Tuesday, April 28, 2009, at 12 noon, U.S. Eastern time
Direct-mail appeals remain an important source of income for many nonprofit organizations. But even the most experienced fund raisers say they are looking for new, more effective ways to craft the perfect appeal.
How can you get the most out of a direct-mail appeal? What are the best ways to design and write an effective letter? How do you establish a tone that matches your organization?
Join us Tuesday, April 28, for a live session in which fund raisers can get honest feedback on their appeal letters — and get answers to their questions about creating more effective campaigns.
And if you're seeking other opportunities to get advice on your fund-raising appeals, send an e-mail message to Peter Panepento, The Chronicle's Web editor, so you can learn how to get your appeal featured on our Prospecting blog.
Brenda Helget is program manager of annual giving and communications at Methodist Hospital Foundation, in Omaha, Neb., and is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals' International Development Committee. Ms. Helget began her professional career at the United States Dressage Federation, followed by the Nebraska Council to Prevent Alcohol and Drug Abuse, and the Omaha Home for Boys.
Mal Warwick founded Mal Warwick Associates, a San Francisco and Washington fund-raising agency that specializes in direct-response fund raising and marketing for nonprofit groups. He co-authored Values-Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun with Ben Cohen, a co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream; and wrote Revolution in the Mailbox and How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters.
A transcript of the chat follows.
Peter Panepento (Moderator):
Welcome to today's live discussion. Today, we're going to focus our attention on direct mail -- and give you an opportunity to interact with two of the world's most prominent experts in direct-mail fund raising.
Peter Panepento (Moderator):
We are joined today by Brenda Helget, program manager of annual giving and communications at Methodist Hospital Foundation, in Omaha, Neb., and a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals' International Development Committee.
Peter Panepento (Moderator):
We are also pleased to welcome Mal Warwick, founder of Mal Warwick Associates, a San Francisco and Washington fund-raising agency that specializes in direct-response fund raising and marketing for nonprofit groups. Mr. Warwick is also author of the new book "Fundraising When Money Is Tight: A Strategic and Practical Guide to Surviving Tough Times and Thriving in the Future".
Peter Panepento (Moderator):
Both will be available to take your questions about direct mail for the next hour. If you have a question, I urge you to get it in early. We've already received a massive amount of questions -- and we hope to accommodate as many of them as possible.
Peter Panepento (Moderator):
To ask a question, simply click on the "ask a question" link on this page and type your query. This is a text-based discussion, so there is no need to call in. This page will refresh every minute with the latest questions, answers, and comments.
Peter Panepento (Moderator):
Ok, let's get to your questions ...
I am so excited to participate in my first online chat about writing and designing winning appeals with The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
I have a unique mix of experience, both with an organization that mailed over 5 million appeals each year, to working in the smallest of shops where 'do-it-yourself' was the only option. I have applied what I have learned mailing those millions of appeals into ideas and best practices that everyone can use.
Since I began as a fundraiser over a dozen years ago, I have been told that direct mail is in its death throes. The reality is, direct mail suffers when all of fundraising suffers. But we don't stop fundraising, and I don't think we should stop mailing either. If YOU stop mailing your donors, someone else will.
Budgets are shrinking, so you may have to shift part of those dollars from acquisition to renewal. Make sure any acquisition is based upon the model of your best donors. Remember to segment, segment, segment. Take the time to create copy that is custom made for those segments. Make your appeals personal and compelling. And most importantly - don't forget to thank your donors quickly, personally and often.
Question from Lynne Slightom, Central Illinois Foodbank:
Do you have any data regarding Direct Mail response rates and average gift sizes for acquistion mailings and on-going mailings during the recession? Have they dropped significantly or maintained. I would like to know a benchmark so that I can compare to our own results.
Direct mail donor acquisition rates overall have been in decline for some years now, and I have heard anecdotal reports that average gifts have been dropping during the past year (which was not the case in immediately prior years). But there is no way I (or anyone else) can give you meaningful benchmark average rates of response or average gifts. I see response rates from as low as a quarter of one percent to as high as seven percent -- yes, in acquisition, and yes, for organizations that find these rates acceptable. Average first-time gifts may range from less than $10 to more than $100. Keep in mind Mal's First and Last Law of Fundraising: It depends.
Question from Kelley Coyner, DWFVA:
What are the best ways to integrate online tools with direct mail? What are the best ways to support direct mail through online communications and donor tools? What are the best ways to convert direct mail donors into part of your online community?
I drive donors to our web site by giving them the option to give online on our reply device. I try and feature our web site on every newsletter, annual report, direct mail appeal, business card and reply device - I even put it in the sig of my emails.
I am using Constant Contact, a very low cost, effective tool to create e-communications like newsletters, event invitations, etc. Each of these can feature a direct link to your donation page, with the ability to completely customize each communication with your own copy, photos and graphics. You can track results as well.
Once we acquire a donor, we can send quick little email blasts with news and short stories. Not every communication has an 'ask' (remember to thank them this way as well!), but it keeps the donor interested and informed. If they give online after receiving a direct mail appeal, I will ask them to give again via an e-communication and take them off the direct mail list. You can also survey donors to discover their solicitation preferences.
Please also see my other answer on this forum regarding tracking and analyzing responses of online gifts inspired by direct mail. I have outlined some ways to integrate your direct mail appeal with your online giving.
Question from Megan Geerling, Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors:
We do two direct mailings a year: Membership drive in the Spring and Annual Fund in Nov./Dec. We mail to about 12,000 for each. They are basic letter style mailings although I have been incorporating color photographs within the letter recently. Response and contributions from such mailings has been steadily decreasing. Any tips on the best way to obtain a response from direct mail pieces?
For starters, I suggest that you rethink your approach to direct mail fundraising. All direct response depends on two overarching realities: (1) that prospective donors have money available to give on some occasions and not on others; and (2) that most gifts are modest in size. These realities dictate that you must solicit your donors frequently. Once a year is not the way to go. The frequency of your mailings, and the extent to which you incorporate donor history into your appeals through personalization will influence the success or failure of your efforts far, far more than adding color photos or leaving them out. I suggest you lose the photos and invest more time, brainpower, and even money in data processing.
Question from Angie Gambo - Large Non-profit:
I like the appeal that links something tangible to the ask, i.e: "A $200 donation will by a new window for the Serenity House Renovations Project. We need 20 windows!" What is your experience with this approach?
I would highly recommend being specific about what the donor's gift will be used for in your appeal. However, your example is missing a key element - talk about what the donor's gift will do, not why you need the donor's gift.
For example, "Your $200 gift today will do more than just provide a new window to keep out the cold for Tommy's family ... your gift will provide hope for a brighter tomorrow."
Another tip on a specific ask: in my experience I received a higher response when I didn't round the dollars and cents, which lends a certain creditability to the amount. I don't mean make a number up, but if it takes $1.92 to feed a hungry child a hot, nutritious breakfast, then say so. One word of caution: run this idea past your data entry people first. Mine got very grumpy after entering LOTS of those odd amount checks! A good problem to have though, right??
Question from Gail Wright, Catholic Charities, Yakima, WA:
We are preparing for our agency's annual appeal and given the current economic climate and increasing number of appeals from nonprofits, we are stepping back to think about how we would respond if we were the donor.
My question today centers around frequency and timeline between letters. In the past, we have sent two mailings for one campaign that are as much as three months apart. This year we're sending three letters, each one month apart for the same campaign. It is important to note that this group of donors is solicited via direct mail a minimum of two additional times throughout the year for entirely different appeals. Have you found a saturation point for donors with regard to the maximum amount of times they are asked before becoming annoyed, or worse yet, angry? Clearly the writing, presentation, relationship to donor all make a difference, but is there a 'best' frequency number? Is ther a 'best' timeline between letters for an appeal? What has been your experience?
Sidenote: obviously there are the traditional thank-you letters, newsletters, etc., that are sent in between with a remit envelope included.
Thank you for your consideration of my question.
There's no percentage in holding back on fundraising appeals in this climate -- especially in this climate. If you don't ask, you don't get. The frequency you describe seems anything but excessive to me as a general rule. I know of fundraising programs that solicit donors on a monthly basis throughout the year -- and sometimes even weekly! Now, weekly is definitely excessive, and so is monthly solicitation for some donors if not for all. The across-the-board answer to your question is to use segmentation to determine which of your donors to solicit more frequently and which ones less so. There are absolutely no one-size-fits-all frequency patterns.
Question from Valerie Lambert, Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth:
I'm interested in following up on another's question regarding incorporating online giving with direct mail and the ways in which responses are DISTINGUISHED when tracking these appeals. e.g., How do others distinguish the "web-response" from the "USPS-response" for a mailing...or do they? (So that they also know how this web-response differs from, say, their button.)
There are a few ways to accomplish this. The easiest way is to crosscheck the names of your web donors with the names on your mailing lists. With large volumes of gifts, this can be difficult.
Another way would be to implement a unique button for your web site home page at the time of your mailing, using a thumbnail that is readily identifiable with your mailing. This would lead to a donation form URL that is separate from your normal donation landing page. Then you could attach a code to those gifts identifying it as a web response to your direct mail appeal.
Or, you could have it lead to your regular form and just track the click throughs to that page from the button. You can also use the free services of Google Analytics to track hits on each page.
Another option would be to establish a special table of donation choices unique to the mailing on your donation form, and attach a code to those.
I know none of these solutions are 100% accurate, but should help you track those online gifts inspired by your direct mail appeal.
Question from Mary Worthington, Foundation for a Public School District:
Would you address the best way to drive donations to an organization's website from a direct mail piece?
I'm much more inclined to use direct mail to drive donors to respond by mail, not online. A large, though undetermined, proportion of donors who are asked to go online will tell themselves they'll do so but won't. Others will take a cursory look at a Web site and then fail to respond. It's best, I believe, to offer an online donation as an alternative for those who favor giving online -- not as the principal way to respond to an appeal.
Peter Panepento (Moderator):
I've received a couple of inquiries about questions that were asked prior to the discussion. We received dozens of early questions and we expect to be able to answer all of them during the next hour. If they haven't yet been posted, please be patient. We will get them live soon. Thanks.
Question from Sten Crissey, small nonprofit:
How long should appeal letters be and does optimum length vary depending on the relationship with the donor? Current donors vs. sporadic donors vs. prospects who have never donated. Sten
This is always a tough one to answer, because there is no 'one size fits all.' You often hear that a four page letter will do better than a two page letter for acquisition (prospects who have never donated). For me personally, this hasn't been the case - but that's why it's important to test. I always try to take at least 10% of my mailing and test something different. If you have always mailed a two page letter for acquisition, test mailing a 4 page letter. Just make sure the writing is interesting and compelling enough to make the reader want to act by making a gift.
What you call 'sporadic' donors are lapsed donors. Long lapsed donors (those who have not made a gift in 2 or 3 years or more) should be treated similar to an acquisition audience.
For recently lapsed and current donors, I would go with shorter letters, two page or even a one page in certain cases for those very close to the organization. Again, this is something to be tested before you jump in feet first. As a rule of thumb, I would go with longer is better, and test shorter to see what's right for your organization and audiences.
Question from Grace Washington, Hospice Austin:
What other methods of solicitation do you reccommend, other than a form letter? Do you recommend the card format?
Yikes! A "form letter!?" Perish the thought! A direct mail fund raising appeal should be a warm, thoughtful, engaging one-on-one communication from you or your agency's chief executive to each individual donor -- with as much unique personal information embedded in the letter as your system allows. Certainly, there must be a letter incorporated into the appeal. Cards or "self-mailers" (brochures mailed directly to donors) simply do not work under any but the most exceptional circumstances. There are four fundamental components of a direct mail appeal: a letter, a response device or "coupon," an outer envelope, and a reply envelope. Don't make the mistake of economizing by leaving out one or more of these elements.
Question from Angie Gambo - Large non-profit:
As a donor, I've seen it all - from lengthy letters with lots of copy that you have to sift through to get to the actual appeal to the quick response card with a heart string-tugging photo and a direct, no-nonsense ask. I have to admit, I've responded to both. As a Development Professional, I'm partial to the latter but, you still have to convince Sr. Mgmt. that it's worth the expense. Any tips on insuring the return will be worth the investment?
Let me ask you this: let's say you make a gift to a charity, and you get a generic thank-you postcard with attractive graphics, but no mention of how your gift was used, who is being helped, etc - just thanks. How would you feel about that versus a typed letter on the organization's letterhead, with a heartwarming story about the people whose lives you have just made better, specifics on how your gift is being used, prolific thanks and hand signed by the CEO? Maybe even a picture included, dropped into the document?
I'm guessing you would find the letter a lot more personal and gratifying, though perhaps not as slick and professionally done as the postcard. And I'm guessing your donors would feel the same way.
However, the best way to find out - and insure ROI - is to test, test, test! Put together costs for mailing your quick response card to at least 10% of your donor file the next time you mail. Track the results carefully and you'll have solid evidence to present to your management should your card do well enough to warrant rolling it out. Remember, a small test group's percent response will usually be a little higher than when you actually roll it out, so make sure you factor that in your budget.
Question from Sharon Robertson:
Can you talk about how to integrate direct mail with other communications (email, phone calls, etc) in the whole donor stewardship scenario?
This is an extremely complex subject that doesn't lend itself to a brief response in this context. All I can tell you is that a campaign with a theme, a name, a goal, and a deadline will likely be most successful if you employ a combination of email messages, direct mail letters, phone calls, and Web postings to solicit your donors and keep them up-to-date on the campaign's progress. Email may be used both to precede letters or phone calls. Phone calls may be used either in advance of letters or as follow up. One key is to keep the messages consistent. There's magic in repetition through different channels. Another key is to use segmentation artfully, so that some donors receive some of these communications, some receive others, and a few get them all.
Question from Richard:
What is a realistic expectation regarding the percentage of response to initial mailing?
If you are speaking of an acquisition mailing, you can expect to get a 1 percent to 2 percent response rate if you have a really good package, list, and all the stars are aligned properly! But 0.5 percent to 1 percent is probably closer to the norm these days.
Question from Jennifer Charpentier:
Is it more effective to send a single-sided or a double-sided solicitation letter?
That depends. With an offset-printed generic letter that's printed on inexpensive paper and mailed to a large number of people, it would be a waste to use one-sided paper. However, if you're mailing a personalized letter to your best donors and using high-quality letterhead, I would definitely keep the text to one side of each page.
Question from Dick Popilowski, Milford Hospital foundation, Milford, CT:
In these trying economic times and the cost of sending direct mail increasing; what are your suggestions in managing lists that can be utilized for this purpose. For example, should we be concentrating more on those who have utilized our hospital, for example, former patients, or sending a direct mail piece to a broad group from our community?
You're asking about what is generically called new-donor acquisition. Chances are, like everyone else, you're experiencing lower response rates in this area. If you typically receive higher response rates from former patients than you do when mailing more broadly to your community, the obvious answer is to emphasize the former patients and deemphasize the community in general. However, the response rate is only one piece of the picture. You may discover, for example, that certain community lists -- say, for example, the local public TV station's members -- produce donors who, over the long run, prove more valuable to your hospital than do the average former patients. In such a case it would be a big mistake to eliminate that list from your donor acquisition campaign. In other words, I suggest you approach this question on a list-by-list basis rather than making blanket decisions.
Question from Melanie:
How can I find those that proof and edit letters for a living?
The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) has a link to a service called Proofread Now (google it, they have a web site). For that matter, you can go to IABC.com and find your local chapter, contact them and I bet they can put you in touch with proofreaders in your area.
Question from Alice:
I work in a community that has 6,000 households but only 600 give yearly. What is the best way to approach this untapped resource?
I think the fact that 10 percent of your entire community gives to your organization should be celebrated! Wow!
I really can't answer this question effectively without more information. You can do many things to market your organization in your community such as PSAs, word of mouth through board members and other volunteers, etc.
My questions to you would be what are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish? Why are you focused only on your community?
Question from Edwin, small nonprofit :
Is is effective to refer to the recession in an appeal ("giving is down, but the need for our services continues," etc.), or is this viewed as just a cliche that all organizations are using in these tough times?
I strongly recommend that you DO NOT complain about how hard the recession is impacting your organization. Instead, tell your donors what steps you're taking to tighten your operations, trim costs, and deliver services even more efficiently to your beneficiaries. Tell them how much further their gifts will go now. And make sure they know that "the need" doesn't simply continue but is more urgently and more widely needed than ever.
Question from Ivy Morgan, Columbia University:
How long after an initial mailing should follow-up pieces be sent?
I send follow-up letters in 4-6 weeks after a direct mail appeal, depending on the drop date, audience, and goal of the mailing. For example, a holiday appeal needs to be timed so that the follow up arrives before the holiday or end of year.
Question from Jhara Navalo:
What is the best way to ask tribute donors to give again? I sometimes feel it inappropriate asking tribute donors to donate since it is such a delicate situation when dealing with "in memory of" donations. I still feel it necessary to ask at least once yearly. What are your views on this segment?
I agree that this is ticklish. So far as I can tell, the only honest answer to your question about how to ask tribute donors for more money is "very, very politely." I haven't heard many success stories in this arena.
Question from Dick Popilowski, Milford Hospital Foundation, Milford, CT:
Are testimonials still the way to go, when you are creating direct mail pieces for maximum gift giving?
If I can get them, I love to use them but I have found the most effective way is to make sure you structure your fund raising letter correctly, and use emotion to build your compelling case. Testimonials can be very compelling, but if they aren't structured right, they can fall flat.
I must recommend my esteemed colleague Mal Warwick's book, "How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters." This is an investment every direct mail fundraiser should make! And the price is so reasonable you can't say no.
Question from Sira:
It‚Äôs often suggested to test the effectiveness of multiple letters. How best can this be done?
When you say 'multiple letters' do you mean a series of follow ups, segmenting a letter by altering the copy and 'ask' to target different audiences, or the total number of appeals sent out each year?
Testing usually means taking 10 percent of your normal mailing file and sending that small group the appeal you wish to assess. This would work for a series of fund raising appeals, whether for follow ups or to see if your donors respond to frequent mailings. If you want to test segmenting, I would test a larger group so you can analyze and track them easier. You can start by segmenting your audiences by the frequency of their gifts: acquisition, longer lapsed, recently lapsed, and current. Tailor your gift array (the dollar amounts of the ask) by basing the array off the donor's last gift to the charity. Acquisition audiences should have a 'static' gift array. Email me and I can send you a gift array chart to get you started.
Question from Sharon McMeel:
Could you talk about how often direct mail solicitations should be sent?
As often as you get a positive response! :-)
Seriously, this depends on many factors: the policies of your organization, your budget, etc. Many orgs mail 7-12 times per year. The bottom line reality? If you aren't mailing your donors - someone else will.
Question from Leigh, small NGO:
My organization, which provides technical assistance on sustainable development, has relied primarily on foundation support since its founding. We have small list of individual donors who we send our annual report to once a year. In an effort to diversify our funding sources I'm lobbying for us to start reaching out more often by mail and email to these individuals. Considering that our communication with these folks has been patchy (at best) can you give me some pointers on how to begin?
I applaud your resolution to get closer to your individual donors. Perhaps the very best way to start is to poll them. Depending on just how small your organization is, and how much time and effort it requires, you might conduct a survey either by phone or by mail. Start by thanking them profusely for their support, and praise their leadership in sustaining your work. Ask them questions about their reasons for doing so. Probe their attitudes and preferences. Ask them whether your organization is one of their top three nonprofit causes. In short, get to the bottom of their views about your organization and its work. Then -- more importantly -- put this information to work in future solicitations by referring to it regardless of the medium you use (phone, mail, email, face-to-face). Good luck!
Peter Panepento (Moderator):
As we reach the halfway point in today's discussion, I wanted to offer another invitation for you to ask our experts a question. To ask your question, click on the "ask a question" link on this page and then type in your query.
Peter Panepento (Moderator):
I'd also like to offer another direct-mail resource to you. On our Prospecting blog (http://philanthropy.com/news/prospecting/), we offer readers the opportunity to get a critique of their draft letters from our online community. The blog has helped several fund raisers write better letters. To get your letter critiqued, e-mail me at email@example.com.
Question from Stevenson, Habitat for Humanity:
Is it the best story or the best writing that works? What's the limit of words? Are multiple one sheet pieces in one envelope useful? What about stickies with the equivalent of gold stars
You can have the best writing, the best story in the world - but if your envelope doesn't get opened, none of that will matter!
I always tell fundraisers to make their outer envelope special with color, or graphics and a good teaser. You've got to drive them into the envelope!
Then, make sure you structure your appeal letter correctly with 12 pt or larger font, use indents and underline key points, make your ask early and ask often, and use your 'P.S.' to restate the ask.
Make your reply device easy to fit into the postage-paid reply envelope, and use good photos that have people making good eye contact with the camera. The 'eyes' have it!
If you are unsure of the length of letter to use, try a four page letter for acquisition/longer lapsed audience and a two page letter for recent lapsed and current donors. If you find yourself straining to fill or edit down the space, then just use what is necessary to make your case compelling. You want to move the donor to action!
By 'stickies' I think you mean premiums such as address labels, etc. I know you're all groaning over address labels. So why do you think so many are being mailed? Because they WORK!!!
I try to keep any premiums I mail mission-based and somewhat useful. Bookmarks, send-back cards with room for the donors to write messages of encouragement to those you help, prayer cards, etc. I only mail premiums to acquisition audiences, not as a renewal. This is something I encourage testing - mailing with a premium vs. without.
Question from Andy Olcott, print/marketing provider:
Have you had any experience with variable data (1 to 1) direct mail pieces? If so, have you seen an increase in response or donation levels?
You seem to be asking about what is generally called "personalization." And, yes, I've had tons of experience in this area, as has anyone who's been engaged in direct mail fund raising for many years (30, in my case). For starters, personalized references in donor-acquisition or "prospecting" appeals typically have only marginal impact and may not be cost-effective at all. Personalization works best in appeals to proven donors. But don't be gulled into thinking that personalization consists of using the addressee's name in the salutation and nothing more. Personalization gains value when it encompasses references to the individual's giving history: how long the person has been a donor, how much she gave last time, what interests or preferences she has, and so forth. When properly put to work, personalization of that sort often dramatically increases response and raises average gifts.
Question from Myrna, specialty hospital:
Which letters are most effective for hospital appeals? A) Compelling patient stories, B) generic letters stating the hospital's need for xyz and your gift of $x buys ___, $y buys ___ and $z buys ____. Or C)a variety of each? Is it better (or not) to have a consistent design used for both donor and grateful patient letters? Or should they each have a different design? Why? What's recommended for the use of envelope teasers?
For me, it's more about making the case compelling. If you happen to have a great patient story or testimonial, all the better! But, you can make it work without one.
A couple years ago we had three very distinct and different fund raising priorities for a cancer program, our diabetes institute and student housing for our college of nursing. We needed to raise funds for all three - and somehow, I needed to make the case for ALL of them.
This is how I made it work: "Dear SAL, What if three people came to you asking for your support? What if one person suffered from cancer ... another with diabetes ... and another was a young person dreaming of a better future? Who would you choose to help? My answer to the question is - we're going to help all of them. But I need your support to do it." Then I went on to make the ask and briefly made the case for each one. We got a great response.
The design should fit the story and the appeal. However, you can 'recycle' a good design that has worked well for you in the past. If you get a strong response to a certain appeal, use that same look again and maybe test changing one element at a time (such as a different teaser on the outer envelope, or a different photo on the reply card). Put most of your design budget in your outer envelope. You need it to get opened, or all those great stories won't get read! I've personally never had much success with plain envelopes, and if you think about what grabs your attention while you stand over the garbage can sorting your mail ... well, you need to get your envelope noticed.
Envelope teasers should use words like "free", "inside", "your", etc. Or, it can be a prelude to the story inside, such as "Your dollar buys twice as much food when we do the shopping" or my personal favorite "Save a chicken. Help a Child." - I just had to open that one! This appeal told donors they were NOT invited to yet another 'rubber chicken fund raising event' and showed what their gift would do instead.
Question from April, community mental health center:
How should you convey urgency when funds are needed for a project immediately?
That depends on why the need is urgent. For instance, if you need to match the terms of a challenge grant, which includes a deadline, sing that fact to the heavens. If your situation is truly urgent, and even might be characterized as a legitimate emergency, it's best to communicate that, too. Just be careful NOT to characterize the end of your fiscal year as an emergency. That's not going to work.
Question from Chris:
If I have enough money to produce 50,000 direct mails per year to non-donating alumni am I better to send one piece to 50,000 people, 2 pieces to 25,000, 5 pieces to 10,000 etc?
Chris, this sounds like one of those horrible algebra questions I worked so hard to avoid in high school!
Today, we're all working with limited budgets and my advice is to concentrate on the best prospects. To acheive that, you need to profile your current alumni donors. What do they have in common? Take a look at their demographics (male, female, age, location, etc.) and find those common denominators. Then put together a prospect list based on those characteristics. You may find the list is quite a bit smaller, but this will enable you to mail them more frequently, or perhaps even implement a follow-up telephone campaign using students to make the calls (which can be very effective).
Question from Katie, universtiy:
The plan for this year's annual appeal is to send it with the previous year's annual report, which will be recently completed at that time. Is it a good idea to send these together? Our thought is to cut down on mailing costs but to also have some documentation for our ask!
Nope. Don't do it. I won't say categorically that it won't work. But my experience tells me that it's better to send an annual report as a standalone communication with a cover letter that is effectively a thank-you to donors. A solicitation can follow after a week or 10 days with a reference to all the "good news" you just reported. Use that news as the basis for an ask that will demonstrate clearly to the donor how much impact her or his gift will have.
Question from Nancy Mayfield, The Englert Theatre:
We are a not-for-profit theater in Iowa City. We have started sending out fund raising mailings to people who have attended recent events. When soliciting donations from people familiar with our service who have not donated in the past, what type of letter will get the most mileage? (Flat ask vs. string ask, etc.) Or do you recommend both, mailed several months apart?
For the ask, I would treat them as a standard acquisition by using a static gift array, which means a string of options (usually three, plus the standard write-in-the-amount option). The amounts should be based upon the average gift amount of your previous acquisition mailings. I would not use amounts that vary greatly in size - for example, some organizations might try to do $50, $500 and $5000. If your average gift for prospects is $50, then I would try a gift array of $50, $75 and $100. I have always had more success using a gift array than a flat ask.
Question from Emily Chalker Lane, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens:
I have a new CEO who does not want us to segment our next appeal or to do more than two appeals annually. As a former annual fund director at a major college, I believe in a segmented approach as well as a more aggressive schedule for past donors. Any thoughts? Also, what do you think of mailing "off-season" as a tactic? Do you have any suggestions for timing a last ditch appeal before June 30?
Give that CEO a copy of my book, "Revolution in the Mailbox, Revised Edition." She or he is dead wrong. In refusing to segment and in reducing the frequency of your appeals lies the path to bankruptcy. Success in direct response (mail, phone, email, etc.) is grounded in frequency and segmentation.
I'm not sure what you mean by "off-season" or a "last-ditch appeal before June 30." Donors don't follow your calendar -- they are attuned to the real calendar, the one that ends December 31. And a schedule of frequent appeals means keeping up communication year-round. In North America, it also means that the year-end appeal that is mailed in October or November is the main solicitation of the year. There is no "off-season."
Question from Jhara Navalo Girl Scouts of the USA:
How important is addressing style in an ask, i.e. FL vs. Florida, LN vs. Lane. At my prior position this was very important to the director of FD and I was wondering if this really renders a higher "open rate" amongst DM appeals?
Consistency is most important, and style is personal preference. Frankly, most donors biggest concern in addressing is their name. Correct spelling and title is most important to them - a misspelling screams, "I don't know you and I don't care enough about you to get it right."
If not using abbreviations in the address is causing a lot of extra work for you, do a little test in your next mailing and see if your director is right. I would be surprised if it made a difference, but you never know!
Question from :
So, Do you feel it is best to renew online donations via direct mail?
The rule of thumb in fundraising is to renew a donor through the same channel as the one she's accustomed to. If her first gift came by mail, renew by mail. If she gives by phone habitually, renew her by phone. However, one pattern that seems to be emerging lies in the area you ask about: online fundraising. Online donors are proving difficult to renew online, as you may have observed. Direct mail seems to be working better with them. And direct-mail-acquired donors will definitely do best most of the time when renewed by mail. The telephone works better only for lapsed and long-lapsed donors who have failed to respond to the mail.
Question from Justin D. Norris, Small Catholic Unversity:
We are a small, Catholic institution with a population of about 2,000 currently a part of NCAA Division II athletics. What suggestions would you have in pitching our membership/booster club to former athletes and parents of student-athletes of the University? We recently decided to start a club and build it from the ground up.
Currently, they can give at different levels ranging from $50-$1,0000. I appreciate any thoughts that you have.
You have a great beginning with an audience that has linkage, interest and ability. You're way ahead of the game!
If you're undergoing a capital campaign for your club, I am assuming you have already identified those at the top of the donor pyramid for personal, face to face solicitations and are asking how to approach those closer to the all-important bottom - or support - of your donor pyramid.
I would try to use testmonials for a direct mail appeal of this kind, especially from someone your former athletes will recognize and connect with positively. Build excitement about this club that will benefit past, present and future students. A series of appeals, each with a different testimonial from these groups, could be very effective. Hope that gives you a start!
Question from Lesley Federman, Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust:
Over time, best practices on appeal letters seem to cycle through. Right now, what is the prevailing wisdom regarding a one page appeal letter vs. a multi-page letter? I look forward to your input.
I hate to disillusion you, but there has never been any data-based doubt that, under most circumstances, longer letters tend to bring higher response and higher revenue than shorter ones. There are lots of exceptions, especially when it comes to letters sent to previous donors. For example, many donor renewal letters are appropriately short. But, especially in recruiting new donors, a longer letter will outpull a shorter one. Despite all those people who insist "I never read long letters," for some reason, they still work.
Question from Lesley Federman, Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust:
How long after an appeal is sent out would you recommend doing follow up calls? This is something we're planning to do for former board members.
I typically advise waiting for no more than a week to start the calls. Of course, you probably won't reach everyone on the first try, so the time may drag on. But I wouldn't wait to start the process longer than your donors are likely to remember receiving the appeal.
And here's a tip: DO NOT start the call by asking whether the donor received the appeal. That's a perfect excuse for her to get you off the phone by saying something like "Yes, but I haven't read it yet. I'll do that now that you've reminded me, and I'll respond by mail." It's a trap. Instead, go straight to the case for giving and then the ask.
Question from Seema Wadia, NAMI DuPage:
We are a membership organization of about 600 members. About 32 percent of our membership has given an additional donation over the past year. And only 46 percent of our donors are members. How desirable is it to try and convert donors to members or vice versa?
We do not have a planned direct mail campaign. We have member renewal mailings, two special event mailings and one end-of-year appeal. How would we fit in other mailings ‚Äì or another way to frame our dilemma is: what is the maximum number of mailings that the same individual should get within a year‚Äôs time frame? Thank you.
I'll use Mal's stock answer: it depends!
Many organizations mail 7 - 12 appeals per year. It sounds like you could easily test adding some mailings, depending on how many renewal mailings you currently mail.
Converting donors to members might be desirable for your organization to keep your donors connected and personally vested in the organization. Do members make more gifts than non members? Do they have a longer giving history? Larger average gift? If so, you have your answer!
Question from Lee Hall, small nonprofit:
When sending an appeal letter, what are your thoughts on requesting a specific amount, based on a bump up over the last donation?
Yes! I always use a gift array based on the last gift. This adds to the personal feel you are going for and you won't offend the donor by asking for too large, or too small of a gift.
Question from Jim Baillie, Naropa University:
I'm new to direct mail. What are some of the big mistakes I should avoid?
Throw your English degree out the window. Use a conversational tone when writing, use contractions, make it personal. Use I instead of we, talk person to person!
Target your mail list to your best prospects by modeling your current donors. What do they have in common? Age, sex, etc? Those are the people you should be mailing. Don't try shooting fish in a barrel.
Question from Susan DeRemer. The Discovery Eye Foundation:
In the current economy I am in the process of introducing monthly giving as an option, hoping to retain my donors. Any pointers on how to convert some of my yearly donors over to monthly donors?
The first question to answer in monthly giving is by what means will you ask donors to give. Experience shows that in the United States (as opposed to Canada or Europe), monthly giving is easiest to introduce via credit card. That means, in practice, MasterCard or Visa. Automatic bank transfers are cheaper, but that's a tougher sell in the U.S. Do NOT make the mistake of offering payment by check. Though a few check donors are loyal, most tire of the exercise and stop giving sooner or later (usually sooner).
Next is the question of the BENEFITS to the donor. The biggest benefit is that, as a monthly donor, you gain more bang for your buck. Monthly giving saves time and money for the organization, thus allowing a larger percentage of each gift to be put to work doing what your organization is best at.
Other donor benefits include being part of a loyal, reliable, leadership group that is the backbone of the organization's support, and not having to bother writing checks.
Question from Megan - ADL Chicago:
What is your recommendation for customizing the amounts printed on the response card to the donor‚Äôs levels? If you are dealing with a $100 donor, should the ranges be customized around that - vs. a $1000 donor? What about leaving the donation amount blank? Your thoughts are greatly appreciated.
Yes - the gift array should be customized around the last gift amount by the donor both on the response card and in the letter copy. I always include a blank option as well. This is a level of personalization that donors want.
Question from Karen, Anti-Defamation League:
1) In respect to the financial crisis facing all of us - and especially non-profits - what is an expected (good) ROI for direct mail being sent to a base of current or lapsed donors? Do the old percentages still apply?
2) How many years back to you suggest going into your data base for the lapsed donor?
I agree with Mal that the old percentages may not apply today. Response rates are lower, but I have discovered that my current and recently lapsed donors are actually upping their gifts! The average gift has increased for them - they understand we need them more than ever, and I didn't even have to point that out to them.
For lapsed donors, I have had success going as far back as 10 years. Your lapsed donors will nearly always outperform your acquisition list - so that's another way to save some money if things are getting tight. I know I always say this, but try testing some of those long lapsed donors (beyond 5 years) to see how they respond before rolling out your appeal to them.
Question from Linda Hays, Willamette Valley Hospice:
Mr. Warwick, How do we tailor our fund raising letters to reach major donors? Is there a specific approach you feel works best?
Oddly enough, I've written a book about just that subject. It's called "The Mercifully Brief, Real-World Guide to Raising $1,000 Gifts by Mail." I can't possibly do justice to your question in this short time by even condensing what I wrote in that book. All I can say is, it works.
Question from J. Meredith, Bowie State:
Are there standard direct mail best practices to follow/use for appeals to different generations--Y, X, Boomers, etc?
Some of the obvious things would be larger, easier to read fonts for the more mature readers. However, I think it's more important to concentrate on making your appeal warm, personal, engaging and compelling - this will translate across all generations.
Tom Ahern has mastered identifying the four personalities that are essential to successful communications. Check out aherncomm.com for more about that.
Question from Danielle, large hospital:
Teaser copy on the outside envelope: Is it important or does it just say "don't open me?"
We keep having a debate in my office about teaser copy on the outside envelope. It can go on for days. I hate it, everyone wants to add it. Is there a right answer--for any population? Thank you.
You can't allow your personal preferences to influence you over what WORKS. I hate address labels - but everyone keeps mailing them, because they WORK!
The right teaser copy can really help your response, in my experience - remember, if they don't open it, you've lost before you even got started.
Challenge yourself to write some really good teaser copy (hint: Mal Warwick's book would be good inspiration) and test it head to head over an outer envelope without any teaser. See if you get a lift in response and settle the debate once and for all!
Question from Fred, Secondary School:
If you fiscal year closes in 60 days, and your accountant tells you that you have a low six figure deficit. Should you tell donors in an appeal letter the amount of shortfall or just use the terms shortfall or deficit?
Fred, I actually recoiled in horror at your question!
I would not address this at all in an appeal letter. First of all, telling donors this kind of information sends up a red flag - they might wonder how fiscally sound you really are.
Create your urgent need by telling a story about the students you need to help! What will happen to them if your school goes away? What will happen to them without the donor's support? There's your compelling case.
Tell the donors why your school is so important to your community. Tell them what you provide that no one else does. Share stories about the students who are now successful and contributing to your community - and emphasize that even more students need their help today.
Use emotion, make it heartwarming - numbers and statistics aren't heartwarming.
Question from Piper, Medium-sized non-profit:
In regards to the online component of your fund raising solicitations, should emails sent out include embedded videos, such as those sent by the Obama campaign? Or are videos difficult for a large portion of your population to view?
I think embedding videos could be a logistical and expensive nightmare. You are right in being concerned about your entire online audience having the right video viewer, the most recent version of said viewer, and adding to the size of the email may cause a large number of bounces. I think it would cause way more problems than what it's worth to your online fund raising efforts.
Question from Janet, American Red Cross KC:
How important do you think it is for the solicitation to be sent from the local organization's address as opposed to a national office address, and do you think donors view and support large nonprofits (with national and local offices) as one large organization or as a local organization?
Some years ago Easter Seals tested this question and discovered that it's a big advantage to provide not just a local address but also any other local references (such as a signature by the local chapter head). Most giving, like politics, is local.
Question from New York, Ny:
We are currently trying to find a new direct mail vendor. How do you know if an annual fee is in line? All of the quotes were are receiving seem like we would be losing money at the end of the campaign year.
If you're talking about acquistion - then yes, you're going to 'lose money.' For acquistion, it's all about LTV - Long Term Donor Value. LTV is the average amount contributed by each person over a period of time (usually 5 years) that were acquired in a cohort of donors. Direct mail is a long term investment.
It sounds like you are sending RFPs to several vendors, and if they are pretty similar in fee structure, that should tell you it's in line. However, I would recommend contacting Larry May at directmedia.com for his opinion. He's someone I trust to steer you right.
Question from Lee Hall, small nonprofit:
We have a lot of people in our data base who have never been mailed, but must have had some contact with us in the past. Would you suggest sending them an acquisition package? Or sending a postcard asking them if they'd like to receive our newsletter and then mailing a solicitation to them after receiving the newsletter?
Great question! I wish lots more nonprofits were asking this one.
On a routine basis, I advise clients to stop mailing appeals to those who haven't responded in 37 months or more and, instead, to include those folks in new-donor acquisition mailings. That's proven to be fruitful almost always.
In such a case as yours, however, I'd advise sending a DOUBLE postcard to all those non-respondents on your list asking whether they wish to continue receiving information from you. Those who respond affirmatively -- a modest percentage, surely -- are worth continuing to solicit. Even if they don't ever send a cash gift, they might be prospects for legacy gifts. Those who do not respond may be included in an acquisition mailing or, if they've been on the list more than five years, simply archived.
Question from Lesley Federman, Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust:
To piggy back on a recent question regarding address and salutation style, I'd like to get your perspective on the best way to address a husband and wife with different last names. Also, what do you think about the old tradition of always putting the woman's name first?
We follow that tradition - the woman's name first, such as Mary Sue Culvin and David Prough. You can also have the woman's name on one line and the man's name on the next line. For salutation, we would do "Dear Mary Sue and David."
Peter Panepento (Moderator):
We'll be wrapping up in a couple of minutes with Mr. Warwick's prediction for the future of direct mail.
Question from Rachael, AIDS Foundation of Chicago:
Thank you for this forum. What do you see as the major future trends for direct mail? I've heard so many but would appreciate a fresh perspective.
First, direct mail will NOT die in the foreseeable future. Rumors of its demise are highly exaggerated. Those who predict that online giving will replace it haven't been looking at the numbers emerging from the field of online giving. Now, I DO believe there is a bright future in fund raising online. I just think it will take longer for the habit to take hold than most boosters of online fund raising are thinking (including my own staff members who are engaged in online fund raising!).
Second, there are two long-term trends now in place in direct mail: a slow decline in response rates, largely due to growing competition, and a fast-increasing professionalization of direct mail practice. The craft my colleagues and I put to work today is only a distant cousin to the work I did when I started 30 years ago. We have both experience with creative approaches and analytical tools I couldn't even dream of in 1979. I believe both of these trends will continue. Together, they make for a Darwinian reality.
Question from Linda, American Culinary Federation:
This is a member organization with 22,000 members. How far ahead of their renewal date should the 1st ask be sent?
I've found that scheduling renewals based on anniversary date is not cost-effective except for organizations with much larger memberships than yours. My colleagues and I typically convert such programs into an annual renewal schedule in which we ask members to renew by calendar year. In such a case, we typically launch the first effort in a renewal series of four, five, six, or more letters (and a phone call) not long after the year-end appeal in the closing months of the preceding year.
The biggest virtues of a calendar-year approach are (1) you can clear the schedule for everyone to receive your year-end appeal without competition; (2) you reduce the management hassles of monthly or quarterly scheduling of renewal notices when your organization surely has other communications going out to its members; and (3) this will probably enable you to mail more frequently to your members. The downside is that it complicates cash flow.
Now, if I've failed to convince you, and you want a straight answer to your question, here it is: most renewal programs based on anniversary date tend to start three months before the anniversary.
Peter Panepento (Moderator):
Thanks for joining us. It's been quite a discussion -- and I hope you found it to be useful. Please note that we do host these discussions every Tuesday at noon Eastern time. Go to http://philanthropy.com/live for information about upcoming discussions and to access our free archive of discussion transcripts. Also, please feel free to e-mail me your direct-mail drafts if you'd like feedback from other fund raisers on our Prospecting blog. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for joining us.
I have really enjoyed communicating with everyone, and it's been an HONOR to respond alongside Mal Warwick! I have a few of Mal's books and highly recommend them. You may not agree one hundred percent of the time with our advice but please take what you can to fit your needs and organization. I am always available to answer questions and welcome your feedback. Here's to lots of gifts in your mailbox!