How Do We Thank Trustees?

by Barbara Barron | Posted August 19th, 2020

A client asked me that question the other day. And it’s a good one. It’s a question that is far more complex and potentially far-reaching than it might appear at first glance.

The question is actually this: How do we thank the people who help steer our organizations? Who give so generously of their time, talent, and treasure? (And yes, it’s all three, my friends. Never let your trustee prospects think otherwise.)  How, especially now, do we acknowledge their work as the decisions they help our Heads make for our schools weigh so heavily. And have a potentially huge impact?

How can we surprise and delight them (as I advocate in other articles) when they are often in on the planning and execution of our best stewardship plans?

I bet you have your own answers to those questions already bubbling up in that brilliant mind of yours. I’ll offer my take here.

First, to the extent you can, keep some of your cool ideas for stewardship under wraps. Try not to “spill your candy on the lobby floor” so you can let your trustees experience your acts of stewardship for themselves. But if you can’t do that, try using your best ideas first on these good people. Send the adorable photo or that powerful report on the impact of their giving to them early in the cycle. Then when you roll it out with others, you can report on your progress and your trustees will know exactly what you’re talking about. They will have felt all the feels! 

Have you subscribed to the newsletter yet? It only takes a minute.

After all, shouldn’t we always try to bring our best selves, our best work, to those who make the biggest difference in our work and to our schools? 

But beyond that, what are some other ways we can demonstrate our gratitude to our volunteer leaders?  Remember, the very best way to say thank you is to be immediate and specific. Being late always feels disingenuous. Being vague never feels good. 

And it needn’t take you a ton of time.

I have found that one of the best ways is through a short, heartfelt, and (again) specific messages. Email if that’s best. A handwritten note is also nice.  I offer you some examples: 

Hi Dave,

Thanks so much for that helpful comment at the committee meeting yesterday. Your voice helped redirect the conversation back to the strategy.  I think that moved us ahead in our thinking. I’m grateful.

Hi Allison,

I so appreciated the way you followed up immediately with the Jones family. When I spoke with Mrs. Jones this morning, she commented on what a lovely surprise it was to hear from you. Letting me know you’d made contact was super helpful so I was better prepared. I’m so fortunate to have your partnership in this work. 

Hi Sondra,  

It meant so much to me to be able to run that strategy by you before the Board meeting. Thanks for making the extra time when I know how busy you are. I totally felt you had my back.

Hi Will,

Wow! I was really touched by your comment about the improvements you’ve seen in our program this year. I believe your endorsement will motivate others to participate more like you have, which will help move us closer to our goals. Thanks so much. 

I can’t imagine a volunteer receiving a message like any of these and not feeling deeply appreciated, really seen, truly recognized. Can you?

And besides it being the right thing to do, like most right things, there are other lovely benefits of trying this approach. What these messages underscore are the very actions and attitudes we want and need in our volunteers. It’s the stuff that actually helps us do our jobs better.  We are teaching our trustees how best to work with us.

We are teaching them the importance of:

  • Making time before a meeting to get aligned
  • Acting on an assignment right away
  • Following up promptly
  • Reporting back to us so we can keep better notes
  • Supporting us publicly
  • Being prepared
  • Showing up and speaking up in support of the strategy
  • Partnering with us

Most volunteers want to be helpful but aren’t always sure how to be. Many of your trustees may be serving in this role for the first time. So it’s a major leg up for them when we can coach them in ways of serving most productively.

Another less public – but very powerful – benefit of this partnership is that we, as the advancement professionals, may feel more satisfied in our work. When that happens, we work better, harder, and smarter. And we tend to stay at our organization a bit longer. The turnover rate in our profession is dishearteningly high. And expensive in many ways. Think about it. When we leave, we take all that institutional and donor knowledge with us. Even if you leave an excellent exit document for your successor, there will be things lost. Donors may feel sad when you leave. It may shake their confidence. And it can take months or even years to build trust and faith in the new person. The inefficiencies posed by a new person in the office are significant. It takes time and money to get even the smartest and most experienced pros up to speed. 

Have you subscribed to the newsletter yet? It only takes a minute.

Of course, our organizations, our Heads, and our Boards would do well to keep us and keep us satisfied. (Are you hearing this, Heads and Board members?!) But because we’re all grownups here, we may need to take the initiative and care for some of our needs. We may need to be our own champions.  

In the end, the better the relationships you have with key volunteers, the smoother things will go all around. This important work will increase your own productivity and your ability to meet those sky-high goals. It will increase the retention of your best volunteers. This is for everyone’s sanity! It’s one of those super-rare win-win-wins.

How did your answers to the question compare with mine? I bet you’ve got some winning ways of your own for thanking your trustees! Please share. We all benefit from learning from one another.

My name is Barbara Barron, and I write this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for over 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful Strategic Fundraising Plans for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at Presidio Knolls School, San Diego French-American School, Julia Morgan School for Girls and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. A strong school begin to fly! My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do better, together.