The Most Important Lesson I Learned From George H. W. Bush

Not a photo I would typically have in my library

Every single President of the United States, bar none, has taught me something.

I learned about public speaking from Presidents Reagan and Clinton.

The George W. Bush lesson?  Be really sure the mission is accomplished before paying for a really big banner to hang on an aircraft carrier.

From his dad? One of the most practical lessons of all.

A Sticky Way To Say Thank You

It’s all about the power of a good old fashioned handwritten note.

So, it’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  My then six year old twins are in a 1/2 day ski class. I’m in the lodge.

Me, some people on crutches and 325 holiday cards for my major donors.

My Development Director thought it would be a swell idea for me to write a personal note on each of these cards.   Now maybe it’s because I’m a Catholic school girl at heart or maybe it’s because I know that in oh so many ways, executive directors work for their Development Directors.  Not sure.  But I say yes.  My notes are legible and in nearly all cases, personal.  I take that back.  The notes become slightly less legible after the second Irish coffee (Come on; it’s snowing.  There’s a fireplace).

Turns out that our holiday cards arrive to donors the same day another organization’s holiday gifts arrive.  Coffee mugs.  I’m thinking – oh dear, I’m so AAA and that is so major league.  Until I began to get thank you notes from donors who give to both organizations.

I can’t remember whether the notes were more about how lovely the personal touch was or to thank me for not sending them yet another coffee mug.

Doesn’t much matter.

How to Get Thank You Notes For Your Thank You Notes

A few simple steps can make your thank you note memorable.

1) Do not.  I repeat.  Do not mistake a thank you email for the real thing.   Thank you notes are a way to connect personally with your donor.  They are about relationships.  Emails are about transactions.

2) Make the card count.  Time to ditch the blank thank you notes.  Try this.  Go to cartoonbank.com and select funny and relevant cartoons, several different ones for different stakeholders.  Order them as notecards.   There may cheaper means to the same end but here is the point:  relevant humor is sticky.  AND it takes the heat off of being clever in the note itself.

3) Send it Fast.  Really Fast.  My assistant would address an envelope in the a.m. for every donor meeting I had.  Yes, he was very busy but very motivated because he saw the difference.   I spent 3 minutes when I got back to the office and wrote the note.  The information was all still fresh in my head.  The aging dog, the new Subzero (why do people buy them when all they do is complain about them?), the huge gift the prospect just made to her alma mater and, if no gift, memorialize the next steps.

4) Postmark it that very same day.

When is a Thank You Note Not Just a Thank You Note?

When you take a little extra time to make it a real and personal contact. When you send a donor a message that acknowledges that she is more than just a checkbook.

Take the time to be thoughtful and generous.  Your stakeholders who give time and treasure deserve nothing less.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Agreed. Completely. All of the our donors receive a hand-written note. People who donate to our volunteer’s international trips also receive a hand-written note on custom organization cards from the person whose trip they supported and our organization. We also send all of our members of SkillCorps (our International travel program) a hand-written note on the first page of a little journal. I’ve had people tell me that they’ve wanted to frame that page, it meant so much to them. Isn’t it awesome that you really just need to be kind and connect with people to make a huge impact?

    • it is definitely about making a personal touch. and this is exactly what i am talking about. your members are thanking YOU for their thank you note. thanks for commenting.

  • Scott

    Love the idea of getting notecards from Cartoonbank.com. However, it appears there are only two kinds of notecards, one on dogs and the other is cats. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood the order process?

    • i just checked myself and you are absolutely right. looks like they have eliminated the opportunity to select a specific cartoon for notecards. i need to search around for some other similar options and update the post. rats!

  • Joan – love the story and I’m going to point my clients to this article about the importance of HW notes. One question.. you said this was the most important lesson you learned from George H. W. Bush… but I don’t see the link of how you learned the lesson from him… is there an interaction you had with him, or do you know that he was a prolific note writer?

    • Jay – no interactions with Bush Sr. But it was well known that he wrote many many handwritten notes that meant a great deal and that recipients really treasured. And remember the key is to get them out the day of or the day after the meeting!!!