Why It Pays to Write by Hand

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The other day when my 20-year-old son and I sat down to discuss his short- and long-term goals, I pulled out the proper tools -- paper and pen.

He shot me a withering look and whipped out his Smartphone.

I admit it, I'm biased. I have a thing for the handwritten word -- letters inked on thick-bond stationery, postcards bearing exotic stamps from remote locales and cards for any holiday whatsoever. I've been known to frame handwritten notes and tack them up on the refrigerator encased in a plastic sleeve.

Dated in our era of keyboarding? No doubt.

Useless? I'll go to the mat with you on that one.

It turns out, the old-fashioned habit of writing by hand has a lot to offer development professionals and anyone seeking to build better relationships. As handwritten letters become rarer, they become more valuable. Development officers should take note. The ability to custom-produce a letter in cursive is one of the most easily accessible, affordable and surprisingly powerful tools at your disposal.

Think about what finds its way into your own personal mailbox. Generally, it's an assortment of advertising flyers, bills, catalogues and appeals from charities. Consider your visceral feeling when you receive a handwritten envelope. Do you pause for a moment to imagine what's inside? Does your heart skip a beat? Mine does.

That’s how donors feel, too, when they receive personal correspondence from you. Instead of going for the easy and quick email, or crafting a tweet, take the time to write. At Crouch & Associates, we advise clients to keep stationary and note cards close at hand and use them unsparingly. Notes or personal letters – with handwritten thoughts in the margin -- are incredibly effective in delivering your donor a warm touch. Putting pen to paper is a way of memorializing an experience or expressing a wish.

One of our clients, a vice president of development at a struggling private college, recently confessed to me that a co-worker had received a $10,000 gift earmarked for a college program the co-worker oversaw. The vice president made a pro-forma inquiry about when the thank you letter had gone out. She was startled at the pushback.

"We've gotten this same gift for five years now, and I've never written a thank you letter," the co-worker snapped. "It would seem strange, like we were after something. Besides," she continued, "I'm too swamped to do it for at least three months."

The vice president and I strategized about how to respond. As the employee wasn't a direct report to the vice president, we determined that my client would ghost-write the thank you letter and take it to the co-worker for her signature. She would then ask the co-worker to personalize the letter with a handwritten note on the margin. While it took surprising effort to buck the internal culture which resisted this most basic form of donor acknowledgement, the move was necessary and sent a strong message that letters would be expected going forward.

The key to any successful communication is to be specific and authentic, to reference items that are of interest to the recipient, to show that you have listened and cared. Because we live in a fast-paced world, where the stream seems to rush ever faster forward, a letter gives the writer -- and the recipient -- an opportunity to reflect.

And there's more, handwriting may actually boost your conceptual understanding of the content you create, meaning that when you compose a note or letter by hand rather than merely adapting some letter template on your computer, the content may stay with you longer. In a research article published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California Los Angeles, demonstrate that students who take notes by hand learn a topic better than laptop note takers, whose understanding is "shallower." "Laptop note takers' tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning," they write.

To rebuild your relationship with pen and paper, consider the following:

  1. Find your voice. While you’re not writing the Great American Novel, still, the most effective writing comes from letting you shine through. Find your authentic voice and include sensory details or specific observations in your prose. Write: “On your birthday, I wish you at least one juicy lemon square,” if you know this is your recipient’s go-to dessert.
  2. Thank you notes. Do you remember when your mother made you write one for every gift you received? It may have been tedious but, of course, she was right. The traditional thank you note makes a big impression. Aside from the obvious, such sending thank you letters for donations, remember to write your boss your appreciation for that lunch out, and take a moment to recognize a mentor for providing a letter of reference.
  3. Consider every occasion -- yes, every one -- to send a card. Write when something new or special occurs in your organization. Send a special note when your donor or prospect marks a milestone, wins an award, welcomes a new grandchild. Easter, Mother's Day (even if the recipient is not your mother); July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas or Ha nukkah are fair card game.
  4. Birthday cards. Of all occasions, the most important – and most personal – is a birthday. If your donor is a golfer, or if she loves needlepoint, and you can find a card that matches, so much the better! You'll be surprised how far this simple gesture will go.
  5. Invest in personalized note cards. Have a printer produce high-quality, personalized, 5x7 notecards and envelopes with your name on them. Most likely, it's a reimbursable expense, but if not, invest in them yourself! They will pay dividends and elevate you and your role in your organization. And, if you don't want to shell out $3 or $4 for a card for every occasion, you can use your personal note cards to write a note of congratulations.
  6. Use stamps. Your office may have a postage meter. Avoid it. Nothing conveys the feeling that yours is personal -- not some mass-produced piece -- than a stamp on a hand-written envelope. Stay away from the generic flag stamp. I stock all kinds: sports stamps, bird stamps; Medal of Honor stamps. If I know the recipient of my letter is a hat lover or civil rights advocate, I may select the stamp featuring equality activist Dorothy Height festooned in her trademark hat.
  7. Use wet ink. Fountain pens are the best at showing off your penmanship and letting the reader know your writing is original!
  8. Write it down. This is important -- not only important with donor outreach -- but in organizing your day. At Crouch & Associates, we realize that putting pen to paper helps to boost performance. I start my day by writing my three must-complete work tasks and one personal task. What a pleasure to stay focused on priority items and cross each one off the list.

Reclaiming the lost art of writing will go a long way toward rebuilding the “soft skills” you need to master the profession and to build a bridge to the hearts of those people who count the most. Including you!

Wanda Urbanska is Crouch & Associates’ Director of Content. She is widely published and the author or co-author of nine books.