Does Gaslighting have a Place in Fundraising?

Many years ago, when I was working in the entertainment industry, I was on a conference call with three or four colleagues, including, let’s call her, Colleague M.

Colleague M and I had been in an IRL meeting (In Real Life — remember them?) about a week prior to the call, where we made a decision about a particular project.

On the conference call the following week, I said that Colleague M and I had met earlier and had decided together to do X, but then, to my shock and surprise, Colleague M said that she didn’t know what I was talking about, and no meeting had happened. I couldn’t believe my ears, and I said something like, “M — don’t you remember we spoke on Wednesday morning about this?” I got nowhere — she was adamant that the meeting had never occurred. I bumped into M on many occasions in the ensuing years, but M continued to act as if everything was just fine, and she was very friendly.

This interaction haunted me for years until people around me started using the term “gaslighting”. Here’s how Urban Dictionary describes gaslighting:

(Gaslighting is) “a form of intimidation or psychological abusewhere false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception, and quite often, their sanity. The classic example of gaslighting is to switch something around on someone that you know they're sure to notice, but then deny knowing anything about it, and to explain that they "must be imagining things" when they challenge these changes.”

Wow. I felt relieved that there was a name for what had happened to me, and that this was “a thing”. And this “thing” — gaslighting — is being used, often overtly, by marketers and, it seems, by fundraisers.

An example came in the mail just a few weeks ago. I received a bill marked “renewal notice” from an NPO (charity) that I had given a small amount to several years ago. (I didn’t even remember giving anything to them until I looked it up.) It was to support some specific time-sensitive project of the NPO. I had never received one of these “bills” before, and this one looked just like other “real” bills that I got for car payments, electric bills, etc. It asked me to pay my “regular donation” of $515 or to increase that amount (there were checkboxes) to $765 or $1014, or higher. Why the odd amounts? Evidently, I had given $500 in that solicitation years before, and the $15 was the service charge to cover my method of payment.

This sure sounds like gaslighting, right? This organization (a large and typically very good one) was using gaslighting to make me think that:

  1. I was a regular recurring annual donor and needed to make my usual annual payment.

  2. I was obligated to pay this amount, as it was written not as a solicitation, but as an invoice.

This is, in my opinion, wrong on many levels. I don’t recall giving to this organization at all, I’m certain that I never agreed to be an annual donor, and I don’t have an outstanding bill that I forgot to pay.

The following week, I received another version of the same thing — this time marked “second notice”. Wow — are you going to send me to a collection agency because I didn’t send you the $515 you wanted? Maybe I should just pay it and get you to stop sending me bills…(guessing that’s the strategy here)?

If nonprofits are supposed to have relationships with their donors, is this what they mean by “relationship”? I don’t think so. Does someone think that manipulation via gaslighting is an acceptable form of fundraising?

I don’t, and I’d love to hear from you if you have philanthropic gaslighting stories too.


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- Lisa