The perennial question of nonprofits: to send a holiday card or not to send a holiday card

Sending a vacation card or not sending a vacation 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, friends, and a few acquaintances. That’s not a problem, it’s a good way to share news, convey best wishes, and generally keep in touch.

So what is the problem professionally? Aren’t these same benefits available to a nonprofit 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 nonprofits, no matter how many cards they choose to mail, insert some individualized notice, a note, a name, then it seems to me that the card is worth the effort. Without this customization, I am not so sure.

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

What I found fascinating was that virtually all of these cards were computer generated. My name was nowhere to be found other than on the label of the envelope. Inside, no message relevant to my relationship with the organization could be found. There is no news that relates in any way to who I was or even what the university was in regards to the non-profit organization that sent the card. There is no actual signature from the president of the nonprofit, including many times when I personally met the fellow executive of the nonprofit. Any.

This even happened with birthday cards. I received cards from non-profit organizations during the week of my birthday, but the card did not contain a written message or a name. Amazing. Try this with your spouse: give them a birthday or anniversary card without a message or their name. Not good.

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

The message I get from this is that I didn’t matter much now and only mattered “back then” because I was in a position that nonprofits found influential and possibly helpful to them. But even back then, to repeat myself, apparently I didn’t care much because I received a card generated simply by a tickler file.

Some nonprofits and their executives, I know, take pride in how long or extensive their list of Christmas cards has become. 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 does this matter? Means something? Do all these impersonal cards really reinforce the mission and vision of the nonprofit? Are voters overwhelmed with joy when they receive such a card? Is the practice of sending non-personalized cards to scores or hundreds or even thousands an effective advancement tool? I do not believe it.

Personalized cards
When it came time to decide whether to 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 you spend or how much should you spend from the nonprofit organization funds to send a card? It depends.

I don’t recommend that nonprofits not send out holiday cards. I’m also not against a long list, per se. My suggestion is that sending cards impersonally won’t have as positive an impact as sending personalized cards. So if I am responsible for deciding to spend the funds of a nonprofit organization (resources that could go towards operations or programs that fulfill the mission), then I want to adopt a method that has the greatest impact and ultimately what most effective possible. For me, they are personalized cards.

Every Thanksgiving I spend several hours in front of soccer games signing Christmas cards. Usually I choose a pen with blue ink, but really anything but black. This ensures that my name and message stand out against 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 how well you know them. Follow up with a sentence about the work of the nonprofit, for example: “It has been a challenging but fruitful year” or “Thank you for helping us touch lives” or “As the year ends, we are excited to launch the new program. … Then follow this with some kind of Christmas or holiday greeting: “Blessings to you and yours this season” or “Merry Christmas and a happy new year” or “Best wishes this wonderful time of year.” Finally, I sign my first name.

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

Now you say, “I don’t have time to do this.” To which I say, “You don’t have time not to do this.” Or if you’re really pressed, narrow down your Christmas card list. Don’t send more than you have the time and willingness to customize. As many as they are, the people who receive them will feel special and valued, which is after all what a non-profit organization expects its members to feel.

Electronic cards
The phenomenon of electronic cards is still relatively new. Some nonprofits are using this method to send Christmas greetings to their constituents; it is inexpensive and instant. But the same rule applies. Personalized electronic cards produce a higher ROI than non-personalized electronic cards.

And while I’m not anti-tech, I would still say that a handwritten note sent by post generates a more positive response than something emailed and easily erased. This may be an old-school attitude or assessment, but the now-worn adage, “High-tech, high-touch,” still applies. People enjoy and remember being “touched.”

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

If a non-profit organization concludes that it must submit scores or select hundreds or thousands of holiday cards, I still highly recommend that these cards be personalized in some identifiable way. Don’t just pick them up at the printer and drop them in the mailbox. Don’t just buy an electronic card and forward it to a large database. Personalize.

Customize is different from customize. Personalize means that the recipient’s name is on the card and the nonprofit executive has signed the card with a personal message, even if it is on an electronic card. Customize means that the nonprofit has added content that somehow identifies the card as the nonprofit card, not a stock purchase or even a special design that does not include news or names of nonprofits profit.

The personalized card should include current information, an expression of appreciation, and someone’s name and title, even if it is 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 such as “The University” or “XYZ Ministries”. Put the name of a person, perhaps the Chairman of the Board, the President or the Vice President of Promotion, on the card. Almost any name is better than no name.

Nonprofits spend thousands of dollars each year sending holiday cards to constituents. But this practice, especially long lists, may be more of a cultural tradition than a good breakthrough methodology.

The question of whether to send a vacation card or not to send a vacation card should be answered on the basis of perceived mission enhancement effectiveness. Since the best breakthrough has to do with relationships, it seems logical to conclude that the best holiday cards reinforce personal connections with the nonprofit organization. We build relationships by at least customizing a shipment, but better yet, customizing it.

Sign nonprofit holiday cards with news, notes and names.

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