An Attitude of Gratitude

By Marianne Downing

It came as no surprise to me to learn that had won one of the 2019 Fast Company awards for innovative nonprofits. I had not long before read about them in a fabulous book called, The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath¹ (which I highly recommend for nonprofit leaders). The following are excerpts from the book that illustrated a specific innovative practice that was impressive in its simplicity and profound in its impact.

DonorsChoose has found a way to scale up thoughtfulness. Its leaders have methodically built a system to deliver recognition.

DonorsChoose’s website allows teachers to seek crowdsourced funding for school projects. An elementary school teacher might try to raise $250 to buy new books or a high school science teacher might seek $600 to order new lab equipment.

For donors, the big moment comes a month or two later, when most of them have forgotten their contributions. They receive a package in the mail full of individually written thank-you letters, addressed to them by name, from the students they supported.

Elementary school teacher Mary Jean Pace used DonorsChoose to raise money for recycling bins for her school in Georgia. Many of her students’ relatives chipped in, but the donation that clinched the project came from a woman in Arlington, Virginia. A stranger. Pace told her students, “Boys and girls, Arlington is a long way away and we don’t even know her. And she thought what we are going to do is important.” Her students were blown away. They couldn’t wait to send notes to the woman in Arlington.

These thank-you letters have been part of the DonorsChoose experience since 2000, the year the organization was founded. In the beginning, the organization was sending out hundreds of letters per year. In 2016, DonorsChoose distributed roughly a million.

This effort requires serious logistics…People frequently suggest that the operations could be made more efficient by scanning letters and distributing them via email. “This act of facilitating gratitude goes against every recommendation about how to scale,” said Julia Prieto, a vice president of DonorsChoose who oversees the donor letters. “But this is the one thing people remember about their experience."

In 2014, the team analyzed historical data and discovered that donors who opt to receive thank-you letters will make larger donations the next year. The letters build commitment. But at DonorsChoose, the findings were almost beside the point.

“We’re not in the marketing department,” said Prieto. “We’re not doing this to raise money. We believe it’s an essential part of our model. We have consistently bet in the direction of gratitude.” DonorsChoose has created a defining moments factory for donors.

The adoption of an attitude of gratitude has impacted donors and students alike in this organization. Innovation doesn’t have to be something spectacular. It can be something simple with profound results. Creating special moments in the nonprofit world is something that each of us can do.


¹The Power of Moments, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Simon and Schuster, 2017, pp 151-155