Operation Santa Declared Too Risky – US Post Office: Volunteerism Versus Risk Management

The US Postal Service recently declared Santa Clause to be unsafe fo

The US Postal Service recently declared Santa Clause to be unsafe for children. Forced to make a choice between risk management and the belief in everything good Old Saint Nick stands for, they decisively opted for the former. Volunteering, whether through non-profits or Employer Sponsored programs at work is consistently being managed for risk over effectiveness. This is a mistake with massive negative impacts for the future.

The US Postal Service: They giveth and they taketh away.


Santa Clause: Real or make-believe was never the issue. For children of all ages he stands as a beacon; a call. He is the voice imploring, “believe.” Believe that humanity is worth loving, life is worth living, kindness and generosity can still change the world. Believe. Remember. If only once a year, let a silly man and his jolly laugh represent the hope we all long for.

Miracle on 34th Street is a Christmas classic that seeks to remind us of the paramount importance of that belief. The pivotal courtroom scene places viewers on jury duty as once cynic, Fred Gaily, passionately defends the legitimacy of defendant Kris Kringle as the one, true Santa Clause. We wonder as we watch why it is so significant…. Why do we care if Santa Clause exists or not? Does it really matter if the court or the man wins this little trial? But not to worry, soon it is revealed that Kris Kringle has, by the unquestionable authority of the US Postal System, been the recipient of some 50,000 letters addressed directly to Santa Clause himself. The evidence is solid, the letters carried in for all to see, and Santa Clause wins. We win. Belief wins.

Letters to Santa are an important part of the belief of many children. Since 1912, in New York, postal workers have seen fit to legitimize the hopes of these young writers and reply to each and every letter received. In the 40s, the public was invited to participate as volunteer Santas. ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ accelerated the tradition and the last two decades have seen exponential growth in what has become a thriving volunteer program. This year, in an amazing show of generosity, 3000 New York residents arrived daily to respond to the 500,000 letters received. Many volunteers even chose to deliver gifts directly to the child at his/her home.

And as long as children continue believing, the US Postal System will take it upon itself to see that their letters are delivered directly to these volunteer “Santa Clauses” of our day. Thousands of ordinary citizens deputized as ‘Santa’ by a branch of the federal government.

Then again, maybe not.

Less than 2 weeks ago, as Christmas drew near and children excitedly awaited replies from Santa, volunteers showed up to find a sign that read, “Operation Santa Clause: Cancelled.” That’s it. Cancelled. No warning. No explanation. Just confused volunteers and disappointed children.


“Gift-giving souls who reported to Operation Santa Claus at the post office on Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street, looking for the familiar cardboard boxes bursting with letters, were instead greeted with no boxes, no letters and no explanation.

The United States Postal Service abruptly shut down public participation in all the Operation Santa programs — in New York and other major cities across the country — at 1 p.m. Wednesday, without offering post offices or letter-seeking citizens any understanding of why.”
New York Times

The reason for the cancellation came out a few days later….and it put the Postal Service’s drastic response sadly in perspective. Apparently a volunteer Santa was recognized by a letter carrier in Maryland as a registered sex offender. At a loss for how to respond to such a precarious situation, the Postal Service decided to err on the safe side and cancel the program until an appropriate solution could be found. While there was some speculation that the program would not resume until 2009, a revised edition of “Operation Santa” was ready to go by the following week.

The new program looks a little (a lot) different than the original. The surname and address of the child will be blacked out with heavy ink. Gifts may no longer be delivered by volunteers. Rather, both letters and gifts must be dropped at the Post Office with a “recipient control number.” Letter carriers will deliver the gifts.

Needless to say, volunteers are underwhelmed.

Miracles Are Too Risky

We humans are gluttons for the extreme swings of the pendulum. In a moment we will sacrifice the potency of human contact for cut and dry risk management. Safety versus relationship; control versus connection. We choose one way or the other as if there is simply no alternative. While it would be ignorant to downplay the essential importance of providing proper guidelines and the safe environments, the immediate dichotomy drawn between these issues is equally foolish.


Operation Santa Clause enabled a personal connection between neighbors of means and neighbors in need. This was obviously one of the program’s great strengths. The new version reduces human contact to random needs and anonymous donation bins which, understandably, leaves volunteers feeling less than enthusiastic. The prospect of writing letters to nameless children and providing gifts to computer-generated numbers just isn’t the same as delivering real hope to real people. With this feature removed, it must be understood that this volunteer program will suffer the same realities as any other anonymous Christmas charity – participation rates will drastically decline while promotion costs radically increase.

To be fair, the US Postal Service is merely responding in accordance with popular wisdom. Many businesses and community organizations prefer activities that avoid “face time” between volunteers and the clients they serve. Even NPOs seem to want to limit personal contact – due to the perceived threat of higher risk. Unless volunteers are vetted and known by the host organizations, it is easier to have them stack boxes, write labels, or pick up trash.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way. There is, in fact, an alternative. (And I think I know what it is.)

My Christmas Gift

In the spirit of giving, I have written an open letter to the US Postal Service which will be posted here for all to see. This letter offers a solution (or two) to the Postal Service (and everyone who believes in more than the worst parts of humankind) on how they can save Christmas for years to come. Santa may yet again beat the overwhelming odds!

There are better solutions than extreme risk management. The letter (offered in sections over the next few posts) defends these claims:

  • The dichotomy between risk management and human interaction is false and unnecessary
  • Existing resources to automate the process of volunteer management can be implemented to eliminate…..uh, most of the problems we’re dealing with here
  • These resources can also ensure the potential for unlimited growth in the program – regardless of perceived costs

Know an employee of the US Postal Service? Let them know this Christmas letter is addressed to them.


About the author

At Realized Worth, we help companies connect with their communities. We do this through corporate volunteering and social media