Sometimes You Have to Write Your Own Recommendation Letter

A designer I know told me he just finished writing a recommendation for himself. My first thought was that this was really sad. Then he told me the story, and it sounds like one of the many things that go wrong in the world of commerce.

For the past 19 years, he’s been working for a non-profit organization. After years of dedicated work, working at discount since they were NON-PROFIT, he wanted some kind of non-monetary payback. He was retiring on a couple of fronts, scaling back. Not that what they paid him was very significant either, but yes, they did pay him some money. To him, the recommendation would be worth more than money and I understood that. No names here because it’s a big organization that seems at least to be trying to make the world a better place.

So he asked for this letter of recommendation, and after nine months of a runaround, even after writing a bulleted point letter to several Board members to make the writing super easy for them, he didn’t get one. So he wrote it himself, put it on their letterhead and asked one of the Board members to sign it. They did, since it was nothing but the truth but it made me think (since I work with non- profits) so what makes them better to work for anyway? And does this happen more often than I think it does?

Do non-profits hide behind their “good will” and are they basically as inept and insensitive to the help they get as the bad corporate profiteer? I’m thinking NO because they start out with a greater cause in mind and I believe in business with a greater cause. Bottom line is just not enough. You can see where that’s got us all. The bottom is sinking out of the floor these days.

Actually, it’s probably meaningless that it was a non-profit organization. I guess it just seemed worse to my naive mind that it was. How easy it is to get a letter outlilning outstanding service after years of dedication to ANY cause? You do it in the first place because you want to, right? Well, if it’s for a non-profit, at least that’s what everyone thinks.

Maybe the most important thing to me was that he actually could write that letter himself. That he knew what he did even if they couldn’t wrap their heads around his contribution to their organization over so many years. And once I realised that, I figured it was probably a good thing for him to have done it. In the end, if you are unaware of what you’ve accomplished; if it seems insignificant to YOU, then who can convince you it wasn’t? Do we only believe it if someone else tells us it’s true?

They tell me the worst offenders of dedication, good service and spirited participation are non-profits, but when the financial services company you slaved for all your life hands you a pink slip (seems more of these are being handing out these days) you don’t feel so appreciated either.

In a world where money is the only measure of success, the only one that everyone is willing to take notice of, the easiest thing to notice in fact, there’s little room for appreciating the non-tangibles, the personal achievements, the kind that can’t be measured with a paycheck.

So just remember to take note of your own achievements and you should start right now. You don’t even have to tell anyone about them if you don’t want to. But you know if you’ve made a difference and it’s time to get off the old polite paradigm we’ve been stuck with all our lives; for each of us to recognize our value, the kind you can’t measure with dollar signs. This could be a big thing in a world that is financially tanking around us.

So write your own damn recommendation letter and threaten to jam the water cooler if they won’t sign it. If you don’t know what you’re contributing, chances are even bigger that no one else will either.

PS March 12 is Jack Kerouac’s birthday so this one’s for you, Ti Jean, in heaven.


  1. How about this one – I once asked a long-term publishing client for whom I had a great relationship and been designing books for over a decade, to write me a recommendation that I could use on my website. They said that they couldn’t because of legal reasons. I asked what they meant by that, and they said that it could be used against them. I asked how, and they said that if the relationship goes sour with one of the editors and I had a letter with a glowing review, then it might be used as evidence of their wrong-doing. Great – a legal system that prevents people from being nice to each other.

    Howard Levy
    Red Rooster Group

  2. Totally with you on this. The hardest part is knowing the reasons, none of which make sense or really have meaning. And then there’s the issue of taking responsibility…. It really makes me mad.