Thank you for the really insightful comments and reflections shared with me by a number of organisers and leaders, many of which have been incorporated into this piece.
Saying ‘thank you’ is a vital part of human interaction. When we say ‘thank you’, we recognise a kind/generous deed that someone else did for us. We know that a person had a choice – they did not have to do something, but they took time out of their day and chose to support/help us. Saying ‘thank you’ acknowledges our dependence on one another. When we fail to say thank you, we demean the conduct and effort of another person’s effort in assisting us. This is especially important in the UK, where saying ‘thank you’ is part of the cultural oil that sustains British human exchanges.
But, broadly, we don’t say ‘thank you’ in organising.
What?! That doesn’t seem to make sense.
Let me unpack that a little.
When a person does me a favour or a kindness, I thank them.
But, when leaders take action on the things they care about, overcoming their fear about being a public person and the risks it involves, it is inappropriate to thank them. To thank them suggests that they took action for me, be I an organiser/head teacher/clergy/union leader. That this leader did me a favour by negotiating with a power-holder, or giving testimony, or building turnout for an action. But, they did this for themselves, not for me. They acted because they were angry that they, or people they care about, have been in pain. They acted because they wanted change.
In public action, we recognise the leader who took action, and thank the power holder. When a leader acts we publicly say, instead of the habitual ‘thank you’, we could say ‘congratulations’; ‘I really enjoyed that’; ‘that was impressive because …’ or ‘because you did that, we can do X…’. This is a celebration of the leader’s agency, fear, courage, humanity, skills and talents, which they have invested in building our organisations and winning change and making us all collectively more powerful. When leaders exercise each of these characteristics, it is our joint role to lift up their agency. The ‘thank you’ in public action is reserved for the power-holder, who has made a choice to work with us, for which we are all appreciative. It is a recognition that the power-holder could have chosen otherwise. Saying ‘thank you’ to them is part of our broader goal to build a kinder, more disciplined, more accountable kind of politics.
Suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, in Parliament Square, holding a placard with the words she wrote after the death of Emily Wilding Davison in the 1913 Derby: “Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.”
However, unless a leader has done us a personal favour, saying ‘thank you’ over-centres the person doing the thanking.
This principle applies not only when we take action in the public sphere, but also in our institutions. If we want leaders to really own their organisations, but we continue to thank them when they lead, it creates a dynamic where the members appear to be building their organisation for the head teacher/clergy/union branch chair, not for themselves and what they want to create in the world.
One organiser mentioned how frustrated they used to get when they participated in church life and the vicar used to thank them and in so doing, take the object of their labour away from them, by saying ‘thank you, [I’ll take it from here…]’. A key leader insightfully commented that ‘if I find myself wanting to say ‘thank you’ more than ‘congratulations’, then it is often a helpful indication to me that I have not built the action/event with others.’ Some leaders within institutions may say that they don’t feel valued when no ‘thank you’ is forthcoming. One helpful strategy suggested to me might by to: first, congratulate and recognise that this person has done something important; second, recognise that ‘as a community, we are thankful that you have decided to bring your gifts and talents to share with the rest of us’ and; finally, acknowledge that ‘you have helped to inspire and challenge us to act for change’.
In this way, we can help to negotiate the complex interplay of gratitude, leadership development, recognition, affirmation, ownership and acknowledgment within civil society organisations. In so doing, we can support and challenge leaders to understand that by building their organisations, they build themselves too.
In the Torah, the Israelites have been consistently complaining since they were emancipated and left Egypt. They get angry with Moses and accuse him of bringing him to the desert to die (Exodus 14:11-12). This is despite God and Moses intervening on a regular basis to give them food, the 10 Commandments and shelter them from attack. And then, in the desert, God commands Moses to do something remarkable: work with the Israelites to build the ‘Tabernacle’, where the Ark of the Covenant will be kept, together. For the entire period of the Tabernacle-building, in which the Israelites participated so vigorously that they had to be told to stop bringing their gold/silver/skins/drapes etc, they did not complain. When a group of people are moved to act, and build something together, they are transformed. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says, we are transformed not by what we receive, but what we build. In the Jewish tradition, there is gratitude, but it is directed towards the Divine, not other congregants.
And the leaders we work with are not frail, frost-bitten flowers. They are tough. They have been through what life has thrown at them and survived. In many cases, thrived. And our role, as organisers, or as leaders in institutions that use organising, is to respect other people’s agency. The advice of the 1199 SEI Union in the USA ‘workers are made of clay, not glass’. In other words, we should never belittle the power people have. Our role is to help them to recognise it, build it and use it more effectively.
So, I am not saying we should stop saying ‘thank you’ – far from it. The world would be a kinder place if more people took the time to express real gratitude.
But, I am suggesting that we stop using it in organising, and instead congratulate and recognise those who are willing to exercise their courage and take responsibility to act.
 For instance, in prayers that are said every morning, like ‘Modeh Ani’ and ‘Birkot Hashachar’, which acknowledge the Divine for returning us to wakefulness for another day to participate in building the world.