How to write a meaningful thank-you note

January 23, 2018

News, Expert

Sarah Melvin is a bona fide pro when it comes to gratitude. As director of donor relations, she is a key figure behind the thousands of thank-you notes the University sends to donors annually. She’s also a mom whose children grew up learning how to write thank-you notes. These are her tips for how to do it well.

By Sarah Melvin

1. Be timely
It is part of the expression of gratitude to respond in a timely fashion. It helps people know that you appreciate the gift when you stop, take a pause, and write a thank-you note. It also confirms that the gift was received. In the online giving era, it is appreciated to know when a gift is received by the recipient.

2. Be personal
Whether you are writing a thank-you note to your grandparents for a birthday check or to a donor for a gift to the University, talk about the impact of the gift. You might say, “Thank you so much for the birthday check. I’m going to use it to go out and celebrate with my friends, and I’m going to be thinking about you when I do.”

For University donors, it’s very important for us to talk about how the gift will make a difference in our students’ lives. We want the donor to be able to say, “This is exactly why I made the gift, because I know the University appreciates it, and they’re going to put it to good use.” Our goal is that donors receive acknowledgement letters from the University that are such genuine expressions of gratitude that, frankly, they want to hang them on their refrigerator door.

3. Be sincere
Remember your purpose. I’ve read lovely letters before that don’t actually say “thank you.” They might refer to the gift or talk about its impact, but sometimes people will just forget to say thank you. Sometimes we don’t think it is necessary to officially thank those who are closest to us. Each and every gift, no matter the size, is a gesture of generosity and should be acknowledged.

4. Don't get hung up on the medium
In our office, the lion’s share of thank-you letters are sent via traditional mail, but we do email, too.

There are different schools of thought on whether a mailed note should be handwritten or typed. Certainly, it’s more personal if it’s handwritten. However, not everyone has the best handwriting. A typed note that’s timely, personal, and sincere can be just as heartwarming as a handwritten note.

It comes down to knowing your audience. My children have been known to text notes of appreciation to their grandparents. As a recipient, I’d rather receive acknowledgment that way than not receive it at all. No gift should go unthanked.

5. But do think about the tone
Are you going to use a formal salutation or an informal salutation? That’s a judgment call sometimes. When in doubt, go formal.

6. Consider the power of the P.S.
A handwritten postscript at the end of a typed thank-you note can make the note a little more informal while really taking the personalization to the next level. 

We have a University president who is great about writing personal P.S. notes. Dr. Crutcher often further customizes his acknowledgement letters by adding a personal note like “It was great to see you at the game on Saturday. Look forward to seeing you again soon.”

A handwritten postscript at the end of a typed thank-you note can make the note a little more informal while really taking the personalization to the next level.

7. Recognize the less-obvious occasions
Use opportunities like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s and Father’s Day, or even your grandparents’ birthdays to write a note thanking someone for how they impact your life.

And be sure you write one after a job interview. It may distinguish you as a candidate, and it’s a nice opportunity to demonstrate that you’re the best person for the job based on your soft skills.

8. Pass along the tradition
My parents were sticklers for it growing up. God forbid Aunt So-and-so should come back at your mother and say she never received a thank-you note. You didn’t want that to happen in my house.

When my son went off to college, I reminded him to write a note to his grandparents, who had given him a little check before he went away. I said to him, “Make sure you say thank you for the money, but make sure you also say thank you for 18 years of support, because that’s what they’ve done for you over your life.”

A thank-you note is a bit of a lost art, and it’s up to us to share it with the next generation to make sure that appreciation continues in our professional lives and our personal lives.