Donor Love? Part 1 Gifts

This is one of my favorite topics — could even be considered a rant — so I have broken it up into “rant” bites.

Part 1 introduces my thoughts on how we demonstrate our “love” for donors and how we communicate meaningfully with our donors to be truly more donor centric.

A few years ago, I came across a very insightful book titled, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.  The author, Reverend Gary Chapman wrote the book to explain how people give and receive love and, maybe more importantly, how they feel unloved when a partner or spouse doesn’t understand or speak their particular language fluently.

Chapman has identified those love languages as affirmation, acts of service, affection, quality time and gifts.  Chapman’s book sold over 5 million copies and was translated into 38 languages.  He subsequently wrote another book about love languages in the workplace and even wrote a version for teenagers, singles, children and those in the military.

So what does Chapman’s book have to do with what I am calling “Donor Love” and the donor relationship?

Consider for a moment one of the love languages: gifts. For some people in a relationship, gifts may be very important expressions of love, but a donor might shun the idea of receiving a set of coasters, framed photos or other types of gifts to “remember the charity”. Yet charities often use token gifts to engage and keep donors.  Does it work?

A 2013 study of seventy-three German charities by researchers from the University of Hamburg “donors have different motives for their donations and their donations and different wishes need to be satisfied.”   This study found that charities that do employ a stratified donor recognition system outperform organizations that treat donors equally.  Increasing benefits with increasing donations may be appropriate for improving the fundraising performance of nonprofit organizations. However, the study’s researchers caution that further work needs to be done to see if the advantages of a donor priority strategy are amplified and may have an impact in future total revenues, such as legacy gifts.

There are also cautionary tales that must be told, especially about “thank-you” gifts.  To be clear, I am talking about “thank-you gifts” that are given after the gift is made; not in advance of the donation, as in the case with many charities that send out pre-printed address labels, stickers or fridge magnets as part of a direct mail appeal.

These kinds of notional recognition gifts actually prompt donations out of a sense of reciprocity.  In a recent study on the effects of thank-you gifts on charitable giving by researchers George Newman and Jeremy Shen at Yale University, the offer of thank-you gifts actually reduce charitable donations. The study identified that donors feel a sense of obligation to send in a donation when coupled with a gift.

Charities sending “thank-you gifts” in association with making a gift or after making the gift is a different game.    And those doing so are not doing their research.  Charities that practice this believe it is another way of expressing gratitude to a donor.    The Yale researchers offer a few explanations of why the token gifts are a turn off for donors.  One of the most interesting findings is that participants thought the gift was inferior.  Junk in effect.  Not surprising, other findings were that the token gift undermined the donor’s altruistic motivations; or the gift actually served as an anchor on the value of the donation, as a suggestion of the value of what the donor should give in return.

And there is more evidence that token gifts are not right for everyone.  Penelope Burk in her research on donor-centered fundraising found a similar response from donors, prompting her to exclaim: “Pins, plaques and fridge magnets to the back of the bus; information take the front seat!”

In my experience, donors often say please don’t send me anything.  They just want the assurance that we received the gift; that we are using their gift as intended and using it to have impact; and they want to be thanked — promptly and thoughtfully.

But, like Chapman’s love language of gifts, there are donors who still like “things”.   Some donors appreciate receiving a replica of the plaque on the room that they have donated.  Still others like receiving a photobook describing the project or program and how their gift has made a difference – the measurable result of their gift at work.  We just need to be careful and ensure a donor does, in fact, want a thing.

Next installment takes about other love languages and what donors want.


Newman, G.E., & Shen, Y.J. (2012). The counterintuitive effects of thank-you gifts on charitable giving. Journal of Economic Psychology, 33, 973-983. Retrieved from

Burk, P. (2000). Thanks! A Guide to Donor-Centred Fundraising. Toronto: Burk & Associates Ltd.

Scherhag, C., & Boenigk, S. (2013). Different or Equal Treatment? Donor Priority Strategy and Fundraising Performance Assessed by a Propensity Score Matching Study. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 23(4), 443-471.

Scherhag, C., & Boenigk, S. (2013). Different or Equal Treatment? Donor Priority Strategy and Fundraising Performance Assessed by a Propensity Score Matching Study. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 23(4), 443-471.

Check out this article about donor centricity:

From the Agitator Donor-Centric or Faux Donor-Centric? Check the Plumbing

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