How We Leverage Gratitude to Drive a Business Model

Why does a data-driven crowdfunding nonprofit focus on the power of a great thank you note? Because it works, and we have the numbers and the feedback to prove it.

By Julia Prieto

Madison wants to see the moon, and her note was one of a half-million that we processed last year.

If you’re reading this, you might already know how got its start. In 2000, almost a decade before “crowdfunding” became a buzzword, Charles Best, a high school teacher at Wings Academy in the Bronx, created a platform to fund classroom projects for teachers. After a slow start, teachers across the Bronx soon heard about the site, posting hundreds of projects.

The story that often doesn’t make the cut is what happened next, how his students helped those early projects get funded.

The high schoolers at Wings Academy, after seeing firsthand what the site was capable of, took matters into their own hands. They volunteered every day after school to hand-address letters to potential donors across the country. They mailed 2,000 letters. And those 2,000 letters resulted in $30,000 — in other words, the first major wave of real donations.

Since then, our entire business model has integrated the spirit of that first, bootstrapped letter-writing campaign: after a project has been successfully funded, students create handwritten thank-you packages that they then send to the donors who funded their projects. In the last year we shipped 75,000 envelopes to donors full of notes from students. Sometimes those thank-yous spoke about the project in action, sometimes they asked important questions like, “Why did you choose to support our classroom instead of buying a new TV?” (The answer, if you’re curious.) Sometimes teachers will go a step beyond paper and even create videos like this one:

If you haven’t been on the receiving end of student thank-yous, here’s a bit of context: All told, those 75,000 envelopes contained over a half-million handwritten notes from students.

So, why do this? It’s expensive. It’s messy. Mail delivery systems are prone to human error. To operationalize this manual thank-you process, we employ a full-time staff and a fleet of over 100 dedicated volunteers. We consider ourselves a data-driven, future-focused nonprofit, one that always bets on technology when we can. To our knowledge, we’re the only nonprofit organization that mass customizes thank-yous at this scale. On its face, doesn’t all of that effort sound hopelessly inefficient?

Since the Wings Academy students wrote those letters, we’ve proven time and again that it’s not inefficient. It works. It’s just one part of our process that our community feedback consistently focuses on, and the data we collect backs it up, too.

Those half-million thank-yous, like the ones above, helped drive nearly $3,075,000 in donations.

Every single day, we hear about donors who share their thank-yous online and with their friends and families in real life. The experience of receiving an envelope in the physical mail, full of hand-crafted, personalized work, is the perfect treat to reward and cultivate a supporter who wants to share their experience. Donors who have children tell us they use student thank-yous as an opportunity to introduce the idea of gratitude into their homes. We often hear about donors who head to the bookstore after receiving thank-yous from a book project because they want to reply to a student’s questions and let them know who their favorite character is. The act of returning to the website and simply writing back to the students demonstrates the type of engagement that we look to replicate across our process.

The data we look at substantiates the practice too. In order to receive a student thank-you, a donor has to do two things. First, they have to donate a minimum of $50. Second, they have to give us their mailing address. To better understand the impact these student thank-yous make on our overall revenue, we compared a subset of donors who gave more than $50 and opted into receiving student thank-yous to a similar group that opted out. After accounting for additional factors that could influence giving patterns, we looked at both groups’ average giving over the following year, and discovered a pleasant surprise. For the donor group that opted into student thank-you envelopes (those sentimental, hand-crafted, physically mailed, personalized collections of gratitude) average donation size increased over the following 12 months by $41. Now multiply that by 75,000 envelopes. Those half-million thank-yous, like the ones below, helped drive nearly $3,075,000 in donations.

As of publication, three million dollars is enough to fully fund about 3,700 projects on It is also enough to give 225,440 kindergarteners their own copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or purchase soccer cleats for 15,147 middle school soccer teams. The tradition that letter-writing campaign started at Wings Academy fifteen years ago continues at a scale larger than anyone could imagine.

It’s also not just business. Francesca Gino is a professor at Harvard who writes about the “gratitude effect.” Her research found that the act of giving and receiving a thank-you contributes to higher levels of self-worth and triggers helpful behaviors toward both the person we are helping and other people, too. NPR reported just yesterday that gratitude literally helps” the heart, as in the organ beating in your chest. And…it’s just good manners, the kind that plenty of teachers strive to foster in any classroom.

The following story is true. We recently received an inquiry from a teacher whose classroom was exempt from creating thank-yous. This happens in rare cases when no $50 donors opt in. This teacher wasn’t having that. She wrote in to us demanding that her students create thank-yous for someone. In her adamant words, “It’s only right!”

We’d like to thank her for saying what we were all thinking.

Julia Prieto is the Director of Donor Appreciation at and she is currently buried under reams of student thank you notes. Have a look at a few of our favorites below, and the ultimate list of 2015's cutest student thank-yous here!

A version of this post has also been published on and was adapted from a presentation given as part of Fast Company’s Innovation Festival.

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