In the final post of a five-part series this week about trends and research in philanthropy, Dr. Patrick Dwyer shares his research about gratitude and implications for nonprofits.
Two simple words that can convey a lot of meaning. For nonprofit practitioners, it’s essential to thank many people. Thank your donors (institutional and individual), thank your volunteers, thank your staff, and thank the community. Saying thank you is a core essence of good stewardship – it demonstrates that one is appreciative of a gift, whether that gift be time, talent, treasure, or even testimony. We’re taught in nonprofits that not saying thank you is not okay.
But are there times when saying thank you doesn’t produce the desired or anticipated results?
Assistant professor of philanthropic studies and social psychologist Dr. Patrick Dwyer says yes. Dwyer studies the emotion of gratitude, and how individuals and organizations express gratitude. When we feel grateful, Dwyer says that we attribute the cause of the good thing to something outside of ourselves. In other words, gratitude is the positive emotional response to benefits received from others.
It can be studied from three different perspectives.
The Individual Perspective
This perspective focuses on the grateful person himself or herself. How does feeling grateful affect that person and his or her behavior?
Research shows that by being grateful, people have greater well-being. They more easily deal with stress, they are less depressed, they sleep better, and they’re more generous toward others.
The Relationship Perspective
This perspective goes beyond simply the feeling of gratefulness to expressing it to the benefactor or someone who has helped the grateful person.
Some of Dwyer’s research has looked at gratitude from this perspective. Nonprofits often express gratitude in messages sent to stakeholders. He asked if there was ever a time when saying thank you is detrimental.
It does, as gratitude expressions don’t always help. In fact, nonprofits should avoid saying “thanks in advance.” Instead, they should say “thanks” or “thank you for considering us.” Persuasive language (e.g. saying “thanks in advance”) makes a message less effective. “Sincerity and quality of message matter,” Dwyer explained.
Dwyer also noted that expressions of gratitude can be “self-focused” or “other-focused.” Self-focused ones explain how much you like the gift, or the item/feeling/etc. that was given, e.g. “Thank you for the movie I received for my birthday. I love it, and I’ve watched it many times.” In comparison, other-focused expressions of gratitude focus on the generosity of the giver, or how they’re always doing nice things, or how nice it was that they remembered what movie you like. “Thank you for the movie you gave to me. You are so thoughtful, and you always know exactly what I like.”
Other-focused gratitude expressions are more effective at drawing someone into a relationship. In other words, Dwyer explained that those expressions put the “you” in “thank you.”
Lastly, there’s the group perspective. It’s the newest gratitude perspective, and one that recognizes that interactions between two people can be studied in a wider context. It looks at how witnesses’ behaviors, outside of the person doing the thanking and the person receiving the thanks, might be affected by gratitude.
In several other experimental studies, Dwyer and his coauthors found that third party witnesses of gratitude would see people who express gratitude and being more “other-praising” (putting the “you” in “thank you”) as being more responsive.
Dwyer explained that gratitude expressions involve a behavioral signal – a grateful person is a responsive person. Not only is gratitude understood by the person receiving the thanks, but third party witnesses also react to that expression of gratitude. In other words, aspects of gratitude might extend beyond the expresser and benefactor, and may draw in new people.
So, what does this mean for nonprofits?
It’s clearly important to thank individuals who donate, volunteer, and generally support your organization (but don’t use the expression “thanks in advance!”). There’s a potential benefit of saying thank you to your supporters in the public or in front of other people – they may be more willing to support your organization.
So saying thank you matters, but it matters how you say it, when you say it, and in front of whom you say it.
How do you express gratitude to your stakeholders?