To send a holiday card or not send a holiday card, that is the question. Each year since 1991 I’ve wrestled with this question, not personally but professionally. My family sends Christmas cards to family members, friends, and a few acquaintances. That’s not a problem–it’s a good way to share news, convey best wishes, and in general stay in touch.

So what’s the problem professionally? Aren’t these same benefits available to a nonprofit organization when it sends Christmas cards, or more broadly, any kind of holiday card to its constituents? It depends.

If nonprofit organizations send personalized cards than I think they generate a positive return on investment. In other words, if nonprofit organizations, no matter how many cards they choose to mail, insert some individualized news, note, name, than it seems to me the card is worth the effort. Without this personalization I’m not so sure.

Mass Mailed Cards
When I served for 17 years as a university president my name and title popped up on innumerable organizations’ V.I.P. lists. In the vernacular, I was, “somebody.” Since I was apparently considered worthy, or at least my position was considered important, my office received scores of cards: Christmas but eventually also Thanksgiving 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 envelope label. No message pertinent to my relationship with the organization could be found inside. No news that connected in any way with who I was or even what the university was vis-à-vis the nonprofit sending the card. No actual signature of the President of the nonprofit, even many times when I knew the fellow nonprofit executive personally. Nothing.

This even happened with birthday cards. I’d receive cards from nonprofits during the week of my birthday, but the card contained no written message and no name. Amazing. Try this with your spouse: give him or her a birthday or anniversary card sans a message or your name. Not good.

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

The message I glean from this is that I don’t matter much now and I only mattered “back then” because I was in a position nonprofit organizations deemed influential and possibly of use to them. But even back then, to repeat myself, I apparently didn’t matter all that much because I received a card simply generated by a tickler file.

Some nonprofit organizations and their executives, I know, pride themselves in how long or large their Christmas card list has become. I’ve heard presidents proclaim a number as if it’s a sign of grand 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? Does it mean anything? Do all these impersonal cards actually reinforce the mission and vision of the nonprofit organization? Are constituents overwhelmed with glee 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 don’t think so.

Personalized Cards
When it came time for me to decide whether to spend the university’s hard-won funds I asked myself, “Is it worth it?” I still consider the same question each year now in a different nonprofit leadership role. Why should I spend or how much should I spend of the nonprofit’s funds to send a card? It depends.

I’m not recommending nonprofit organizations send no holiday cards. Nor am I against a long list, per se. What I’m suggesting is that sending cards in an impersonal manner will not make as positive an impact as sending personalized cards. So if I’m responsible for deciding to spend a nonprofit organization’s funds–resources that could go to operations or programs fulfilling the mission–than I want to adopt a method that is as high-impact and ultimately as effective as possible. For me, that’s personalized cards.

Each Thanksgiving I spend several hours in front of football games signing Christmas cards. I choose a pen usually with blue, but really anything but black, ink. This assures 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 Fred or Fred and Mary or Mr. and Mrs. Smith, depending upon how well I know them. Follow that with a sentence about the nonprofit organization’s work, for example: “It’s been a challenging but fruitful year” or “Thank you for helping us touch lives” or “As the year ends we’re excited to launch the new program…” Then follow this with some kind of Christmas or holiday season greeting: “Blessings to you and yours in this season” or “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” or “Best wishes in this wonderful time of year.” Finally, I sign my first name.

I guarantee this method will get the attention of the constituent receiving the card. Why? Because I respond to personalized cards so I know others do, and because people who’ve received these cards have later expressed appreciation for them. And, a personalized card will stand out in the pile on the dining room table or office desktop, because it’s the only one carrying a hand-written personal salutation.

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 really are pressed, pare back your Christmas card list. Don’t send any more than you have the time and willingness to personalize. However many this is, the people who receive them will feel special and valued, which after all is what a nonprofit hopes its constituents feel.

E-Cards
The e-card phenomenon is still relatively new. Some nonprofits are using this method to send holiday greetings to their constituents–it’s inexpensive and instantaneous. But the same rule applies. Personalized e-cards yield higher ROI than non-personalized e-cards.

And though I am not anti-tech, I’d still argue that a hand-written note sent via snail mail engenders a greater positive response than something emailed and easily deleted. This may be an old-school attitude or assessment, but the now shopworn adage, “High Tech, High Touch,” is still applicable. People enjoy and remember being “touched.”

Customized Mass or Emailed Cards
After all this you may say, “If I reduce my list to a handful I personalize, our nonprofit organization will miss a key opportunity to share news and engage our constituents.” OK, maybe.

If a nonprofit organization concludes it must send scores or hundreds or selected thousands of holiday cards I’d still highly recommend these cards be customized in some identifiable way. Don’t just pick them up at the printer and drop them in the mailbox. Don’t just acquire an e-card and forward it to a vast database. Customize.

Customize is different from personalize. To personalize means the recipient’s name is on the card and the nonprofit executive has signed the card with a personal message, even if on an e-card. To customize means the nonprofit organization has added content that in some way identifies the card as the nonprofit’s card, not a stock purchase or even special design that includes no nonprofit news or name.

The customized card should include current information, an expression of thanks, and someone’s name and title, even if not personally signed. Don’t send cards from “The Staff” or, worse, no source of origin at all other than the return address on the envelope, or an institutional name like “The University” or “XYZ Ministries.” Put an individual’s name, maybe the Chair 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 holiday cards to constituents. But this practice, especially long lists, may be more cultural tradition than good advancement methodology.

The question to send a holiday card or not to send a holiday card should be answered on the basis of perceived mission-enhancing effectiveness. Since the best advancement is about relationships it seems logical to conclude the best holiday cards reinforce personal connections with the nonprofit. We build relationships by at least customizing a mailing, but better yet, personalizing it.

Sign nonprofit holiday cards with news, notes, and names.

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