 donor retention rate: 39.4 percent

Reactivated donors: 440

Cost of mailing: $1.50 per card plus first-class postage

"The mailing has got to connect,” says Mr. Leventhal, “but first people need to open it.”

A handwritten envelope — or at least one that appeared so — was key to breaking through. The charity hired a company called Thankster, which produces computer-generated cards and envelopes that look convincingly handwritten. The short personalized thank-you note appears to come directly from a beneficiary. And the return address includes two names — for example, Ruth and her new guide dog, Roxi. In each mailing, all donors receive the same card, but the charity sends notes from different recipients throughout the year.

The notes often elicited thank-you notes in return, he said. And the numbers reveal success.

Since the charity began sending these “handwritten” cards and envelopes around three years ago, donor retention has increased more than 8 percent, and 440 one-time donors gave again after receiving one of the notes.

Revenue from repeat donors jumped $657,398 in one year, a boost Mr. Leventhal says came largely thanks to the new approach. The notes are sent out about a month before a solicitation.

“There’s just no question that a note from a recipient, from somebody who has benefited from the actual donation, is a very, very powerful thing,” he says.

The center’s U.S. staff is pretty lean, with only two staff members, 17 board members, and volunteers. A fundraising consulting firm helps with prospect research.

Charities don’t necessarily need to use a vendor to produce the notes, Mr. Leventhal says. Consider asking volunteers or beneficiaries themselves to help with that task. “Whenever you can get a recipient to acknowledge donors with a handwritten note, it makes them feel more connected.”

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