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I generally use the rule of thumb of using who when referring to a person and that when referring to an object. Example:

Jim is someone who makes me smile.
I was nearly knocked out by the ball that hit me.

But what about when we're talking about an organisation?

I am forever indebted to the charities who helped me.
I am forever indebted to the charities that helped me
.

The former seems somewhat warmer, if that makes sense, although the latter feels more correct. What should I use? And how about this:

I'm really happy with the insurance company who helped me with my claim.
I can't stand them, they're the insurance company that ripped me off.

To me the former evokes a team of helpful people while the latter evokes a cold heartless corporate entity. Is this just a matter of style and so should go with my instincts, or should I aim for what is 'correct?'

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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I couldn't find an authoritative source, but I found several items that touched on the question. The basic differential is that "who" refers strictly to people, and "that" can refer only to anything else:

She is the woman who raised me

not

She is the woman that raised me

Conversely,

There is the school that educated me

and not

There is the school who educated me.

The conflict arises here because you're using these companies anthropomorphically - you're happy with them, you're indebted to them. In reality, you're happy with the people AT the companies / charities, not the companies / charities themselves.

So I would go with

I am forever indebted to the charities that helped me.

or

I am forever indebted to the people who helped me

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I had the same problem. +1 for suggestion re-wording as a solution. In my case, I ended up going with people who rather than an organisation who. I think it reads better now. –  Robin Winslow Jan 11 at 13:52
    
You have hit the nail on the head. A company/charity is NOT the people WHO work for the organisation. –  user65792 Feb 13 at 20:24

As reported from the NOAD (New Oxford American Dictionary), that is used to replace who, whom, and which; it is also used to introduce a defining or restrictive clause, especially one essential to identification.

The book that I've just written.

In the sentence I'm really happy with the insurance company that helped me with my claim, helped me with my claim identifies the company you are happy with; you are not happy with every companies. The same is true for I am forever indebted to the charities that helped me.

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