Is there such a thing as too much gratitude? Yes, and it’s been harmful to our work

[Image description: A closeup of a koala’s face. They look calm, with a serene half-smile, staring off to the right.]

An executive director colleague told me he received $1,000 from a corporation for his organization’s emergency funds to help people pay for food and rent. Of course, he thanked the representative on the phone and sent a letter. A few days later, he got an email asking whether the nonprofit would mind publicly acknowledging the corporation and its $1K gift on some combination of social media, website, and newsletter. I could hear the weariness in his voice. He and his team had been working nonstop on the front line and barely had time to breathe. “I kind of wanted to be petty and just return the money. But I can’t, because people are starving.”

If there’s one thing that’s been beaten into all of us in the sector, it is the concept of gratitude. Donors and funders should definitely be thanked, preferably throughout the year and in multiple forms: Handwritten note, phone calls, recognition events, maybe a swag mug. It should be as personal as possible so as to not seem routine. “You can never thank someone too much,” a development director colleague told me.

But here’s the issue. I definitely think you can thank someone too much. And as a sector, we have often been too appreciative, to the point where it has been harming our field and the people we serve in multiple ways. And because we’re so busy doing the work—and thanking people for helping us with the work—we don’t often stop to examine the subtle but insidious implications of our conditioned sense of gratitude and the damage it does:

It prevents us from examining unjust systems: Our gratitude to donors and funders often means we do not think about the unjust systems that make philanthropy and nonprofit necessary in the first place. Why do some foundations have so much funding? Why do some donors? Amazon donated 100M to Feeding America, a great organization whose work is even more critical during this pandemic. But Amazon pays no taxes, Jeff Bezos’s wealth grows by over $215Million PER DAY, and yet the company won’t provide their employees with sick leave or protective equipment. Its underpaid, overworked warehouse workers and package deliverers are probably using food pantries to survive. It would be way better if Amazon and other corporations just paid their taxes and compensate their employees decently instead of donating to nonprofits to fill in the gaps created by their self-interests.

It stops us from having critical conversations: How do we have difficult conversations on important topics like how wealth is built upon slavery and colonization, when a tenet of gratitude to someone includes not making them uncomfortable? How do we even just prevent further harm from being caused by well-meaning people we are expected to be thankful to? We have all encountered donors, funders, board members, and volunteers who say racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic things. Staff too, but at least with staff, probably because businesses (nonprofits and for-profits) have been trained to think that people they pay should be grateful to them and not the other way around, we can better address it. How many of us let horrible things slide because of an ingrained gratitude for someone’s contribution combined with fear that they might take it away?

It normalizes crappy philosophies and practices: 700 foundations signed a pledge to put a halt, at least temporarily, to crappy philanthropic practices such as restricted funding. That’s great. But why did they exist in the first place? If making nonprofits fill out burdensome applications, requiring unique snowflake budgets, and taking forever to make funding decisions are inane in dealing with a pandemic, they have always been inane in dealing with every other issue. We have just internalized that we need to be grateful to donors and funders for “supporting” our work to the point where we don’t see how insipid and harmful many of the things they require are. Excessive gratitude conditions us to put up with crap and feel bad when we don’t want to. It also conditions the people we are thankful to to believe their crappy practices aren’t so bad.

It makes us hesitate to ask for more: Another thing we learn is to never thank and ask at the same time. It’s tacky to send a thank-you letter with a remittance envelope. It’s blasphemous to call someone to thank them for a donation and end with “so can you give a little more?” To some degree, I agree. But we may have gone too far. We become thankful when a community foundation announces they are giving out $1M for COVID relief when we really should be saying, “Hey, you actually have 1B in assets. 1M is a start, thank you, but people are dying so you need to give out way more.” Fidelity announced they are encouraging donors with Donor-Advised Funds to give out a collective $200M for COVID relief. Thank you, Fidelity, but that’s also less than 1% of your 31B in assets that donors have already taken a tax break on.

It conditions people to have harmful or unrealistic expectations: Sure, let’s send out thank-you letters within a couple of days and try to call donors when we can. But our conditioning of people to expect certain things to be done a certain way often punishes others who do not operate the same way, often nonprofits led by marginalized communities who do not have a development staff to build relationships with donors. It also makes it harder to get people to shift when changes are necessary. Right now, nonprofits are facing shortfalls at a time when we’re needed most. As a donor myself, I trust that the nonprofits I give to are doing their best, and I don’t care if a thank-you in some form comes in two days or two months or never at all. We all need to instill a sense of trust and flexibility among one another, in general but especially during a crisis, and excessive gratitude tends to reinforce the opposite.

Clearly, there are many issues that we need to think about. I am not saying that we should stop being thankful. But as with everything it is a matter of balance. I like my colleague Nancy Long’s framework of the balance between Gratitude and Impatience, meaning we should be appreciative while still having the impatience to demand substantive change. The balance has been off, veering more into gratitude than impatience, and we don’t reflect enough on the implications of that. As the pandemic exacerbates inequity and injustice, we need to rethink our approach.

This includes taking time to examine unjust systems—such as our regressive tax codes that allow money to be concentrated among a few people—and how we may be complicit in perpetuating them because we reinforce them through our gratitude.

It includes acknowledging race and other critical factors in these unjust systems. It’s not that wealth is concentrated among a few people, it is specifically concentrated among white folks and in particular white men, who often consciously and unconsciously extract from marginalized communities to build their wealth.

It includes digging deeper beneath the surface of our gratitude to see the fuller picture, such as the fact that hundreds of billions of dollars are hoarded in foundation endowments and donor-advised funds (DAFs), or the fact that we’ve been putting up with harmful practices like restricted funding and time-wasting grant applications.  

It includes shifting gratitude to those we have been underappreciating: Volunteers, frontline staff members who are often underpaid and overworked, our clients for being vulnerable and sharing their stories that we use to fundraise, and “non-major” donors who are often unacknowledged and who often expect no thanks at all.

It includes all of us pushing back on ridiculous gratitude practices that we just have no more time or energy for. When a corporation gives a $1,000 contribution, we can say thank you once and that should suffice. And while we’re at it, let’s end the giant-presentation-check ceremonies forever.

During this crisis, we can still be grateful, but our communities need us to channel our impatience more assertively. To do that, all of us have to adopt a framework of true partnership. Imagine a marriage where one partner constantly thanks the other partner for “helping” out with household chores. This would annoy many of us who believe that in a marriage and a family, people do their parts, sometimes without being thanked.

Let’s extend this to our sector. Nonprofits are doing our part by doing the work; donors and funders are doing their parts by contributing money; volunteers are doing their part by contributing time and talent; I do my part by putting up pictures of baby animals, etc. We can all be thankful to one another, but there should be no hierarchy of gratitude, and we all sometimes execute our responsibilities without expectations of gratitude.

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