We’ve made an entire industry out of those terrible gifts we used to get at the holidays. Ugly Christmas sweaters are now a staple of contemporary holiday parties and we joke about how wonderful it is to actually get socks as a present.
But, boy was a it disappointing as a kid.
You still had to write a thank you note.
“Say thanks to Aunt Peggy and give her a hug.”
“You better get those thank you notes written before school starts!”
And we, begrudgingly, wrote out some terrible notes that we felt compelled to do to express an emotion we didn’t feel.
In some ways we were taught that saying thanks is a task, a chore, something required of us to do as part of standard social norms.
Now, think about the gift that took your breath away . . .
The thing you didn’t expect, never dreamed hoped for – the complete surprise that knocked you off your feet. How did you receive that gift?
“Oh! You shouldn’t have!”
“My goodness, I don’t deserve this!’
“Oh, no, I can’t accept this. It’s too much.”
Receiving a gift is not an easy emotional proposition. It requires us to be vulnerable, to admit our own needs or wants, to be exposed. In receiving, and accepting, a gift we’re saying “I couldn’t do this and I have to humble my own sense of self in order to acknowledge that.”
We’re taught to say thanks, we’re taught to give, but we’re not taught to receive.
There’s No Such Thing as True Altruism
Gift giving is more about the Giver than it is the Receiver.
There is evidence and research to suggest that the brain chemistry of giving – of doing for others – floods us with the “happiness trifecta” of dopamine, oxytocin and seratonin. And enough evidence to indicate that the old adage of “It’s better to give than to receive” is actually hard-wired into human behavior.
When we give, we’re doing so to flood our own systems with the chemicals that produce happiness, joy, contentment . . .
“There’s a selfish element in it, really. When we make someone happy, we become even happier. If you decide yourself that you will help in some way, you will benefit the most because it will create amazing joy. Those who are not doing anything are missing out on a very profound joy.”
What Does That Say About Gratitude?
Well, there’s enough neuroscience research about Gratitude to indicate it, too, hits us with that dopamine/seratonin cocktail of joy.
And that faking gratitude can actually cause the same neuro-bioligical reaction so we literally can “fake it ’til we make it.”
But, as this article states, our primary human motivation is survival so we’re quite literally programmed for fear first.
Gratitude, then, has to become a conscious act. We have to choose to overcome fear to feel grateful. We have to allow the dopamine rush that the giver is experiencing to wash over us so that we get the same hit.
In Which We Finally Get To The Point Re: Fundraising
The question becomes, then, do we as fundraisers see the dollars that donors give as gifts or do we see them as perfunctory ends to our budgetary needs?
Do we actually – truly – feel grateful for what donors are doing through their giving?
If we accept that fundraising is about helping donors realize their personal visions and beliefs through their philanthropy, AND we accept that donors are giving to get that dopamine rush for themselves, then the act of donating to charity is not about us or the organization at all.
It’s about the donor giving to feel good about themselves in helping our beneficiaries.
Which then means, we have to humble ourselves and accept that vulnerability in caring for that trust they’ve put in us. The donor gave to our organization because they believe in the promise of our mission.
If neuro-science is to be believed, donors are, at some level, going, “Look at me, I’m a good person, I did a good thing” and they’re walking around in a Chemical Stew of Awesomeness.
We gotta keep it going.
We have to shift our thinking from “this gift will help us reach our budget goals.” We have to admit that philanthropy isn’t about us – the organization or the fundraiser – at all. It’s about the donor and the beneficiary.
We have to learn to say “This important work wouldn’t happen without you” and take ourselves out of the mix. And that hurts our ego. Especially when our ego is tied to budget goals and performance metrics.
And because it’s our job, sometimes it feels like the perfunctory letter to Aunt Peggy for those darn socks. And we’d have to admit our vulnerability in expressing gratitude while we’re trying to juggle 1,000 things and hit revenue goals.
Gratitude On Behalf Of . . .
. . . an egocentric bias may lead expressers to systematically undervalue its positive impact on recipients in a way that could keep people from expressing gratitude more often . . .
In other words, those who were charged with saying “Thanks!” under-estimated just how good it would make the giver feel.
There’s a real reason why we call the post-gift relationship “Stewardship.” We are there to take care of the relationship between the donor and, ultimately, the beneficiary.
They have both put trust in us – the donor who expects that their gift will be used as intended for the solution we promised. The beneficiary who NEEDS our org’s work and is counting on us.
It’s our responsibility then to keep that ‘cycle of joy’ going for the donor.
If we learn anything from our colleagues in the for-profit world, it’s lessons in customer loyalty. One study cites that 68% of customers leave because of an attitude of indifference.
In an era of fewer households giving at ‘small and medium levels’ and lackluster donor renewal rates, let’s just assume that expressing gratitude and making the donor feel valued are the way to increase that level of loyalty.
Which means we might have to manufacture that attitude of gratitude for ourselves and our organizations. It means our work is in overcoming our sense of obligation and “thanking as a chore” is the critical component in maintaining the cycle of joy we want our donors to experience.
More Gratitude = Happier Donors = More/Sustained/Renewed Giving = More Effective Fundraising
The System of Gratitude
First – you, the fundraiser, has to champion, push for, advocate relentlessly for gratitude to be a part of the fundraising cycle.
Second – create an acknowledgement . . . not a receipt, not a tax-deductible transactional statement, but an honestly grateful, donor-centered thank you . . . as part of the creating the appeal process. And have a gratitude letter in place for every giving situation. Including grants.
Third – build the process of thanking into your gift entry systems. MOST CRMS have a function, now, to produce a thank you letter as part of the process. Mail merge is simple and easy. Create a gift entry process that isn’t complete until the Thank You letter is printed.
Fourth – don’t let it get hung up on signatures. Get it out the door. If you must, create a separate acknowledgement for the CEO/ED/Board Leadership that will take a while to get signed, but create a letter from you or the program staff person or someone that won’t bog down the process waiting for signatures.
Fifth – use your CRM’s tracking process to ensure a thank you has been sent. Or create some tracking mechanism to ensure Thanks for every gift, every time.
However you accomplish it, accept that sending thanks is a job that must be done. As critical as the asks, appeals and meetings.
For a Master Class in donor-centered thank you letters, click here to read Lisa Sargent’s recommendations on SOFII.
And for a truly definitive study on the role of Thank You and Acknowledgements, see The Philanthropy Centre’s study here.