The Ultimate Thank You Gift For Donors

by Emily Snoek

Behavioral Scientist


Donors don’t like gifts.

There are a few caveats to that statement I’ll turn to in a minute but for now please just let that sink in. Your family likes gifts. Your friends like gifts. Maybe even your boss or employees like gifts. But donors don’t like gifts.

Two groups of academics, one at Yale and one at Stanford, conducted research that supports this idea. The Yale researchers found that thank you gifts reduced charitable contributions. The researchers posit this occurs because the gift decreases the feeling of altruism.

The Stanford researchers tested out two scenarios: asking people for a donation to a nonprofit and giving them a gift in exchange, and asking people to purchase an item (the same item as was gifted in the first scenario) where a portion of the cost would be donated to a nonprofit. They found that people were “more likely to give when the transaction was framed as an exchange in which a portion of the sales from the item they purchased benefitted the nonprofit.” The researchers similarly posit that the gift framing affects the feeling of altruism.

A donation with the addition of a gift is a worse version of the positive action of donating money, whereas a purchase with the addition of a donation is a better version of purchasing an item.

If you must give a gift, give it as a surprise. When a donor is not expecting a gift, the gift does not compete with the donor’s emotional feeling of altruism and thus you don’t see the same crowding out effect as when you combine the gift with the donation process.

But how do you close the reciprocity loop with your donors?

As a reminder, the reciprocity effect is something that occurs from responding to a positive action with an additional positive action. This effect rewards acts of kindness and can be a continual loop between two people or an organization and a person. Further, it means that in response to friendly interactions, people are likely to be much nicer and cooperative than one would expect from the self-interest model.

When your donors give you a donation they are beginning the reciprocity loop. You must close this loop with a positive action that benefits the donor.

Because gifts put people in a transactional mindset as we saw above, avoid using gifts to close this reciprocity loop. Instead, you can communicate back the impact of their donations, express gratitude for them, make them feel special by having a senior staff person or a board member call them and say thank you, etc. We at Creative Science have found something (free!) that donors and supporters might be far more interested in – allowing them to tell you how much they want to hear from you.

In the Fall of 2018 the Creative Science team ran a few studies on MTurk – an Amazon platform that provides businesses and organizations with survey takers. We created several versions of an email and used a different theory from behavioral economics in each to test how well each would perform. Pseudo-set framing worked the best by the way!

Anyways, we also asked respondents what benefit would most entice them to become a monthly donor rather than a one-time donor. In our first study people picked “monthly email updates on my impact” as their top choice, but this was closely followed by preferences for “selecting my communication preferences.” By “selecting my communication preferences” we mean something like opting into a monthly limit on emails, or selecting which kinds of emails you want to receive. We then performed 4 additional studies, each of which asked the same question about preferred benefits. In all 4 of these studies selecting their own communication preferences was the most preferred benefit of monthly giving over one-time giving.

At Creative Science we like to follow the data. And according to our research and the research at Stanford and Yale, we’re inclined to believe you shouldn’t give donors gifts and you should let them choose how often you contact them. Something to think about as you seek to close the reciprocity loop with your donors!

Tweet at us with your questions and comments! @creativesci


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