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. 🙂


It’s that Thankfulness time again!

I went out to my mailbox expecting a some junk mail, perhaps a credit card application for my son who is away at college or maybe some glossy brochures for other colleges for my teenage son.

There may have been some of those there, but I only remember one thing: A completely unexpected package from a gourmet chocolate shop in Brooklyn.

A couple of weeks earlier I had read an article about the shop and the creative way the owner managed her small business with two teenager daughters not in school due to the pandemic. I enjoyed the article so much that I sent her a note of encouragement. It was a complete surprise then, a week later, when I received a gift package of some of their delights, thanking me for the note!

This sort of casual note writing is something I wish I had started doing many years earlier; okay, maybe decades earlier. But in recent years in particular as the amount of “real mail” has effectively dropped to zero for most people, the value of a hand-written note is exponentially greater.

It has been my practice forever to handwrite all thank yous to my ministry partners, so each partner gets at least one per year. But it was five years ago January I made a major change to how I write thank you notes: I expanded the scope of my letter writing beyond just ministry partners to anyone I feel inspired to write to. Many of these come from my daily reading of The Wall Street Journal, though it can be hard often to find an address to mail a thank you. I’ve sent cards to co-workers locally and across the country.

There’s one little thing I have found very important when it came to stepping up my thank you note writing: Materials. One time I discovered my writing notes (to partners and others) had plummeted, and a quick analysis showed me why: I ran out of cards! Now I keep a huge supply of cards and I have a folder full of various and colourful stamps to match the mood, season, recipient interests, etc.

I do not write this to toot my own horn. But I have found that as a coach, I do have to share my personal experiences (good and bad) so that others can learn. Maybe no one else will do exactly what I’ve done, but without seeing what others strive to do, it is harder to be challenged ourselves.

Since I started doing this, to my surprise about 10% of the people to whom I have written have also sent a response, almost always hand-written although some came by email.

That’s the principle. Now here’s the TntConnect application.

To log all of these “thank yous” (or “letters”, rather, because not all are necessarily “thanks”), I created a general contact I named “Thank-a-thon”. For every letter I send that does not go to someone in my contact list, I just log it there. I put the recipient’s name in parenthesis, followed by a short description of the note, and I finish with the label of the actual card I sent (I do this with all personal cards since I use a variety of cards; I never want to send someone the same card twice). In the task notes I usually put the address I used.

Since the pandemic it has been harder to write these types of letters in part because my interactions with people have been significantly reduced compared to prior years.

p.s. Free tip… I also have a catch-all contact I call “Contractors” where I log calls and service visits with the plumber, car repair, well & septic services, etc. This has helped me because a few times I have sought a contractor’s phone number several years later and I can look it up by finding the original appointment and checking my notes.

Notes on Notes

In this “Back to the Basics” series, I address one of the most common questions I receive from new users: “Where is the best place to write Notes about partners… In the Notes tab or on the Notes box on an individual task?”

The answer is easy: BOTH.

So the real question then is, “What are some best practices related to writing Notes?”

These are my thoughts on this, which in this case are “super low value” because really, you should do whatever you want with the Notes fields!

First, let me say that there are three different ways (or 2-1/2 as you will see) to record notes about interactions with partners. Look at this from a really big picture, and as you read below, think about how you might review this information years down the road. The crucial concept about recording anything about a partner is the ability to retrieve/review that information in the future. And that’s why there are three different ways.

  1. On the Notes tab in the Contacts View, viewable in two places as described below (same text, displayed in two spots)
  2. In the Description box of any individual task
  3. In the Notes box of any individual task

(I say 2-1/2 because both #2 and #3 are on the history entry, but in different places.)

Notes Tab

The Notes tab is a free-form notepad that is effectively limitless. Besides those pros of both ‘free-form’ and ‘limitless’, the main virute of the Notes tab is that a small window of the Notes tab appears always at the top of every Contact’s main screen. Type in one and it updates the other. Therefore, put the most important 3 lines at the top.


Here are some examples of how I take advantage of this “in my face” portion of the Notes tab:

  • If the contact has a deceased spouse—especially if you knew the spouse (e.g., they were a partner while alive)—then I put that information: “Husband (Fred) / Passed away 5/15/21”. I do this because I do not want to accidentally ask her about her husband!
  • If their name has an unusual pronunciation that you want to remember: “Pronounced Flynnstun, not Flint-stone” or “Her name is AHN-Dray-Uh not An-dree-uh“.
  • If there is some current event in their lives that I want to ask them about first thing when I next talk to them, such as [notice that I include the year on each of these future notes; not doing that has tripped me up in the past!]:
    • Daughter Judy going to Genovia on mission trip, July 2022
    • Elroy playing in marching band at City Park Spring Fling in April 2022
    • Calvin is engaged to Susie; wedding April 15, 2022
    • Planning Grand Canyon vacation summer 2022
    • “Granddaughter Sarah is expecting first child in May 2022
    • Lucy (wife) just started Master’s program in Counseling, September 2022; expects to graduate 2025
  • If they or I made a future commitment, I would of course schedule a task reminder, but it is good for me to see it in the Notes too because of the potentially long time frame and that I would see/talk to them before that time occurs:
    • Would consider increasing support after last daughter graduates from college in 2024
    • Asked me to stop by next time I’m in town” (too vague to have a real task assigned)
  • If they have a spouse who is not a Christ-follower and I need to adapt my conversation if I am talking to them. (I’m not making that up; I actually had a ministry partner whose spouse was not interested in our work; when I called them and the spouse answered, I wanted to be able to have a conversation with them but not about spiritual things.)
  • Some people like to record the details from their past appointments here instead of using the individual History items. They do this for two reasons: (1) they can then scroll through all of that history on one screen instead of scrolling through a lot of non-appointment activity (see pics below) and (2) they can export this Notes tab to a Getting to Know You form (links at bottom) or some other export. [If you do this, I personally recommend putting the most current info at the top, so that the further you go down, the older the data is.]

Description box on an individual task

When I complete any task with a partner, logging that task includes the task type (call, appointment, etc.), the date/time, and a brief description (max 100 characters). Only the task Type, Result, Contact name, and Date are required fields; all others are optional (including the Description and the Notes).

When I first started using TntConnect, I wrote very short descriptions, and sometimes none at all (such as when I attempted a call and did not reach them). This proved to be unwise for me, because years later when I would try to look back on my activity history with them, a blank Description was not helpful.

I have a separate post (coming soon) on “Writing Good Descriptions” that will go into great detail on the way to maximize these 100 characters. The primary benefit of this field is that it super-charges TNT’s powerful History Engine.

Because I can easily filter, search, sort, and export these descriptions, the benefit of describing something in these 100 characters overpowers all other places to take notes (in my opinion).

Notes tab on an individual task

As seen in the picture above, the individual Log History also has its own Notes tab. This is great for recording more information about this specific history entry. For example, if I click on a partner’s phone number in the Name & Address Bar, TNT will pop up a Log History box and automatically put that phone number in the Notes tab. I love that! (I can then fill in the Description box at that moment.)

In the History View, the list of completed tasks displays a notepad next to any item with a Note. If I hover over that little notepad, the note will pop up:

Pros and Cons of these methods

Writing long free-form notes can be very helpful, for two reasons:

  1. Being able to view all of the notes quickly, in one place.
  2. To mail merge and print Getting to Know You forms to review before you go on appointments (links below). These are particularly helpful for couples where one person does a lot of the partnership development effort, and the other spouse is less familiar with the partners.

But recording all of your history this way has some drawbacks…

  1. You cannot search/filter/export the Appointment history
  2. You don’t capture the appointment on the “Last Visit” field
  3. When you do export your contact lists (Current Group>Export Current Group), the Notes field export could be enormous.

If you want to include your Notes in the Getting to Know You forms, re-read these blog posts:

Blog post: Getting to Know You (July 25, 2016)

Blog post: Getting to Know You More (Oct. 31, 2017)