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The Perennial Nonprofit Question: To Send A Holiday Card Or Not To Send A Holiday Card

To send a holiday card or not to send a holiday card, that is the question. Every year since 1991 I have struggled with this question, not personally but professionally. My family sends Christmas cards to family members, friends and a few acquaintances. That’s no problem – it’s a great way to share news, send best wishes, and generally keep in touch.

So what is the problem professionally? Aren’t those same benefits available to a non-profit organization when it sends Christmas cards, or more broadly, any type of holiday card to its constituents? It depends.

If nonprofits send personalized cards, I think they generate a positive return on investment. In other words, if nonprofit organizations, however many cards they choose to send, insert individualized news, a note, a name, then it seems to me that the card is worth the candle. Without this customization, I’m not so sure.

Cards sent in bulk
When I served for 17 years as a university president, my name and title appeared on the VIP lists of countless organizations. In the vernacular, I was “somebody”. As I was apparently considered worthy, or at least my position was considered important, my office received dozens of cards: Christmas but possibly also Thanksgiving and sometimes birthday cards.

What I found fascinating was that virtually all of these maps were computer generated. My name was nowhere but on the label of the envelope. No messages relevant to my relationship with the organization could be found inside. No news about who I was or even what the university was vis-à-vis the association sending the card. No real signature of the president of the association, even on several occasions when I personally knew the fellow leader of the association. Nothing.

This even happened with birthday cards. I received cards from non-profit organizations during my birthday week, but the card had no written message and no name. Unbelievable. Try this with your spouse: give them a birthday or anniversary card without a message or your name. Not good.

Even more interesting to me, since I left the presidency of the university, I no longer receive cards from most of these non-profit organizations. This is true for organizations with which I have personally had a close relationship and it is true for organizations whose leadership I still know.

The message I take from this is that I don’t matter much now and I only mattered then because I was in a position that nonprofits deemed influential and possibly useful for them. But even then, to repeat myself, I apparently didn’t matter that much because I received a map simply generated by a tickler file.

Some nonprofits and their leaders, I know, pride themselves on the length or breadth of their Christmas card list. I have heard presidents proclaim a number as if it were a sign of great achievement. You know, my Rolodex is bigger than your Rolodex. Or in more contemporary terms, my mailing list is bigger than your mailing list.

But is it important? Does that mean anything? Do all of these impersonal cards actually reinforce the nonprofit’s mission and vision? Are voters overjoyed when they receive such a card? Is the practice of sending unpersonalized cards to tens or hundreds or even thousands an effective advancement tool? I do not think so.

Custom maps
When it came time for me to decide if I should spend my hard-earned college funds, I asked myself, “Is it worth it?” I still consider the same question every year now in a different nonprofit leadership role. Why should I spend or how much should I spend association funds to send a card? It depends.

I don’t recommend that nonprofit organizations not send out holiday cards. Nor am I against a long list per se. What I’m suggesting is that sending cards impersonally won’t have as positive an impact as sending personalized cards. So if I’m responsible for deciding how to spend a nonprofit’s funds—resources that could go to mission-fulfilling operations or programs—then I want to adopt a method that has the most impact and ultimately as effective as possible. For me, these are personalized cards.

Every Thanksgiving, I spend several hours watching football games signing Christmas cards. I usually choose a pen with blue ink, but really anything but black. This ensures that my name and message stand out from the typical black font of the card’s printed message.

It takes longer, but I like to write the person’s name, whether it’s Fred or Fred and Mary or Mr. and Mrs. Smith, depending on my level of knowledge. Follow that with a sentence about the nonprofit’s work, such as “It’s been a tough but successful year” or “Thank you for helping us touch lives” or “As the year ends, we are excited to launch the new program. .” Then follow it up with some sort of Christmas or holiday greeting: “Blessings to you and yours this season” or “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” or “Best wishes at this wonderful time of year.” Finally, I sign my first name.

I guarantee that this method will attract the attention of the voter receiving the card. Why? Because I respond to personalized cards, I know others do, and because people who have received these cards have subsequently expressed their appreciation for them. And, a personalized card will stand out in the pile on the dining room table or desk because it’s the only one with a handwritten personal greeting.

Now you say, “I don’t have time to do that.” To which I say, “You don’t have time not to do that.” Or if you’re really in a hurry, narrow down your list of Christmas cards. Don’t send more than you have the time and inclination to personalize. No matter how many, the people who receive them will feel special and valued, which, after all, is what a nonprofit hopes its constituents feel.

E-cards
The electronic card phenomenon is still relatively new. Some nonprofits use this method to send holiday greetings to their constituents – it’s inexpensive and instant. But the same rule applies. Custom e-boards generate a higher return on investment than non-custom e-boards.

And while I’m not anti-tech, I’d still say that a handwritten note sent via snail mail engenders a greater positive response than something emailed and easily deleted. It may be an old-school attitude or assessment, but the now-worn adage, “High Tech, High Touch,” still applies. People love and remember being “touched”.

Personalized or emailed mass cards
After all that, you can say, “If I narrow my list down to a handful that I personalize, our nonprofit will miss a key opportunity to share news and engage our constituents.” Okay maybe.

If a nonprofit concludes that they need to send out tens or hundreds or thousands of select holiday cards, I highly recommend that those cards be personalized in an identifiable way. Don’t just pick them up from the printer and drop them in the mailbox. Don’t just acquire an electronic map and pass it on to a vast database. Personalize.

Customizing is different from personalizing. Personalize means that the recipient’s name is on the card and the association leader has signed the card with a personal message, even if it is on an electronic card. Personalize means the nonprofit has added content that somehow identifies the card as the nonprofit’s card, not a stock or even a special design which does not include any nonprofit news or names.

The personalized card should include up-to-date information, a phrase of thanks, and someone’s name and title, even if it’s not personally signed. Do not send cards from “The Staff” or, worse, any source of origin other than the return address on the envelope, or an institutional name like “The University” or “XYZ Ministries”. Put the name of an individual, perhaps the chairman of the board, president or vice president for advancement, on the card. Almost any name is better than no name.

Conclusion
Nonprofit organizations spend thousands of dollars each year sending greeting cards to their constituents. But this practice, especially long lists, may be more of a cultural tradition than a good methodology for advancement.

The question of whether or not to send a holiday card should be answered based on the perceived effectiveness of improving the mission. Since the best progress is about relationships, it seems logical to conclude that the best greeting cards strengthen personal ties to the nonprofit. We build relationships by at least personalizing a mailing, but even better, personalizing it.

Sign nonprofit greeting cards with news, notes and names.

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