When saying thanks, downplay the part about you

When I wrote here about a friend’s rant over a thank you gone wrong, I didn’t anticipate a part two on the theme – at least not this soon.  But I’m back a few weeks later with a sorry story of my own about a thank you that missed the mark. (Let’s hope there won’t be a part three.)

beveled_card_thank_you_14447I recently completed a multi-gift commitment to a mini-campaign aimed at closing the operating deficit faced by a ministry that’s close to my heart. Mine wasn’t the largest pledge among the handful of donors invited to participate in the major gifts effort, but the amount was significant for me.

Not that you’d have known any of this from the thank you letter I received in follow-up to my gift. Generic from start to finish, the letter included nary a word about the special fundraising effort or my participation in it. And I’m yet to hear if the goal of the mini-campaign was met.

Similar to what organizational theorist Heidi Halverson describes in an article titled “Stop Making Gratitude All About You,” the faith-based nonprofit to which I gave mistakenly made saying thanks all about them. The thank you letter focused on how “they feel — how happy they are, how they have benefited from the help — rather than focusing on the benefactor.”


Halverson points to the troubling tendency (both individually and on behalf of organizations) to “talk about ourselves even when we should be thinking and talking about others. .  . we assume that’s what the helper wants to hear — they were helping to make us happy, so they must want to hear about how happy we are.”

To be sure, the nice folks who support your cause do feel good knowing their giving makes you smile. But the happiness of a CEO, board, or development team isn’t what motivates their generosity. People give because of what your cause/mission means to them and how it fits with the directions in which the Spirit is nudging them.

Every gift – even the smallest — comes with heart-strings attached. Donors want to know that the purpose(s) toward which they gave still matters. And they want to know that because they gave, good things happened. When fundraising as ministry is our goal, this is what we want as well.

Specific to the thank you letter gone wrong with which I began this article, the following steps map a path to getting it right.

1. It wouldn’t have taken more than an hour or so to write a thank you letter specific to the mini-campaign. The best practice is to have the letter ready and waiting well in advance of receipt of the first gift. And be sure the person who generates thank letters knows it’s there.

2. And it won’t take more than a few minutes every couple months to update the thank you letter with ministry highlights made possible because this (and other) donors gave. When pledges extend over several months or years, keeping the thank you fresh is essential.

3. As for making certain that the right people get the letter, even the most minimal of donorbases (e.g. Excel spreadsheet) should make it possible for staff to tag project donors for thank yous specific to their gifts. These days, there’s no excuse for failing to match the thank you to purpose.

Halverson concludes with the reminder that “helpers want to see themselves positively and to feel understood and cared for — which is difficult for them to do when you won’t stop talking about yourself.”

In other words, when saying thanks, downplay the stuff about you and focus instead on the who behind the gift.

For more on the importance of getting thank you right, see:

Put the focus on thank you, please

Tips for perfecting your thank you

What part of thank you don’t you understand?


  1. Passing this excellent perspective along.

  2. This is a very helpful post

    • Thank you for your comment, Kim. Halverson’s observersation that most thank yous are more about the recepient than the benefactor hit home for me. I’ve written those offending thank you letters. Hopefully, no more.

  3. Amy Kardash says:

    Thank you for this reminder to organizations that receive gifts and the individuals who are engaging in the thanking. Excellent steps for getting it right!

    • I’m happy to say, Amy, that I’ve received some beautifully donor-centered thank you letters from theological schools to which I give gifts — including a handwritten note from a president thanking me for my work on behalf of theological education. Talk about making me feel noticed and affirmed! That’s what we want for every donor.

  4. Yes!! I well remember learning this art from you. A heartfelt thank-you takes a lot of practice.

    • Those were good times, Sarah, back when we worked together. I am so proud of all you’ve accomplished in the years since. As you’ve stepped into the world of politics, understanding the importance of other-centered thank yous will serve you well.

  5. Good stuff…as always.

What's your take on this topic?

%d bloggers like this: