Do You Really Need Your Donors?

Anyone reading this that answered “no” needs to get out of the pool.  Of course you need your donors!  They are the lifeblood of every organization.  But can you honestly say that your donors feel needed?  That’s usually a much harder question …

Many organizations are hesitant to let their donors know when they are in dire need of help.  It is almost seen as a flaw in management to admit to donors that the organization needs the help of their donors to get through a rough financial time.  However, donors are much more likely to respond to an appeal when they feel every dollar makes a difference.  Examples:

– “Without your help, we will need to cut program A, B or C”

– “Every dollar we raise will help x more people!”

– “The economy is impacting our fundraising and we need your help now more than ever!”

Another mistake fundraisers often make is assuming some grand campaign will be irresistible to their
donors.  That can be true in some instances, but in many cases, being a $10 donor to a $1,000,000 campaign just isn’t compelling.  Better to ask smaller donors to contribute to something where they’ll perceive that their gift matters.   

Similarly, while every organization wants to change the world, grand plans to help thousands of people can make a problem seem daunting.  Research has shown time and again that people give to individuals, not to groups of people.  By focusing your appeals on a single person who will be helped, you remove many of the abstracts that can keep people at arm’s length from your organization’s work. 

It should go without saying, but probably the most critical step for helping your donors feel needed is to thank them!  After every gift (through thank you letters) and before (within the body of your appeals).  Let your donors know that their support has made your organization what it is today.

Do You Really Need Your Donors?
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Show Your Donors the Love…

I was talking yesterday with the Development Director of a smaller non profit (less than 5,000 donors on file) and asked her how many of these donors received personal treatment from her?  Her reply: “Very, very few. We do four mailings each year and I don’t really have much time for face
to face visits or personal phone calls.”

What a mistake!  Set aside every week to phone and visit key donors one on one.  Too many fundraisers make the mistake of searching their data bases for the largest donors. Instead, look for loyal donors, ones who have given consistently to your cause.  Then, pick up the phone and THANK them!

Remember, giving has not stopped… it just takes more work, more smarts, and more persistence in forging better relationships with your donors and prospects.  Hearing directly from you, and just how much you appreciate their support, will go a very long way!

Show Your Donors the Love…
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KISS – It’s good for you

You’ve undoubtedly heard the old adage, Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS).

Sorry, don’t mean to call you stupid, just saying that KISS applies big time when it comes to creating effective direct response materials.

One of the most important ways to keep it simple?

Don’t ask your supporters to do more than one thing – and definitely, don’t give them choices …

Why not?

Simple.  Choices require thinking and deliberation and they work at cross purposes to your primary goal of getting a response.  In short, they complicate the decision to respond. More thinking = more deliberation = less response.

Even if you’re trying to do something nice for your supporters, I recommend you think twice.

Don’t believe me? Consider this:

Not long ago, a client who is very sophisticated and normally understands the importance of keeping direct response simple, couldn’t resist.  “Look, I appreciate our supporters immensely.  I want to make it as easy as possible for them to support us,” he explained.  “This is very simple, it won’t cause confusion and I seriously doubt it will impact response …”

He was talking about inserting a straightforward “Easy Ways to Give” buckslip to let donors know they could give any way they pleased: 1) Using the package’s enclosed reply form and return envelope; 2) by calling in a credit card #, or 3) by going on-line to a simple and very user-friendly donation form.


Very simple and helpful, right?  Maybe it won’t help results, but simply can’t hurt them, right?


That innocent little buckslip, created only to do good and be helpful, was, in reality, a silent and deadly results killer …

The standard version of the package – identical except for the buckslip – pulled  15% higher!

Take home message: Hit your supporters with a straightforward, emotionally-charged reason to support your good work and then get out of the way and let them give.  KISS!

KISS – It’s good for you
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Tap into the power of NOW

I’m sure you’re a nice person.  Polite and well-mannered – you’d never dream of cutting someone off in traffic or butting into the front of the line.  But when it comes to writing direct mail or email copy for your next fundraising campaign – YOU NEED TO GET PUSHY!

Think of yourself as one person in a very long line of organizations waiting to present your case to the donor or prospect.  Sure you can wait patiently and hope there’s still money available when your time comes.  Good luck with that strategy.  And good luck finding a new job in this economy.  Polite is
good, but you’ve also got to stand up and be noticed.

So how do you get your message the attention it deserves?

Welcome to the power of NOW.  You need to give donors a reason to push your cause to the front of the line and the way to do that is to create urgency.  Sounds good right? So how do you do that?

The best way to create urgency is to have some legitimate reason why funds are needed right away.
Such as:

        “All gifts received by May 1st will be matched by a generous benefactor.”

        “Winter is approaching fast and we need to buy blankets for the homeless.”

        “School starts next month and we need to purchase supplies.”

        For example, note the Matching Gift Campaign and the eye-catching red block on this response form:


However, even if there is no real compelling reason to create urgency you can still create urgency through language.  Using words like NOW, TODAY, PLEASE HURRY, etc. will have dramatic impact.
Another good way is to set a campaign deadline.  It doesn’t have to be a meaningful deadline and you don’t have to explain it but having a deadline helps to build urgency and that lifts response rates. I usually like to set deadlines for direct mail campaigns about 30 days after I expect a mailing to arrive in home.  For email campaigns, it should be even shorter – 15 days at the most.  However, with email you should also test “by midnight tonight!”

Here’s what NOT to do: Recently, I received a fundraising request that said “Don’t worry you’ve got plenty of time to give.  Our campaign doesn’t end until December 31st.”  What??!!  I’m sure the person who wrote that letter is a very nice person and would probably make a great customer service representative.  But they should never again be allowed anywhere near your fundraising copy!

Tap into the power of NOW
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A Great Technique to Lift Response Rate

You’ve probably gotten a call like this before.  You pick-up the phone and there’s a recorded message from some politician or celebrity prompting some call to action.  You probably think to yourself “who listens to these things?”
Well, the reality is: a lot of people do!  In fact, a well-managed Outbound Voice Message (OVM) follow-up is one of the easiest, most effective and most affordable ways to lift response rates.  Whatever you might personally feel about OVMs, they are a technique that should be in every fundraiser’s tool box.

Here are some tips to properly managing a message launch that can mean the difference between success and failure:

  • THANK YOU:  The best strategy we’ve found for using OVMs is as a chaser for a direct mail piece.  This is complicated a bit by the fact that FCC rules prevent you from directly asking for a donation or mentioning a mailed appeal for a donation. Truthfully though, a direct ask is almost never a good idea within a recorded message.  We’ve found that a general message thanking the donor for their support and reinforcing the organization’s mission is the best strategy.
  • TIMING. Part I:
    Since you’re not allowed to specifically ask for a donation, timing the message launch is critical.  Estimating postal delivery times can be tricky, but as a general guideline, 10 days after a mailing drops with nonprofit postage is about the right time for your follow-up OVM.  If you’re using first class postage, shoot for about three days after the mailing drops as your target.  ***NOTE:  mail delivery in the month of December is notoriously unreliable.  Allow extra time
    during the holidays
  • TALENT:  The person recording your message should be familiar to the donor. Either the signer of the direct mail letter or a celebrity, if you have an existing relationship.
  • TIMING, Part II:  Unlike most telemarketing, the best time for delivering an OVM is when people are NOT home.  A recorded message on an answering machine is less abrasive than one you physically receive. Shoot for delivery late morning to early afternoon.
  • THEME:  This is possibly the least important variable, as we’ve seen success with everything from Annual Fund to Disaster to Planned Giving.  But it’s worth noting that an emergency issue or a funding problem with a finite deadline may change your launch strategy. 
  • TIMING, Part III:  Be aware of what is going on in the marketplace.  In those times when other fundraisers are especially active (particularly around election season), it’s a good idea to postpone OVM launches for a time when there is less competition.

With proper planning, OVMs will help you realize a significant bump in response rates for your direct mail appeals, at a minimum cost and without rousing the ire of your donor-base. 

And do yourself a favor; don’t call them “robo-calls.”

A Great Technique to Lift Response Rate
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Three Important Lessons We’ve Learned

In the mail, online, on the phone, and by every channel, avoid a critical mistake made by many organizations – including some of the biggest non-profits at work: placing your non-profit, not your donor, at the center of your fundraising efforts.  Years of experience and testing have taught us that:

  • Spotlighting the good work and efficiency of your organization is important, but not as important as a storyline that reinforces a donor’s feeling that he/she is needed and appreciated.
  • Organizations that overemphasize accomplishments and downplay needs in hopes of building
    donor confidence, often achieve the opposite.  “All is well, we don’t need you,” is the subliminal message donors take in.  If you paint a perfect picture, they may admire you, but they won’t support you.  Show some vulnerability.  Donors will appreciate your honesty, feel needed, and many will step up to help.
  • The most effective appeals for non-profits are upbeat and positive in tone.  Yes, they should
    highlight hardships and challenges, but hope, rather than doom and gloom, ultimately wins the day.  And, always, always, always, show donors that their support matters.

Develop and cultivate sustaining relationships with your prospects and supporters … treat them with consideration for their own beliefs and feelings … and express gratitude and heartfelt thanks for their ongoing support.

The result?  You’ll grow a data base of loyal, dedicated donors who support your campaigns, year after year.

Three Important Lessons We’ve Learned
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Don’t make sweeping generalizations

“Don’t make sweeping generalizations,” my mother used to say to me.  In life that is pretty good advice which I’ve passed on to my own children.

But in the field of direct mail fundraising – or any type of mass marketing for that matter – sweeping generalizations are desirable and even necessary.  I’ll explain.  

Direct mail fundraising is not one-to-one communication.  Although we try to use personalization and customized ask amounts and other techniques like handwritten addressing to simulate one-to-one communication – it’s not.

Effective direct mail fundraising targets clusters of individuals with a message and layout that is designed to appeal to their perceived common interests, perceptions, desires and fears.  And so we must make certain assumptions and play the percentages.

Of course these assumptions should be carefully thought out and tested and retested.  Recently a demographic study was done for one of our clients that provided statistical support for many of these assumptions and generalizations we’ve come to use.  And so with documented evidence in hand to
back them up I’ll pass on some of them we often employ to lower costs and raise more money:

1) The older you are the more likely you are to give (until you reach age 90).  According to the study the response rate increases in a perfect curve with each age segment until you reach age 90 and above.  Donors in the age range of 80-89 had a response rate 64% higher than those aged 30-39.

2) No significant difference in response rates among men and women but men give larger amounts.  A 16% higher average gift according to this study. For this particular client there is also a two-to-one advantage in terms of the number of men on the file in comparison with the number of women.  But be careful with this one. Many times (especially with older folks from earlier generations) married couples write checks in the husband’s name but it is the wife that is actually making the giving decision.

3) The lower your income the more likely you are to give.  In our study this also tracked in an almost perfect curve with each increasing income bracket having a lower response rate than the preceding one.  Donors with a household income of $15,000 or less had a 40% higher response rate than those making $125,000 or higher.  As one might expect the average gift size did increase among the higher income brackets somewhat mitigating the lower response rate to the extent that there was no statistically significant difference in the Gross Dollars Per Piece Mailed between these two extremes of the income brackets.

4) Lawyers and Doctors are generally very poor prospects for donations.  This is an old
axiom in the business and in our study these two professions ranked dead last in terms of response rate.  In this study those who listed “Religious” as their profession ranked highest followed by “Retired” in second place and “Homemaker” in third.

5) The less education you have the more likely you are to give.  Those who completed just high school had a 21% higher response rate than those who completed graduate school.  Of course education level tracks closely with income level and so it is hard to determine which factor is the driver here.  Of course when you are making assumptions about who to target the “why” is less important than the “who.”

One big caveat that needs to be disclosed here.  I’ve chosen these categories to highlight because I’ve found them to be mostly true across a wide variety of different organizations over the years I’ve worked in this industry.  However, there are differences between organizations and you should always employ generalizations carefully.  Some of this is common sense.  For example, If you work in the field of education you might well find that the more educated donors respond better.

This is why direct mail fundraisers make good black jack players.  You might occasionally get lucky playing a hunch but the smart money plays the percentages. Good luck to you! 

Don’t make sweeping generalizations
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Think direct mail is dead… or even sick? TIME magazine thinks you’re wrong

In fact, the March
28 edition (yes, of 2011!), lists it as one of the 10 Ideas That Will Change the World For the Better.

The lead-in to the article?  “If you hate direct mail, please don’t. It’s a great way for charities to raise money.” 

Writer Belinda Luscombe uses the example of Brian Mullaney, founder of Smile Train, to make her case.

Mullaney, who obviously loves direct mail, says many charities reject it because it’s “expensive, annoying, and déclassé… The whole charity industry,” he asserts, “is very dysfunctional when it comes to this stuff, because they’re anti-business and anti-marketing.”

Strong words, but Mullaney has the standing to back up his smack: Smile Train raised $91 million in 2009 with a fundraising staff of four. 

And that windfall is to say nothing of the many other good things that happen when you enlist bad, old direct mail: new relationships forged, donors informed of good works in progress, bequests and major legacy gifts left to your organization, etc.

Here at New River Communications, we get what Mullaney is saying. We love direct mail and all direct response marketing – mostly we love the way it allows our clients to expand their critical work. 100% of our work is with non-profits and associations doing good in the world.

When you’re ready to find some new blood for your cause or re-engage your current supporters in a big way, let us know. We’re ready to help. Not just with direct mail, but with all the tools you need to get the support your good work deserves.

Think direct mail is dead… or even sick? TIME magazine thinks you’re wrong
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Including a front-end premium in direct mail

Including a front-end premium in your direct mail package can dramatically increase results and ROI.  It’s especially effective in recruitment (gets the envelope opened) … and can greatly boost your reinstatement rates.

Including a front-end premium in direct mail
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