Thank-You Note Operator’s Manual
I spoke at a client’s conference this past winter. I was in Little Rock, Ark., with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) at its leadership conference.
After my return home, I received a handwritten thank-you note from Nicole Dolan, my client and one of the organizers of the meeting. It read:
I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you. Thank you for presenting with me in Little Rock and engaging with our volunteers so compassionately. Thank you for your time and words of wisdom. Thank you for your insight and encouragement, personally and professionally.
Thank you for helping AFSP develop best practices and raise more money. ☺ You are appreciated, and I’m grateful to have you in my circle.
I’ve been in nonprofit work for about 28 years. I’m battle-hardened. I’m crusty. I wear librarian glasses just so I can look over the top of them and scare children, yet this note moved me.
In our work at Turnkey, we study human reactions. We study recognition and how to use it to install and grow intrinsic labels (e.g., I’m a "suicide prevention evangelist") in our volunteer, peer-to-peer fundraisers. I knew this note was in line with that work. I really wanted a breakdown though—why did it impact me so powerfully? I wondered, "Can you bottle that?" I turned to the beloved, Otis Fulton, Turnkey’s behavioral expert and my hubby, for help.
"Beloved," I said, "please take this note and break it down for me. I need the psychological analogy to a diagramming of a sentence by a grammarian." Thus, I quote (with Otis' comments included in parenthesis):
Dear Katrina, (She said your name. Literally, she recognized you.)
I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you. Thank you for presenting with me in Little Rock and engaging with our volunteers so compassionately. (Nicole was specific in her thanks, noting a particular action you took. This will increase the likelihood that you will continue to work on her organization's behalf in the future.) Thank you for your time and words of wisdom. (Sincere flattery always works to strengthen relationships.) Thank you for your insight and encouragement, personally and professionally. (She is reinforcing the idea that you have a social relationship with her. It’s not just based on personal gain.)
Thank you for helping AFSP develop best practices and raise more money. ☺ (Nicole has emphasized that your actions have been competent and successful.) You are appreciated, and I’m grateful to have you in my circle. (Nicole, again very specifically, has recognized you as a person.)
So, in fact, there is a formula. At Turnkey, we use formulas in delivering recognition programs. We work hard at doing that ever more effectively. We study the formula. We train people on the formula.
As an industry, however, we pay little attention to teaching staff what came so naturally to Nicole. If we taught thankfulness—why it works, how it works, when to do it—and then we measured their performance in this area—how much better would they perform in pursuit of the greater good? If we taught thankfulness, we will have taught a large part of how to manage and motivate volunteers and other staff people.
And, of course, the lesson goes far beyond the act of writing a thank-you note. The lesson is about living a life of thankfulness and all the good that results on both ends of the exchange.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.