UPDATE: Our letter writing policy has changed. You can read more about these changes and share your comments on the Changes to Our Letter-Writing Process  blog post.
I’ve noticed a lot of discussion over the last year in our little blog community about letter writing  specifically this idea of a “reciprocal letter system.” Many questions have been raised and few answered. It seems there’s still a lot of confusion about this process.
I work in the International Program Communications department, and my desk is literally a few feet from the employees who actually process the letters. So I recently took it upon myself to do a little research on your behalf, and the other day I went to visit a few of my neighbors in Cubeville. Here’s the lowdown.
I was surprised to learn just how huge this letter-writing undertaking is. I found out that last year alone, we processed 3 1/2 million letters. This coming year, we’re guessing that number will be somewhere around 4 million. So we’re talking about a ginormous quantity of letters.
As with many aspects of our ministry, we have a set of standards for the letter-writing process. When I talk about “standards,” what I mean is certain expectations that we’ve given to every church partner. However, as with anything involving fallible humans, this does not guarantee it will always happen.
One of these standards is that every Compassion-assisted child who is sponsored is supposed to write three letters a year – or one every four months – to his or her sponsor. (Now if only sponsors were held to the same standard. But that’s a post for another day.)
So as a sponsor, whether or not you write to your child, you should hear from your sponsored child at least three times each year. Of course, children are allowed to write more frequently than that if they want to, and many do.
It’s a lot like kids here in the U.S. … some kids like to write more than others. (Apparently, neither of my sponsored children is big on writing. I’ve been to visit both of them and always respond immediately to their letters and I still only get three letters a year. But I digress …)
Anyway, a couple years ago, an idea was floated: What if we encouraged countries to practice “reciprocal letter writing,” meaning every time a child received a letter, the child would immediately write one in response. We liked the idea, so we piloted it in a few countries a couple of years ago and since have added a few more.
Now I know what you might be thinking …
HELLO … You JUST came up with that idea? I thought of that seven years ago. What took you so long?
And that’s a good question. But remember, when you are talking about a quantity like 3 1/2 million letters between 36 different countries, a quick process change isn’t so quick. (Have you ever tried to move a whale ? I’ve think it’s kind of like that.)
Also, there are other factors that come into play.
First, realize that you are approaching your sponsorship – a cross-cultural relationship – from a distinctly U.S. perspective, and this idea of “reciprocal” letter writing is a very Western idea.
Many of your sponsored children live in cultures where letter writing is not a common practice and even a little bit odd to them. Sharing personal information is not customary and sometimes may even be considered inappropriate. Therefore, the concept of writing letters at all is foreign one.
Asking them (or basically “forcing” them by making it mandatory) to respond right away to every letter they receive is a little like asking someone raised in the heart of Manhattan to rope a calf. And we do this every four months. It is not something that comes naturally – it must be learned.
Second, as many of you know, one of the unique things about Compassion’s ministry is that we are church-based. We do our work around the world through local evangelical churches.
The advantage of this kind of structure is that we are able to contextualize our ministry to each local environment where it is happening. However, it makes complete uniformity among our nearly 5,000 child development centers challenging.
As I mentioned, we do maintain certain standards that every child development center is expected to follow. (We have this little 106-page document called the Program Field Manual that outlines these standards.) Each church partner, however, is free to meet these standards in the manner than best suits their own particular ministry.
So, while a country may have agreed – at the country office level – to implement this reciprocal letter-writing system, it really depends on each individual church partner in that country to make this a reality. (This may also explain why some of you who have children in a country not “officially” on the reciprocal letter system still get more than three letters per year.)
Last, if you remember these posts (one  and two ) from last year, the process that a letter goes through is quite complex. So even though your child might respond to your letter right away, it still might be a few months until you receive it.
The letter-writing FAQ  on our Web site has a lot more information.
Please know that every single letter that you send is so incredibly important .
Really. We’re not just saying that.
We are trying our hardest to get to the point where every child in our program knows the joy of reading a letter from a sponsor who cares about him or her.
We’re not there yet, but we’re sure going to keep trying!