We need to talk about the handwritten thank-you note

[Image description: A note with the words “Thank You,” on top of a beige envelope. On the top right corner there’s a hand holding a pencil. This makes no sense. The note is clearly in ink, so why is this hand holding a pencil? Unless, the Thank You part is already printed on this stationary, so this person didn’t actually write that. But still, who would write a thank-you note in pencil? Unless, they’re planning to draw their gratitude. Maybe I should have stuck to the usual picture of a baby animal. Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. Before we delve into today’s super exciting topic, in the spirit of ending the Nonprofit Hunger Games I am declaring this week to be Wear Another Nonprofit’s T-shirt Week. Let’s help promote one another’s organizations like the awesome unicorns of Equity that we are. Show love to orgs that you don’t work for and are not on the board of. Swap T-shirts the way that some professional sports players swap jerseys. Take pictures and tweet with the hashtag #NonprofitsSupportingNonprofits. At the end of the week, 10 winners will be randomly chosen to receive…the satisfaction of making the sector better.

OK, let’s talk about the handwritten thank-you note (HWTYN). First of all, I love them. I know many of you do as well, especially the fundraisers in the sector, who have turned the HWTYN into an art form. Some of the leaders I look up to the most have gotten so skilled at this that it seems they spend considerable time writing thoughtful and highly personalized notes—“Dear Vu, it was so lovely to have lunch with you today at Piroshky on 3rd! I am glad I took your recommendation and tried the borscht. You changed my mind on beets, and thus, you changed my entire life trajectory”—and YET are able to warp time and space so that their HWTYN arrives mere hours after I meet with them.

I cherish thank-you notes. I keep every written message I get from colleagues and readers. On crappy days, I sometimes pull them out and read them to remind myself that I do add value to the world, no matter what my older brother posts on Facebook.

However, there is a Dark Side to thank-you notes, handwritten or otherwise, that we need to think about, in our quest to be more equitable and inclusive in our work. I’ve been seeing signs that are troubling. People with hiring responsibilities, for example, who negatively judge job candidates who don’t send follow-up thank-you notes, believing this is a “common courtesy” and thus an essential quality of good employees. “I give them a week; if their note doesn’t arrive, they are no longer considered for the job.” Similarly, some donors and funders look down on nonprofits who do not send thank-you notes within a reasonable amount of time, believing this is an essential quality of good organizations. “It’s been two weeks after I donated, and all I got was the automatic thank-you/confirmation message.”

But there are several things we all need to consider:

Ways of expressing gratitude are not universal across different cultures: There are many cultures where people do not express gratitude through the HWTYN. In some cultures, food is used to thank people. In others, the fact that you communicated “thank you” verbally is enough, and that’s the end of it, no need for follow-up. When my aunt gave my partner and me some money for our wedding, which she couldn’t attend, I asked my dad whether I should write her a note. “What?” he said, “No, that’s weird. No one does that. Just call her and say thanks.”

This is a critical point for us all to understand, that different cultures have different customs. As a colleague reminded me, and something I grew up being trained in, in many Asian cultures, you do not hand anything to anyone using one hand. Children must use two hands when giving something to adults. Adults when interacting with elders. Employees the same with customers. Students with teachers, etc. To show respect, you use two hands even with the tiniest items. Do you know how difficult it is to give someone a Tic Tac with two hands?! (Just kidding, for items smaller than a quarter, only the orneriest elders will fault you for only using one hand).

Thank-you notes are part of a set of unwritten rules that screws people of different backgrounds: Taken in the context above, thank-you notes are primarily (but not exclusively) a white cultural custom. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, except when it is assumed that this custom is somehow the only correct way to do things. This leads to it becoming an unwritten rule that is forced upon everyone else. Sure, many of us were taught to write a HWTYN after every job interview, but what about those who of us who weren’t? Or who come from other countries? Or who didn’t have access to job training programs that taught us how to play this game effectively? As I mentioned in “Why we need to end the culture of ‘cultural fit,’” having unwritten rules is great way to perpetuate discrimination and inequity and create a non-diverse team.

In terms of fundraising, this rule is also unwritten in the sense that grassroots organizations led by and serving diverse communities may not be aware of the gravity of this custom, that (white) donors and funders expect them to write follow-up thank-you notes within a few days and may punish them for not doing so. We are training donors to think negatively of organizations that do not conform to this white cultural norm, and these are often organizations that are doing critical work with the fewest resources.

Thank-you notes are often perfunctory and thus meaningless: Unlike the “Your introducing me to beets has changed my life” message, the notes job candidates write after interviews are perfunctory hoop jumping and are superficial and almost meaningless except in the context that this candidate knows how to play the game. If you are expected to be grateful and may get punished if you are not, is it really genuine gratitude? And is this a good indicator that someone will be effective at the job? I know in development jobs, sending HWTYN is an essential skill, but can it not be taught?  

In fundraising, meanwhile, a major donor told me that he’s sick of getting these handwritten thank-you notes after every donation, because as genuine as they are, they’re all similar and predictable in their genuineness. And I’ve gotten a few notes from thoughtful donors along the lines of “please do not spend time thanking me, you have enough work to do.” Should our field get more creative about thanking donors, perhaps with personalized videos or poems? Or maybe the solution is to have less frequent, but more meaningful interactions.

The expectation and manifestations of gratitude perpetuate power imbalance: Why are job candidates expected to write thank-you notes and yet employers are not? Sure, employers are providing a job, so candidates should be grateful. But employers cannot get any work done without staff, so shouldn’t they be equally grateful? When is the last time any of us got a handwritten thank you note from a place we applied to? A common complaint among many job candidates is that not only are they hardly ever thanked for their time, but that they often get “ghosted” by employers. They apply for a job, often going through the interview stage, and never hear anything back again. We need to stop treating job candidates like crap, including having one-sided expectations around showing gratitude.

The same goes for donors and foundations. Yes, we nonprofits should be thankful for donors’/funders’ support, but this too has become extremely one-way. And gratitude being too one-way leads to some negative consequences, including lessening donors’/funders’ self-reflections, increasing their fragility, and weakening our ability to have difficult critical conversations such as about the correlation between racism, colonization, and wealth disparity. I would love to see more mutual expressions of gratitude for the work we are all doing in partnership.

I know that’s a lot to think about. I am not saying we need to stop writing handwritten thank-you notes. However, given that all of us are trying to be more inclusive, we need to examine many of the practices we hold to be “common courtesy” or “best practice.” Because as our society changes and becomes more diverse, these courtesies may not be all that common, and these practices may no longer be best.

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