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As a fundraiser, gratitude — both well-expressed and sincere — is one of the most important tools you have. It’s good for you and your donor.

A donor sits down at his desk and grabs his checkbook. In a spirit of generosity, he rips out two checks, making out donations of large and equal size to two similar organizations. A few weeks later, he hears from one of these organizations by email, thanking him for his generous gift. A week later, he receives a phone call . . . it’s from the same organization, thanking him again for his gift. The next week, he hears from them again with the same message of gratitude.

The first organization is effusive in its gratitude—almost annoyingly so. The second organization is annoying for another reason: the donor fails to hear from them at all. He can’t even be sure that they received his gift. When he sits back down at his desk the next time, do you think the checks he writes will be the same size? Will he even write two checks?

Sadly, the story above is not hypothetical. Nor is it, I fear, a rare one. The donor who shared it with me is kind-hearted and forgiving, but his response was telling. He told me he still wants to support that second organization. He gives them the benefit of the doubt that they have a small team and were probably just busy. But he also couldn’t help but wonder how effectively they were stewarding his and other donors’ resources—and how effectively they are executing their mission.

It is no secret that development departments are often short-staffed and overworked. Compounding the problem, they are often saddled with unrealistic revenue goals and program timeframes. The result can become a counter-productive emphasis on “getting the gift” at the expense of the long-term health of the department and the organization overall. Donor gratitude should be central to the operations of a development department—both because it is a good practice and because it is a moral responsibility.


It is worth briefly examining what we might call the “nonprofit economy.” While certainly subject in some sense to market forces, the nonprofit economy is fundamentally not a market economy. Indeed, as any development professional knows, we are required to state clearly that “no goods or services have been rendered in exchange for this donation” on gift receipts (or to line-item any goods or services that have been rendered and subtract the value to calculate the portion that is actually a charitable gift).

In a market economy, when someone renders payment, she expects the agreed-upon good or service to be conveyed. If for some reason that good or service is not conveyed or is different than what was agreed upon, she will understandably protest.

But in the absence of rendering a good or service, what response does a donor expect after making a charitable gift? What response should a donor expect? The answer to this question explains the donor’s reaction in my story above. There is a tacit understanding between donor and nonprofit that the latter will steward his resources well and that they will in some way acknowledge the gift (which he was under no obligation to make). This reciprocity is central to the nonprofit economy.

It is not for nothing that Cicero described gratitude as, not only the greatest, but the parent of all the virtues. Gratitude directs us outward, refocusing our attention from what is owed to us to what we have been given. The science of gratitude is a nascent research field, but thanks to the John Templeton Foundation, a number of recent studies have examined the benefits of gratitude. According to one widely-held definition, gratitude is a two-step process: first, someone recognizes that he has obtained a positive outcome; second, he recognizes that this positive outcome has an external source. Some psychologists have further distinguished gratitude into three types: an emotion (in the moment, when the positive outcome is conveyed), a mood (feelings of gratitude that ebb and flow), and an affective trait (a durable disposition toward expressing gratitude).

It should come as no surprise that according to most research, gratitude appears to make people happier and healthier while facilitating the creation and strengthening of relationships. Good fundraisers should strive to cultivate gratitude in themselves and in donors not merely as emotion or mood but as affective trait.

So, I suggest that there is a moral responsibility to extend gratitude for every charitable gift as part of the nonprofit economy.


But it is also clear that it is in an organization’s best interest to operate a robust donor acknowledgment program.

There are three primary reasons. First, as stated above, it meets a donor’s expectation upon making a charitable gift. This is the bare minimum in the nonprofit economy. Second, it nourishes your personal relationship with the donor, which enhances the potential for future giving. Third, and most ambitiously, it can cultivate a disposition of gratitude in the donor.

Giving itself is a manifestation of gratitude, whether to God, to others, or to the specific beneficiary (or all of the above). Gratitude begets gratitude, and giving begets giving. If we express genuine gratitude, we will foster further gratitude and more generous giving, to great and mutual benefit.

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