How Can A Thank-You Gift Go Wrong?

Are you offering a pen or maybe a tote bag to your donors? You might want to reconsider. Thank-you gifts can have counterintuitive psychological effects on donors, researchers say. Their findings are surprising: giving personal thank-you gifts reduces donation amounts. Sometimes, innocent efforts to pay back the donor for their kindness can create a negative effect, by adding an artificial layer of self-doubt to a candid deed.

An interesting study by Yale researchers George E. Newman & Y. Jeremy Shen, published in Journal of Economic Psychology, is an excellent example of how academic research can directly contribute to the professional work of fundraising and marketing philanthropy.

In their research, Newman and Shen examined the effects of thank-you gift offers as part of the initial donation request. They wanted to find out how conditional gifts (gifts that rely on the completion of a certain activity, like thank-you gifts for a donation) could affect the amount of the initial donation.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Conditional gifts are external rewards, implying intrinsically motivated tasks. In the past, several researchers found that external incentives may decrease intrinsically motivated behaviors. For example, Titmus’s (1970) famous study on blood donations suggested that people are less likely to donate blood if they are offered monetary incentives for doing so.

Similarly, the combination of conditional gifts and altruistic behavior may have a negative effect. Charitable giving is often derived from an altruistic desire to help and is accompanied by a ‘warm glow’ feeling, giving the donor personal positive satisfaction and gratification from the good deed.

However, conditional gifts can create ambiguity about the donors’ motivations, and signal that the donors might be donating out of a materialistic sense of greed and are not as generous as they would like to see themselves. This process can be counterproductive and undermine the donors’ desire to give.

The researchers conducted several experiments to test the thank-you gifts’ effects on individuals’ donations. Every one of their experiments proved that regardless of whether the donations were hypothetical or real, the gift was desirable or undesirable, the charity was familiar or unfamiliar, and the gift was more or less valuable, the offer of thank-you gifts reduced donation amounts. Participants in the ‘no-gift’ condition donated significantly more than participants who were offered a thank-you gift.

Interestingly, when they reframed the purpose of the gift, from a benefit-to-self to a pro-social benefit-to-others, the adverse effect of the gift was weakened. However, this did not lead the participants to donate more when no gift at all was offered.

In other words, when the charity continued the ‘warm glow’ effect by offering a gift that would benefit others besides the donor, it was considered as less negative, in comparison with a gift for the donor’s personal use.

This whole discussion about thank-you gifts and their counterintuitive effect on the altruistic motivation to donate is directly linked to the donors’ self-perception. It demonstrates how the donation is an integral part of donors’ self-image and reflects their worldviews and values.

Something interesting to think about, next time you’re considering the best way to thank — or attract — donors to your cause.




A mass communication scientist turned communications expert helping companies and executives to tell their stories & focus their messages. Framing is Everything

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Shani Horowitz-Rozen, Ph.D.

Shani Horowitz-Rozen, Ph.D.

A mass communication scientist turned communications expert helping companies and executives to tell their stories & focus their messages. Framing is Everything

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