Why Asking and Thanking Donors is All Wrong

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

you_are_awesome picFundraisers do talk a lot about their donors, relationships, the need (and right) to ask, the importance of saying thank you. The challenge of retention, and the importance of making supporters feel special.  But we are sometimes less respectful, even suggesting that people are duplicitous (which is a rather harsh thing to say – we all tell white lies to avoid upsetting people).

Where does this duplicity arise? In saying one thing and doing another. Supporters tell us – in research and in focus groups – they don’t like being asked, they don’t like being phoned, or junk mail, or being stopped face to face on the street.  And they tell us they don’t need thank you letters, so don’t waste your money, thank you very much.

And yet, it all “works”.  We know that people do need to be asked for them to give. People don’t go out of their way to give spontaneously, however well-meaning they are.  People do respond, in healthy numbers, to all types of marketing. We know from testing that people do feel warmer towards the organisation and respond better in future when their support has been acknowledged. And we know, as Margaret Mead summed it up, that “what people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things”.

Does this mean we should ignore what people tell us in research? No. Of course not. It’s all information. It reflects degrees of disquiet, because after all, who likes the idea of being button-holed by a stranger, cold-called at home, bombarded by junk-mail, and seeing charities waste money on useless bits of communication? Put like that, no-one. I certainly don’t.


There seems to be a perennial debate about asking and thanking.  “Always have an ask”. “Give donors a break”. “Give donors the opportunity to give”.  And good tips on how to do it. “The Anatomy of an Ask”. “Always thank them promptly”. “What about the relationship?”.  It’s not an either/or, of course. Let’s face it, donors don’t really want relationships, but they do respond to being engaged. And it’s true that if you don’t say please, you can’t thank, and if you don’t thank, you won’t please.

But here’s a radical thought. You shouldn’t be asking or thanking donors at all. What exactly is it you think they are doing for you? For YOU?

My 14-year old daughter was recently moved by an insert that fell out of the weekend papers. “God, that’s awful, we should do something to help. It’s only £3”.* And there you have it. Something in the world is awful. Someone is moved to help to put it right, and putting it right is what they care about, what they want to do, and what they want to know about. People don’t want to think they are making a “gift”, and certainly not to you, so thanking them for it is, well, a bit attention-seeking.

What is it, then, that we are getting wrong? Charities are just not doing a good enough job talking up the great work they help make happen. The amazing difference people can make to others by supporting them. They don’t tell enough of the stories of heroism and hope in the face of unbelievable adversity, that they have the privilege to encounter, every day. If there’s nothing in the message, the messenger is going to be irrelevant and an irritation. Of course people will shoot it.

Why Thanking adopt a word letter

Adopt a Word Congratulations letter from I-CAN – a great engaging example of a Thank you letter. Click to enlarge!

So forget about asking. Think instead about offering – offering the opportunity to people to do something amazing for others. And forget about thanking. Think instead about congratulating people for the difference they are making, what they have achieved. Don’t be grateful, be humble. Your job as a charity is to help people do their good in the world. Not the other way around.

This simple thought will give you the discipline to actually work out what difference your supporters have made and tell them that, rather than focus on the transactional gift, from them to you. Once you’ve got that frame of mind straight, once you’re in awe of supporters for the wonders they do in the world, then you should pay close attention to the craft of how to write that particular letter. A couple of great blogs that cover the essentials of writing a Thank You letter are Richard Turner’s and Katya Andresen’s. (well, apart from her point 6!)  Thank you? Congratulations? Semantics. You get the idea.

Readers, millions of people know they are changing the world because of you. You are AWESOME!

*(Well  done Sightsavers! Though she doesn’t know or care that it’s you, obvs.).

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


Richard Radcliffe · November 13, 2013 at 22:15

Just met a load donors who have stopped supporting charities who say please and thank you too much and are focusing on the charity they love – the one that just explains outcomes of donations. So perhaps an outcome is not regarded as a thank you but gives satisfaction. Sounds like a love affair, how many lovers have a good time and then say thank you? God how awful that would be. Satisfaction is perhaps proof of equality of respect and a thank you is not?

Ian Davis · January 2, 2014 at 22:08

Really well put Matthew.
I have been thinking along similar lines as every online retailer that I have bought anything from in the past 12 months seems to have sent me one email to wish me Happy Christmas and another to wish me Happy New Year.

You would think that with so many people wishing me well, I would be awash with festive cheer, yet a friendly seasonal greeting from a drunken stranger in the pub has more impact. I almost think these shops don’t want to be my actual friends, but for me to buy more things from them.

I suspect that any similarly impersonal mass message from a charity wishing Happy Whatever will have the same emotional weight when it arrives, but I have been guilty of sending them, or requiring them to be sent in the past.

At a time of year when people have more messages and letters that they might actually care about, pouring in than at any other, any Christmas Card, email or appeal from a charity really needs to stand out, or risks associating the charity with so many hopefully misguided retailers. (Or am I just a curmudgeon?)

The one email that I do remember opening pre-Christmas was the one from Greenpeace saying that the Arctic 30 might be home in time for Christmas, and thanking me for my (admittedly tiny) support. That one really did give me a warm feeling, because it didn’t ask for anything, and it had something immediate to say.

Happy New Year!

Arjun karki · March 14, 2014 at 06:06

Indeed great idea and applicable in all context on fundraising!

Past Fundraising Tips | GC Stories · June 13, 2014 at 17:31

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