Efficiency vs. Exceptions (or, Frugality vs. Sanity)

Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine. I printed 100 of these at Walgreens for $19, then stuck them on cards I got at Hobby Lobby. Having a stack of cards handy facilitates quick notes.

Let’s just say… it could’ve been worse. The worst-case scenario could have happened but (praise the Lord) was averted simply by me forgetting a stamp.

I was working on a special ask and was preparing a batch of 40 letters. I had them all printed and ready to go and took them with me in the car to stuff while my son was doing something else. But alas, I had forgotten the stamps, so I had to wait until the next day.

Imagine my shock, then, when the very next morning I received a response with a gift from one of those 40 people. How did this happen? How did I almost send the same letter twice without realizing it? It’s because of a term I call Exceptions. (I’ll share the story below.)

One of the most significant philosophical changes I made in my missionary career was to remove personalization from our monthly newsletters.

In my early years, I would write little notes on some letters, add a p.s., etc. Or, even more commonly, I would personalize special ask letters with a little note. I had received some training early on that “Readers read the p.s. first, so always write one.” Or I simply hand-signed them with a real pen. The logic is that some personalization might increase the response rate or strengthen the relationship.

Over time, I found that personalization became a real burden. As my life got crazier with more ministry work, more church involvement, and more kids, the time I could devote to partnership development became, well… more focused. In other words, I had to accomplish more in less time.

To reflect the title of this post: It was the exceptions that were killing me. The regular letters were fine, but every time I would produce a letter and pull some aside for any reason, the whole production line fell to pieces. (And I have proof, as you’ll read below.)

One of the greatest inventions ever, in this genre at least, is the missionary prayer letter services like Chalkline, Prayerletters.us, and internal ones within an agency. By using these, I cannot personalize at all unless I have them send the completed package to me (a service they also offer but I’ve never taken advantage of). Most importantly, all of the production work is outsourced. Outsourcing, by its very nature, is more expensive. That is, I am paying a company to do what I used to do … “for free”. In other words, I’m exchanging money for time. And believe me, as a Scotsman, that is a painful proposition!

Do I feel that my letters have become less personal because I permanently stopped ever writing any notes? Or even if I (gasp) don’t hand-sign the letters? Or even because I occasionally use a newsletter service? Not anymore.

Instead, I opted to step up my handwritten cards, independent of responses to Automatic Actions in TNT. I’ve shared before that we letter writers are actually in a golden era because personal mail is a rare gift for most people now. In the last month, two partners specifically told me they really appreciate the handwritten notes, and one even went so far as to say how much she liked the lighthouse cards (such as the picture above I took last summer); I’m a sucker for lighthouses.

Putting my accounting hat on, I determined I only had so much time budget, so I exchanged the less valuable (to me) scribbled note in favour of the more valuable personal note. This is slightly different from mass-producing or outsourcing solely to take less time (which is also a valid reason). It was also a good exchange for me because I enjoy writing letters, which many people do not.

Many missionaries serving for decades still produce their own letters and jot personal notes… because they enjoy it. They have developed a rhythm that works for them. Indeed, I know many people who use TntConnect exclusively for producing their monthly newsletter (e.g., using Mail Merge to Word), using no other features.

For some, the moment taken writing a hand-written p.s. is value-added because they are praying individually for their partners at the same time. The physical effort of producing the newsletter also keeps the connection fresh…

  • Hey, didn’t I just read on Facebook that this partner moved?
  • Their child just won a trophy in hockey, say ‘Congratulations!’
  • Her birthday is next week
  • [Or, unfortunately and yet fortunately—and this happened to me—”Bob, his wife recently passed away… we need to reprint this envelope and letter and correct it in TNT.”]

Potential Catastrophe Averted

This isn’t true for everyone, I’m sure, but as I said at the start, when I try to do exceptions, things can go wrong quickly. That is, instead of being better, it’s worse. One special ask I wrote had some different wording for the different groups of recipients. As a result, I ended up not printing them at the same time. Then I ran out of paper and had to order more, further delaying the mailing for some recipients. In the end, it took more than two weeks to get the letters out. Imagine my great gasp when I discovered that—because I had not done it systematically and all at the same time—one of the sub-groups ended up having their letters done twice. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending: The day I was getting ready to mail this group of 40 letters, I actually received two responses from the first time I mailed to them just days earlier (and forgot). These partners’ prompt generosity saved me from the embarrassment of sending these letters twice. (But it was a reminder, yet again, of why, I, Bob, have to do these things in a single effort and NOT customize!)

The Irony

Here’s where theory and reality collide.

While I was mulling over and creating this post, I was simultaneously in a situation where I decided to do mass personalization. My college student son is preparing to go to Alaska on a summer mission with Cru. We shared a list of contacts with him as he is raising funds for this trip, his first foray into partnership development. Some of our partners are so much like family that they are closer to him than his own aunts & uncles, while others are complete strangers. To help him customize his letters, I broke the list up into six different saved groups so he could personalize the letters appropriately.

I’m not shy about asking, so if you would like to help send him to Alaska, you can do so at give.cru.org/1153643. 🙂


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