Asymmetric Expectation of Gratitude: What it is, and why it’s harmful to our work

[Image description: A heart-shaped green leaf standing upright out of a knot made of rope. Image by Kranich17 on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, before we get started, a few cool things to check out: First, my friend the amazing Kishshana Palmer, has a virtual workshop series geared towards nonprofit leaders. It starts next week. Check it out.

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As Thanksgiving is this week, I start to think about our society’s and our sector’s weird dynamics around gratitude. We’ve been trained to be thankful, to have an “attitude of gratitude,” to keep a gratitude journal, etc. This is mostly great. When everything feels overwhelming and out of control, gratitude can often be extremely grounding.

However, we don’t talk enough about the negative sides of gratitude. Specifically, there are ingrained notions of who is expected to be grateful to whom, and it is grossly lopsided, and we’ve been conditioned to just accept it. I’m going to call it the Asymmetric Requirement of Gratitude (ARG! I mentioned it briefly earlier here). Here are a few ways that it manifests:

  • Service workers are expected to be grateful to customers, but rarely are customers expected to be grateful to cashiers or restaurants servers. That’s why we have expressions like “the customer is always right” (which is ridiculous. A lot of customers are assholes).
  • Job candidates are expected to be grateful to potential employers. This is why employers can make job applicants go through inane hiring processes, with interminable rounds of interviews, and unpaid bespoke assignments. And yet employers still expect applicants to write post-interview thank-you notes and sometimes punish them for not doing so.
  • Employees are expected to grateful to employers. After job candidates are hired, the ARG changes to staff being required to be grateful to their employers for giving them a job and providing them with pay to support their family.
  • Nonprofit staff are expected to be grateful to donors: We are trained to be constantly appreciative of people who give us money to do the work. Cue the thank-you notes, the donor walls, the effusive phone calls, the naming rights, the wine and cheese, the plaques, the workshops on how to thank donors better.
  • Nonprofits are expected to be grateful to funders: As with donors, nonprofits are expected to be thankful for grants, and for any small measure of kindness funders bestow upon them. It manifests in the catering to funders’ whims, no matter how tedious or nonsensical.

Children are expected to be grateful to their parents for bringing them into the world. Nonprofit staff are expected to be grateful to elected officials who show up at events. Conference organizers are expected to be grateful to speakers. Etc. There is ARG everywhere.

Now, again, I’m not against gratitude. Gratitude is great. What I don’t like is the asymmetry. Why should a job candidate be expected to write thank-you notes to potential employers, when the latter have no expectations to reciprocate? When’s the last time a place you applied to for a job wrote you a nice note after you interviewed with them? Sure, job candidates depend on employers to have employment. But one can easily argue that most companies and organizations would immediately shut down if they didn’t have the staff they need.

The same goes for nonprofits and foundations. I hear things like nonprofits being grateful that a funder gave them feedback on why their grant applications weren’t accepted. “They were so nice to tell us how we could improve.” That sounds very generous, until you realize how one-sided that is, and how this is a symptom of the asymmetry of gratitude. Sure, nonprofits depend on funders for support, but funders can’t get much done without nonprofits doing the work. If the gratitude were mutual, both parties would be thankful to be getting feedback from the other. But rarely do funders solicit feedback from grant applicants about their processes.

With individual donors, we’ve really bought into this narrative that donors are magnanimous, and we should always be thankful for them. We’ve beaten into our heads phrases like “we couldn’t have done this without you.” Yeah, we probably couldn’t do a lot of our work without donors’ support, but at the same time, donors also can’t do a lot of what they want to do without nonprofits (They’d probably just end up paying more taxes, which many of us would argue would be a better system).

The asymmetry in gratitude is not just annoying. I think for our sector, it is detrimental to our work, for several reasons:

It reinforces inequitable power structures: Basically, the way things are, whoever has more money and power stands on the side of being appreciated, and those who have less money and power are expected to be thankful. The more we reinforce these dynamics, the more we bolster a system where those with money and power continue to be praised and worshipped, which helps them retain those things. This is problematic when money and power have no correlation with merit, or sometimes an inverse correlation (meaning those with the most money and power are often some of the worst people in society).

It entrenches ineffective or harmful behavior: When one party is expected to be grateful but the other party is not held to the same standards, it can result in really toxic behavior that we may not even think are toxic. Decades of ARG in hiring, for example, has led to really awful practices that employers seem be completely OK with. For example, having job candidates go through four or five or more unpaid rounds of interviews. Or having them do unpaid work assignments. Even many employers who are otherwise grounded in equitable practices still engage in these crappy practices, probably because there’s this unconscious belief that job candidates should just be thankful that they receive any time of day from the employer at all.

It prevents the actualization of true collaboration: Years of “attitude of gratitude” towards donors, I would argue, has led to some horrible behaviors among donors, too. There are endless stories of obnoxious, egotistical donors. Such as ones who insist on giving restricted funds and directing how nonprofits should spend their donations. Besides being annoying, it also prevents a true collaboration between nonprofits and donors, as that would require mutual respect and the ability to have honest, sometimes difficult conversations, which is hard to do when one party has been conditioned over decades to believe they’re doing the other a huge favor.

It makes it challenging to change and evolve: All these dynamics make it hard to implement some necessary changes in our sector. Every time I criticize foundations, for instance, there’s always someone who comments, “It’s their money, nonprofits should just be grateful.” It is such a tedious cliché, and ironically, it’s not usually the funders saying this, but other nonprofit colleagues! This shows just how internalized this whole thing is. How do we push our sector to change and improve when “gratitude” is often used like a firewall to prevent meaningful conversations and actions?

It perpetuates inequity: Like with every set of dynamics, equity comes into play. The asymmetry in expectation of gratitude disproportionately affects people of color, women, disabled people, LGBTQIA people, neurodivergent people, and other marginalized people. Employers having an unwritten rule of job candidates needing to send them follow-up thank-you notes for example, punishes those who don’t come from a culture where this is the norm. Neurodivergent nonprofit leaders may not understand the unwritten rules of demonstrating gratitude to potential funders and donors, which may cost them funding.

Anyway, the point is that gratitude is great, but we need to be thoughtful about it. We all need to be aware of when there is asymmetry in who is consciously and unconsciously expected to grateful to whom, and work towards mutual appreciation. Maybe we can all start by having those of us who are hiring send job applicants thank-you notes. Those of us who are donors can go on the social media sites of the nonprofits we donate to and write them some glowing words of appreciation. Funders, meanwhile, I’m sure it would totally make your grantees’ days to get a thank-you call from you.

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