Or more specifically, how NOT to say thank you. I recently came across a thank you from a board president that cost her a third of her organization’s participants.

With the fiscal year closing, and the last big event of the year behind them, the board president of this youth organizaiton sent a thank you email to everyone. She thanked the board for their hard work, the kids for efforts, the parents for their support, and the staff for their grace and caring.

Unfortunately, she then went on to refer to an incident that had severely strained relations in the organization, calling out the people she disagreed with, and stating the staff were saints, if not martyrs, for putting up with it.  Several of the recipients immediately fired off “reply all” responses, which the board president then “replied all” right back.

Unsurprisingly, the organization is now in complete disarray.

What were the mistakes made here?

1. Email versus paper

Send a letter. Email thank you’s are informal, impersonal (especially if you have older recipients) and very very public. Despite the fact that a well-written email doesn’t take any less time than a letter, the impression on the other end is that you couldn’t be bothered to write. A letter implies a hands-on, personal involvement of the letter writer in a way that the best email never can.

2. Bulk thank you

Take the time to thank each person individually. A personal response makes the recipient feel good, and diminishes the kind of fall out that happened above, because “reply” goes to the writer only. You can also personalize a single-recipient thank you, adding a line to each template that praises a specific action made by that individual.

3. Too many messages

Possibly, the incident referred to needed to be addressed, and the board president needed to take some people to the woodshed. The thank you letter was not the place to do it. There’s a nasty bait-and-switch feeling to this; you think you’re getting a thank you letter which is especially welcome after this apparently difficult year, and suddenly you’re being spanked in public. I’d be pissed off, too. Further, it’s basic marketing best practices– one message per pitch, or you dilute the more important message. In this case, the complaint completely eclipsed the thank you, so no one feels thanked.

4. Reply all

Never do this when you’re angry. Never, never, never. You will regret it. You can take that to the bank.

5. Replying to the reply

An angry email exchange should stop at the second iteration. I’ll bet there are studies that show that the third email makes the situation worse. In an emotional exchange, if you have to reply more than once, it’s time to pick up the phone. What was meant to be a thank you letter became a schism.

Or maybe that was the aim all along.

The thank you letter is one of the most important tools at your disposal for donor and volunteer relations. Don’t abuse it.