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Handsome cards turn handsome profit for UNICEF relief work

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Most companies would be ecstatic over a 20 percent profit margin. But one multinational seeks and often attains a 50 percent return. The ''company'' is the greeting card subsidiary of UNICEF. Last year, this nonprofit arm of the United Nations pulled in $50 million by hawking 115 million cards. The funds support children's relief work throughout the world, including troubled Lebanon and Chad.

Of course, UNICEF has some unique business advantages: no advertising costs, a product welcomed worldwide, and some 50,000 unpaid but highly motivated workers.

Marjorie Porosky is one such worker. She has peddled UNICEF cards for 10 years. During the holiday season, she plants her display tables between the salad bar and convenience counter at the Stop & Shop supermarket in Salem, Mass. The store manager gives her the space, and it pays off handsomely for UNICEF. In two months, Mrs. Porosky made most of the $12,000 she contributed last year. This year's gross earnings will top that, she believes.

''People are out of the recession mode,'' affirms Glenda Wilson, director of UNICEF's US committee for greeting cards and gift program. Mail orders (which accounted for 55 percent of sales in 1982) are up 10 percent, but it's too soon to tell how volunteer sales efforts are doing. Nonetheless, the current retail surge bodes well for UNICEF.

American Greetings, the largest publicly held card manufacturer, expects a 15 percent boost over 1982's year-end sales.

One would think UNICEF's competitive advantages might irritate commercial card retailers. UNICEF has artwork donated by artists and museums from around the world, an underpriced product, and occasionally free direct mailings (a local bank sent out 20,000 stuffers in Mrs. Porosky's area). Also, UNICEF has distribution points that are often closed to profitmaking card companies. Besides grocery stores, bank lobbies, and sidewalk stands, UNICEF cards can be purchased in Europe from bank and post office tellers.

Gary K. Smith, of the US National Association of Greeting Card Publishers, says there's no animosity, simply because ''greeting cards beget greeting cards.'' And he says, ''UNICEF is not only a fine charitable organization, its quality products reflect well on the entire industry.'' Or perhaps it's because UNICEF bites off less than 1 percent of the total market.

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