Doing good is a good thing. And with semipostal stamps, it can be an easy thing too. For the user, at least.
Semipostals allow customers to contribute to a worthy cause simply by purchasing stamps. Each stamp is sold at a price at least 15 percent higher than the current First-Class rate, as determined by the Postal Service Board of Governors. The surcharge is funneled directly to designated organizations supporting the cause.
Now, a bill to create the nation’s fourth semipostal has made its way through Congress and has been signed into law. This new stamp will fund multinational conservation efforts for endangered species.
Yet funding good work through postage is not without challenges.
Consider the first U.S. semipostal: the 1998 release dedicated to funding breast cancer research. Originally intended to have a two-year run, the highly successful stamp has been renewed by congressional action several times, and still remains on sale.
Behind the scenes, though, the stamp’s release created several difficult situations. Since this was a first-time effort, no automation was in place to handle the accounting. Postal clerks had to track the stamp sales manually.
“It was a logistical nightmare,” says Terry McCaffrey, manager of Stamp Development. Better protocols are in place now. Still, each semipostal stamp sold creates its own complications, such as the need to offer each customer a form for the tax-deductible amount (that which exceeds the First-Class rate).
On a larger scale, a successful semipostal release requires a different kind of infrastructure: a network of organizations ready to promote the effort. Breast cancer research has it; other worthy causes do not. The second semipostal — which raised money for first responders and families following the attacks of September 11, 2001 — was well-received at first. But sales declined during its three-year run.
The third release — Stop Family Violence (2003) — led to disappointing sales, for a number of reasons. According to McCaffrey, it also lacked a network of organizations to promote the release. Further, some blamed the stamp’s heartbreaking imagery, though a cheerful stamp design on the subject is difficult to imagine. Finally, there was a perception problem: Receiving a letter with a “Stop Family Violence” message on it could be misunderstood as an accusation, bringing to mind one of the worst-selling stamps of all time: Alcoholism: You can beat it.
Still, the combination of the right design, the right support, and the right cause is powerful.
Breast Cancer Research was art director Ethel Kessler’s first stamp. She’s gone on to help create more than 250 other stamps, but none has been more meaningful, especially since Kessler herself is a survivor.
“I was able to turn my experience into a design problem,” Kessler says. “At the time, most people wouldn’t even mention breast cancer. They would say, ‘the big C.’ So the message had to be, ‘You can survive.’”
Apparently Kessler’s message was well-received and well-supported. To date, the endeavor has raised more than $71 million for breast cancer research — one stamp at a time.
“With a semipostal stamp, it’s an added value,” McCaffrey says, “because you’re actually doing something that’s going to help in the long run. So despite the challenges, it’s a win-win situation because we’re doing our part to help a worthy cause.”