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Why you should be careful how you say ‘thanks’ to your donors.

Why do we say thanks?

Because we’ve been told to since childhood?

Because it’s polite?

Because it’s just automatic—like ‘bless you’ after a sneeze?

Because the currents of history brought about a culture of courtesy a millennium ago?

In so many areas of our lives, ‘thanks’ is a reflex response to generosity of any kind. And yet research tells us that it’s something we should probably be more mindful about. It is, as Jill Suttie reveals in this article from Greater Good Magazine, ‘good for our health and happiness’. It also elicits positive behaviour from the people we thank, and inspires ‘a desire to help and connect in people who simply witness’ the thank you.

But much of the research that extols the virtues of saying thanks to a friend, family member, or kind stranger, is applicable to an organisation expressing gratitude to a customer, client, or supporter.

In this article, I’ll take a look at why saying ‘thank you’ to donors, is such an important part of fundraising for not-for-profits. I’ll also look at what the research says about how you should say thanks.

Why it’s important to say thanks to donors.

There are many reasons why expressing gratitude to someone who’s contributed to your cause is worthwhile. I won’t cover them all here, but I will look at some of the research that explains why a thank you is so much more than a mere act of courtesy.

In an experiment conducted in 2010, researchers Adam Grant and Francesco Gino demonstrated that when people receive a thank you after providing help, they are far more likely to help again in the future.

Why? As this summary of the experiment puts it, ‘the experimenters found that people weren’t providing more help because they felt better or it boosted their self-esteem, but because they appreciated being needed and felt more socially valued when they’d been thanked’.

There’s an element of reassurance to a thank you. The study participants who received the note of appreciation understood that their help was worthwhile, and so were encouraged to again engage in prosocial behaviour.

What is prosocial behaviour?

‘Prosocial’ behaviour is simply an act, almost always voluntary, intended to benefit somebody else, several other people, or society more generally.

It’s not necessarily separate from self-interest. A prosocial act—an act of kindness, generosity, or sharing—can be motivated by social approval, a release from some kind of guilt, rewards, and financial incentives. When this isn’t the case—when a prosocial act is done without thought for the self—it’s often described as altruism…

… although there is much debate in psychology and philosophy about whether “true altruism” actually exists.

This may sound like fluffy theoretical discourse, but it’s actually vital to the question of why thank yous are important and why you need to be careful how you express them.

As a fundraising manager, you need to have some awareness of what motivates a supporter to become a donor. Ultimately, though, you may not mind whether a person contributes out of pure public-spiritedness, a fervent passion for a cause, or as a way of reducing tax.

The problem is, donors do mind about your motivations.

An expression of gratitude is a kind of prosocial behaviour; saying ‘thank you’ benefits the person being thanked. But research suggests that sincerity is a critical element of gratitude, especially when it comes to the relationship between an organisation and a donor. If a thank you note, email, or message appears to be part of some cunning strategy rather than a heartfelt show of appreciation, it can be ineffective.

A tricky balancing act.

Maybe we should pause here and consider the potential elephant in the room.

Is this article fatally flawed? By saying there’s research that shows how people, including potential donors, respond to certain kinds of thank yous, do we encourage the very cynicism that I’ve just said is ineffective?

I hope not. But we acknowledge it’s a tricky balancing act. The aim of the article is to give you better information, not so that you trick or manipulate your supporters, but so that you can perhaps think about your thank you messages in a new or different way.

To underscore that point, let’s return to some of the research into person-to-person gratitude for a moment. Social psychology expert, Professor Sara Algoe, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has conducted such experiments, believes an important element of gratitude is ‘its other-focused nature’.

She says:

‘When a grateful person actually takes the time to step outside of themselves and call attention to what was great about the other person’s actions—that’s what distinguishes gratitude from other kinds of positive emotional expressions.’

In other words, a thank you note written entirely out of self-interest isn’t really an act of gratitude at all.

Beware of provoking donor fatigue.

As I mentioned in this article on incentivising digital donation, humans are by nature generous. But even the most generous person in the world can’t donate to every cause they come across.

And that problem is exacerbated by the phenomenon of donor fatigue—people feeling bombarded by requests for money.

Donor fatigue works on a macro level: ‘I wish all these charities would stop calling me’. But it can also work on a micro level: ‘I wish this one charity would leave me alone for a month’.

This micro version often comes about when an organisation does what might be described as ‘pushing the friendship too far’. In fact, those are exactly the words used in a study into donor request fatigue by researchers at the University of Wollongong. Their research found that charities may be ‘poisoning the well for future donations’ by provoking donors into ‘blocking behaviours’ caused by feelings of annoyance, frustration and of being manipulated.

What might constitute pushing the friendship too far?

Well, one way is by sending a thank you to a donor and including a request for more money as part of the message.

Be careful of ‘Thank you, but…’.

We’ve all heard a variation of the maxim that ‘a thank you costs nothing’.

For a fundraising organisation, that’s not necessarily the case.

I talked earlier about the importance of sincerity in a thank you. One of the fundamentals of sincerity, as it relates to appreciation, is personalisation. It goes without saying that a generic ‘thank you to all our supporters’ on Facebook is far less meaningful than a thoughtful hand-written note about a specific donation from the director of an organisation.

Sincerity exists on a spectrum and, generally speaking, the more sincere the message, the more expensive and time-consuming it is to produce.

A study from Yale acknowledged this and discussed the fact that some charities attempt to ‘defray’ the cost of thank you letters by inviting further donations. But they found it was often counterproductive, that it annoyed donors. At least some of them.

The authors reported that ‘recent, frequent, and higher monetary value donors react negatively to additional asks by reducing giving.’ This makes intuitive sense. It’s easy to imagine a person who donated generously in March feeling (micro) donor fatigue upon being asked to donate again in April. It’s also easy to imagine them questioning the sincerity of a message that says ‘Thank you…’ and follows with ‘…but we need more from you’.

However, the study also found that ‘lapsed, infrequent, and lower monetary value donors react positively [to the request] by giving more’. The researchers hypothesised that for this cohort, the request feels more like a helpful reminder than a presumptuous solicitation. They also concluded that ‘differentially targeted ask messages based on past donation behaviour, data readily available to charities, can increase donations overall by 6-11%’.

Keep saying thanks.

With a small change to its donation form, Animals Australia created a significant influence on fundraising revenue. This is because generosity inspires further generosity. And it makes people generally happier and healthier.

So there’s really no two ways about it: you should say thanks to the people who support your cause financially.

But it’s always worth keeping in mind that how you say thanks is critically important. The medium, message, and timing can significantly change the way your correspondence is received.

When donors (or anyone for that matter) feel that they’re being coerced, manipulated, or taken for granted, they rarely react positively. They certainly aren’t likely to perceive a thank you as a form of generosity.

When they feel that the message is sincere, and demonstrates how their contribution has made a difference, though, their response is invariably positive.

Even if it doesn’t lead to an increase in donations, it absolutely leads to a better perception of your organisation’s brand.