Can You Thank People Too Much?

A few years ago, I served on the board of a large nonprofit organization. During one of the Development Committee meetings I attended, we reviewed the organization’s stewardship policies.

That’s when one of my board colleagues asked, “Does anyone else think we thank people too much?”

Thank You by woodleywonderworks via Flickr and Wordle.netAs the discussion moved forward, I mentioned that, from a practical perspective, I did not think it possible to overly thank folks. I added that, if it was possible to overly thank people, this particular organization was so far away from being in danger of doing so that there was really no point in further discussing the matter. Others agreed with me, and the conversation eventually moved on to other related matters.

Well, it’s finally happened. I found an organization that overly thanks people: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Don’t worry. This is not a political post. I won’t be commenting about the political content of a thank-you email I received recently from Kelly Ward, Executive Director of the DCCC. Instead, I’ll stay focused on the thank you nature of the communication.

By the way, during the last Presidential election, I signed up to receive emails from a number of political organizations and candidates as a way of learning a bit about how these groups use social media. So, please don’t make any assumptions one way or the other about my political orientation.

When I received Ms Ward’s email, it immediately caught my eye. The subject line read:

Michael, thanks!”

 I like that the DCCC used my name in the subject line. And I liked that I was being thanked, though I couldn’t imagine why. While I could see the email was from Kelly Ward, I didn’t know her or who she represented. The combination of the personalized subject line that expressed thanks along with not knowing the sender made me open the email. Above all, I wanted to know what I was being thanked for.

Here’s what the email stated:

Michael —

We asked you to step up and, boy, did you ever!

House Republicans are home this month for August Recess, and activists like you have been holding their Republican Members of Congress accountable in some pretty amazing ways.

We put together a video of some of our favorite displays of activism — you should take a look at what YOU’VE helped accomplish this August:

[link provided to video]

We hope you’re inspired by the video to continue to hold Republicans accountable. Keep up the great work out there!


Kelly Ward

DCCC Executive Director

P.S. Here’s a sneak peek of one of our favorite highlights from the video: In Illinois, Rodney Davis was confronted by a group of concerned voters about ‘ducking’ questions on his ethics investigation. One activist even brought a LIVE duck!” [link provided to the video]”

Ok, here’s where it really gets interesting. While the DCCC wrote to thank me for my activism, specifically my actions to hold Republican members of Congress accountable, I never did what they were thanking me for. I never even donated money to the DCCC to help pay for the activism of others

As a result of the bizarre email from the DCCC, I’ve reached the conclusion that you can indeed over thank someone.

If you thank people for something they really did not do, you’re wrongly thanking them. Instead of showing appreciation, you’re being manipulative, gratuitous, lazy, or all of the above. Reserve your thank-you messages for expressions of real gratitude:

  • Thank people for giving their time.
  • Thank people for donating.
  • Thank people for demonstrating that they care.
  • Thank people for an inquiry.
  • Thank people for attending an event or program.
  • Thank people for referring others to the organization.

You get the idea. Just be sure you don’t behave like the DCCC. Don’t thank folks for what they have not done. If you do, you’ll only end up diluting the value of real expressions of appreciation.

For your donors, your organization should have a donor recognition policy that outlines how supporters at various levels will be thanked and recognized for their support. Just remember that some donors might not want the recognition you’re offering. For example, some donors may wish to give anonymously. In that case, thanking these people by name in your annual report would be inappropriate. Always remember to be donor centered.

To avoid the uncommon risk of over thanking people:

  • Do not thank folks for what they have not done.
  • Do not thank folks publicly if they want to remain anonymous.
  • Do not thank folks in ways they have told you they won’t appreciate.

When you do thank people, be personal, warm, and sincere.

For more information about showing gratitude effectively, see my previous posts on the subject:

What Can Your Nonprofit Learn from a Fortune Cookie?

Stewardship: More than a Thank-You?

Can a Thank-You Letter Contain an Ask?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

13 Responses to “Can You Thank People Too Much?”

  1. Well, let me be the first to say “Thank you” for another insightful and humorous column!

  2. Michael,
    We have had this conversation many times, and we have been in agreement that you can’t thank your supporters too much or too often. This time, we agree again, as the example you have given is spot on. Thanking someone for something that they have not done is just stupid because it tells the recipient of the thank you that this is just a form letter and is not truly personalized, even though they did use your name. Giving credit when and where it is due is excellent stewardship, but giving credit when it is not due is wrong. I will still live by the adage that you can ask too many times, but you can never thank too much (when it is due).

    • Richard, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I thought we’d be in agreement. It’s sad to see that stewardship continues to be the neglected component of the fundraising process. Perhaps that’s one reason why donor retention rates remain so low.

  3. Michael you hit the nail on the head. I am so sick of hearing from the DCCC. I think thanking is like when you know that a donor will be able to attend an event but you send the invite anyway. It let’s the investor know you have not forgotten them. Personal thank you calls from the Board or CEO is always impressive and not over the top.

  4. Agreed. It’s terrible. Either they sent this with the lazy assumption that everyone on their email list donates money (it’d be easy to run that list) or they wanted to guilt you into doing so (your internal dialogue they’re hoping for: “Hmmm… I don’t remember giving money, but I guess I should now”).

    • Paul, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m sure that the DCCCC will get some positive results from the email. Then, they’ll pat themselves on the back. The problem is, that I doubt they’ll look at how many folks they’ve alienated with this “thank you” email. All nonprofits should learn from this. We need to look at both the positive results a communication generates as well as the negative. Only then can we get a true picture of the effectiveness of what we’ve done.

  5. So it’s not over thanking so much as misthanking, which as you point out is a major faux pas! Great piece.

    • Sophie, thank you for your message. It makes me crazy that this is even an issue. Why do so many fundraisers need to be instructed to thank donors promptly and appropriately? As you know, expressing gratitude is an essential part of the fundraising process. I just wish ALL fundraisers and nonprofit managers realized this.


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