My mother was right

I can remember, at least twice in my life, getting a thank-you note from my mother, thanking me for my thank-you note.


My husband thinks it’s bizarre that I still send thank-you notes to my parents and to his, when they give a present to the kids.

We buy them in bulk, to have on hand just in case.

And I still follow the rules my mother instilled in me more than a quarter-century ago now: each thank-you note should be handwritten, no matter what; there should always be a specific reference to the gift or deed that warranted the thanks; and the thank-you note should be prompt, written no more than 48 hours after the occasion.

It hadn’t occurred to me, until I was reading Fundraising for Social Change, the extent to which these lessons in gratitude have permeated my advocacy work.

But they have; I say thank-you to elected officials all the time.

I thank losing candidates for having run good races, especially if they have raised issues that would have otherwise been overlooked. I thank my own members of Congress and state legislators for their votes on a variety of issues I support. I thank elected officials and non-elected leaders for their statements in the press, their willingness to attend certain events, and their attention to pressing problems.
And, you know, now that I think about it, they have an even higher rate than my own Mom of thanking me for the thanks. I received a very heartfelt thank you for my thank you from my member of the U.S. House after his vote in favor of health care reform, and from my state senator after she supported the Kansas revenue increase. In the latter case, she said that I was the only constituent to have thanked her for that vote. Just last week, I got a thank-you note back from a state senator (not my own) thanking me for my thank-you note for his vote against the instate tuition repeal (and, no, he’s not even related to my mother!).

I can think of several instances where my thank you resulted, later, in a stronger relationship with an elected official, an entry point on a subsequent issue, or even a slightly healed breach where there had been conflict. Especially for those who are not my own representatives, sometimes these “thank you” relationships are the start of much deeper communication and an ability to work together on issues important to me.

People, whoever they are, really do like to be thanked, especially when they’re so used to be asked, or even harassed, instead. So, in honor of my mother and her lifetime commitment to thankfulness, here are some tips for thanking policymakers in an advocacy context, with an eye towards how today’s “thank you” just might help with tomorrow’s “would you please?”

  • Promptness still does matter, especially because our requests are so often time-sensitive. We don’t want to be seen as only respecting the urgency of the policy process on the front end. Especially on tough votes, the criticisms will roll in immediately, and our thanks need to as well.
  • Hand-written notes do receive more attention, I think. I’ve often written a note out by hand for Congress but then faxed it there so that it would arrive quickly, given the delays of mail screening at the Capitol.
  • Include supplemental materials, if at all possible–one of my favorite tactics is to include supportive editorials from a local paper when thanking a state legislator, for example. You can reference this in your thank you, “I’m not alone in appreciating your stance on this issue. I’ve included for your reference a letter from the Garden City Telegram applauding your vote.”
  • Ask others to join you in thanking the elected official. This has the dual purpose of increasing the number of thank yous someone hears as well as strengthening your network (because it’s an easy ask and gets people in the habit of contacting elected officials, when they know that there won’t be conflict).
  • Be creative in your thanks. I received more than 10 personal “thank yous” for the thank yous that we generated as part of our DREAM Act campaign–student groups at universities around Kansas came up with their own thank you ideas, ranging from signed t-shirts from their school to photos where they spelled out “thank you” in a sort of human letter thing. We also generated special diplomas, signed by students, thanking people for their commitment to higher education. These ideas were nearly free, but very thoughtful, and I’ve seen at least a few state legislators with those diplomas still up in their offices, more than six years later.

    Nonprofit fundraisers tell us that thanking people for their contributions can mean the difference between continued and increasing support or publicly denigrating your organization to other would-be donors. I’ve never known of an elected official to change a vote because he/she wasn’t thanked, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be the advocate asking someone to take a courageous stance without having thanked them for their past support.

    And I think my mom would be proud.

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