The Effects of Gratitude

In the recent Slate Political Gabfest, John Dickerson talked about a study that showed the positive effects of gratitude.  Participants were asked to critique someone’s cover letter.  Those who simply received an acknowledgement of the work they did were far less inclined to help another person than those who received a simple thank you with the acknowledgement. Certainly, we in the nonprofit sector know the power of gratitude.  Saying thank you increases a donor’s positive feelings; saying thank you more than once increases those feelings many fold.

In addition to multiple thanks, however, scale is important. On the podcast, David Plotz, Slate’s editor, took Dickerson’s comments to almost ludicrous extremes—over thanking him until it became both uncomfortable and felt insincere.  For us, appropriate recognition is vitally important.

That doesn’t just mean that the larger the gift, the more gratitude you must show.  If, for example, you ask your clients—most of whom live at or below the poverty level—for charitable support and you get a $10 donation, the commitment on the part of that donor may be deeper than that of a very well-to-do donor who makes a $100,000 gift.  You would want to make as big a show of thanks to the former as you would to the former.  Admittedly, you would not put someone’s name on a room for $10 where you might for $100,000—but the sincerity of your gratitude would be equal.

What is important is that your thanks be not just empty words.  Showing how the donor’s generosity has made a difference is critical.  But like thanking, sharing what their gift means should also be appropriate.

A $10 gift, for example, will not allow your organization to enhance a program and you shouldn’t pretend that it does.  But the fact that this client joined with 100 of your other clients, bringing client charitable participation to 65% -- which so impressed that foundation who has never supported you before and helped bring in a big grant—is really compelling and something we don’t often tell our donors.

The fact that Joe and Mary have been supporters for 10 years—at any level—is amazing. After all, most first time donors to any nonprofit organization never, ever make a second gift.  Ten years—even 3 years--deserves special attention.  Make sure you tell them that.

And while you’re thanking people, don’t forget about your volunteers.  When was the last time, instead perhaps of complaining about what your Board members’ don’t do, you called to thank them for what they do?

The other thing that many studies on gratitude have shown is that the benefits tend to work both ways.  So as you thank your donors and your volunteers for the things that they do, you’ll find that not only will you make them happier, you yourself will feel a whole lot happier, too.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity and help their Boards be more effective.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for the free newsletter.