Cultivating the Gift of Gratitude

| by Priscilla Bratcher

It’s that time of year. We get busy at work and at home and sometimes achieve frenzy by the time Halloween rolls around, trying to get everything ready for Thanksgiving, the year-end holidays and the beginning of the New Year. Come February, it is remembered as a blur. The brutal pace can make us feel we just don’t have time to take a breath, much less quietly reflect on the deeper messages of these important annual holidays and rituals.

Your family was probably just like mine in observing one of those annual rituals. Gathered around the Thanksgiving table and after the prayer, my late father would ask each family member in turn to name the person, event or situation for which we were most thankful that year. For me, it was always a challenge to downshift to a more thoughtful gear, even though I knew the question was coming!

Perhaps we should adopt this discipline of taking a breath and contemplating gratitude in our work lives, too. Some years ago, I was struck at an AFP International Conference by then new research conducted by Penelope Burk ( who had uncovered the secret of successful stewardship for nonprofits. She simply asked donors what they wanted from and conversely what frustrated them most when giving to nonprofits. The results, across all sizes of nonprofits, frequency of donations and giving levels was simple: A genuine, customized thank you letter within one week. This revelation struck me as absolutely consistent with my own 30+ years of experience in fundraising. Forget the gifts, forget the discount coupons, forget the event invitations (all of which can be helpful elements in an overall stewardship program, of course.) But the number one thing to do is to just say thank you and mean it.

Many development operations are really good at getting that letter out quickly, but let’s go one step further and ask if it is simply a task on the excel spreadsheet listing what you do when a gift comes in or is it rooted in a genuine organizational orientation toward gratitude?

I’m sure you remember the fall of 2008 when the bottom fell out of the economy. That year, my organization struggled to figure out how we were going to continue to renew annual donors and secure pledge payments on major multi-year commitments. We decided to do neither for a few months to give our donors time to focus on their own financial lives. In January of 2009, we wrote a heartfelt thank you letter to all our donors expressing our gratitude for them and recognizing that we were partners for the long-term and that we would weather the difficult times together. We had personal conversations with our most generous donors, saying the same thing and assuring them that gifts could be postponed and pledge payments could be extended. We were genuinely grateful for their past and future support and we had no intention of denying them donor benefits just because times were tough. This initiative was rooted in genuine thankfulness and what we got relief, gratitude and continuing commitment in return.

Penelope Burk has said it best:

“Real recognition is not something you do at certain intervals in your relationship with donors, nor is it a momentary thing. It is pervasive. Recognition is between the lines in the newsletters you write, it is in the tone of your voice, it is in the welcoming handshakes of the members of your board. Recognition is inseparable from the people who give it.” (Donor Centered Fundraising, Penelope Burk, Cygnus Applied Research, Inc., 2003)

So as you shift into the highest gear this fall, remember to be grateful, in your personal life and at work, for the communities that form the fabric of your life. Make it a year-round commitment, not just what you say on Thanksgiving Day. I’ll try to, too.


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