The Big Thank-You Mistake That Chases Away Donors


When I was a Cub Scout, proudly dressed in the blue uniform with the yellow scarf, I once helped an old lady cross the street.

It went like this: I sidled up to an elderly woman who was standing on a corner, waiting for the light to change.

“Can I help you across, ma’am?” I asked.

She looked me up and down. Suspiciously. “Yes you can, I’m sure,” she said. “And you may.”

Her jab at my word choice went over my head.

The light changed, and I hooked my arm around hers and started across. I concentrated on matching her speed, as I’d heard about another Scout who had moved too quickly and pulled his old lady off her feet; he ran off in a panic, leaving her on her hands and knees in the middle of the street.

We made it across fine. Both of us upright. We got to the other side, and I unhooked by arm from hers.

I waited for my much-deserved praise.

She said: “Thank you for your commitment to traffic safety.”

And walked away. Leaving me gaping and confused, silently vowing never to help weird old ladies across the street again.

Okay, I made up that last part about her strange form of thanking me. No human being would do that.

But nonprofit organizations do exactly that all the time!

It’s probably happened to you as a donor:

  • You donate to help hungry children in Haiti, and they thank you for doing your part to fight world poverty.
  • You donate to fight a terrible government policy you hate, and they thank you for protecting civil liberties.
  • You donate to save some beautiful animal from extinction, and they thank you for your commitment to habitat preservation.

I know why it happens. The organization thinks of its mission as fighting world poverty. But if they sent out fundraising with that as the offer, they’d have shut their doors years ago. So they raise funds with specific offers, like feeding hungry children in Haiti …

But when it comes time to thank donors, they forget — or more likely, they don’t really care. So they thank the donor for helping them accomplish their mission in the broad sense.

Which is basically rude. And not human.

Don’t be that organization. Thank your donors for doing the thing you asked them to do.

It would be perfectly fine if — once you’ve really piled on the gratitude for the thing their gift accomplished — to tell them their gift also helped do that bigger thing.

But don’t act like you live on a different planet by thanking them for something they likely have no sense that they did at all.

Thank your donors for doing the thing you asked them to do.

Then they’ll happily keep coming back to help you across the street, again and again!

Jeff Brooks

Jeff Brooks has been doing fundraising for 30 years. He has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits in North America and Europe. His career has been all about this one lesson: Loving donors is as much a matter for science as it is something that happens in your heart. Jeff blogs regularly on fundraising at Future Fundraising Now.

One comment on “The Big Thank-You Mistake That Chases Away Donors

  1. I think your article makes a good point, people like to be thanked specifically with details. Think of it as wedding or birthday gifts: when you take effort to give something personal and of value, you would appreciate more than a “thanks for the gift” response. When people donate to our causes they want to feel like their contribution has made a difference, so we should be specific in what their money enabled us to accomplish.

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