A lot of organizations I've worked with are fortunate to have celebrity supporters and allies, so I've spent my fair share of time discussing how best to leverage that kind of high-profile support. It's not always clear or easy to take advantage of a big name on your donor roll, so I wanted to share some of my thoughts.
First, a "celebrity" isn't just a famous actor or musician. It can be anyone related to your specific community who has name recognition and credibility. For a health-related nonprofit, that might be a super-star physician, for a science advocacy group, a former astronaut or Nobel Prize-winner. For fundraising purposes, a "celebrity" is anyone your supporters will recognize and relate to.
So, you've noticed a prominent person has started giving to your organization. Or you've got a famous board member. Or a celebrity tweeted their admiration for your mission to their 600,000 followers. How can you use their support to generate even more love for your cause?
Five Ways to Use Your Celebrity Supporters
- Ask them to be the Chair (or Honorary Chair) of a specific Membership group, probably a high-dollar giving group. This can involve anything from simply signing fundraising materials directed at the group, to taking a more active role, depending on their interests, time and level of commitment.
- Ask them to sign a Prospecting Letter or a Lift Letter in your Acquisition package. NRDC and Friends of the Earth both use celebrity signers -- actors known for their environmental passions -- in their acquisition packages to great success.
- Ask them to make a video expressing why they support your organization and asking others to do the same. You can post this on the Web or send it in your e-mail newsletter as an extra endorsement for what you do.
- Ask them to host (even in an honorary capacity) a major special event. A good name will draw more people to your event, and their participation can lend a "stamp of approval" that inspires others to give.
- Present them with an award at a major special event. An alternative to asking them to host, this technique can also up attendance at your event. And it could be a first step to a more fruitful relationship with that celebrity, ensuring they help you more in the future.
There are, of course, some sticky issues with using celebrity supporters to assist in your fundraising. If your celebrity becomes embroiled in a scandal, for example, your association with them could hurt your organization more than help. Alternatively, if their notoriety doesn't add credibility to your cause with your donors, then it might not be the best fit. And obviously, you should always treat these supporters with respect and gratitude. Don't push them to do more than they're comfortable doing, and don't take them for granted.
But if you have a loyal celebrity supporter or two who is willing to use their acclaim to call attention to your cause, and you target that attention in one of the ways listed above, you can give your fundraising a boost.
It sounds like an insecurity complex, but I swear that it's true. One example (of many): the wife of a former colleague of my husband's spent two evenings sitting across from me at a restaurant, conversed with me at an office party and even invited me to her wedding. My husband and I later attended a party at her home, and when I saw her I walked right up and said, "Thanks so much for inviting us!"
She smiled, held out her hand and said, "Hi, I'm Tahnee. What's your name?"
My neighbor -- a really lovely woman -- and I were talking the other day, and she mentioned that she suffers from the same forget-ability. It's hard for me to understand how anyone could forget her, and I don't think I'm flattering myself when I say that she seemed surprised that people would forget me. But it's true. It happens more often than I'd like.
Not that I let it get to me, not too much, anyway. I really think it's Tahnee's loss that she can't remember the very nice conversations we shared. But I'll admit that her indifference made me loathe to spend any more time with her and her husband.
Now, imagine how your donor feels when you misspell her name…when you reference a gift amount he never gave…when you call, email or send mail when he expressly asked you not to…when you show that you have no idea who they are or why they gave to you in the first place.
Frankly, it's insulting. And no one wants to spend time or money with someone who insults them.
Know your donors. Show them that you know who they are, that you understand why they give and that you share their passion for solving the problem your organization is trying to solve. Let them know that you rely on and appreciate their commitment to your cause.
Never let them feel forgettable.
How are you making your donors feel like you know who they are? How do you show them they're valued? Share your ideas in the comment section!
I may rarely end -- or even get halfway through! -- the year organized, but I like to start out with my thoughts marshaled, my supplies in their places, and my plans laid out. Here are four ways I'm getting organized in 2014: Less Paper. This is tough one, since I work in direct mail, which is a paper-based business. But just because the end product ends up on paper doesn't mean I have to use it day to day. I'm learning to edit effectively on-screen, only opting to print pieces on the last pass. I have developed a pretty sophisticated virtual filing system that includes art, proofs and email communications from clients. I'm even learning to type my notes during a conference call, rather than jotting them into a notebook first -- although I admit that's a work in progress.
Eliminating as much paper as I can is great for the environment, of course. But it's also great for my sanity and my time. No more filing, no more space taken up by bulging folders, and no more paper cuts!
Lists and more lists. I know some people aren't list-makers, but I am. I love to make global lists of things I hope to accomplish this year, as well as the micro lists of daily and weekly tasks. But if you're not into lists, try a spreadsheet or even a Venn diagram -- my husband the former architect enjoys drawing his to-do tasks. The act of jotting down your goals will help you remember them and hold you accountable to achieving them.
Taking Time for Me. I often short-change myself in my rush to complete all my tasks -- and my house isn't even that clean! I'm not sure what's going to be pushed aside this year, but I am determined to take time each day to focus on myself and what I need. I'm confident that it will make me a better consultant, wife, parent, neighbor and friend. Even if it does mean the floor stays dirty.
Be Ready for (Almost) Anything. I often find myself needing to adjust my plans, and when I don't have the right equipment, it slows me down -- and sometimes keeps me from doing things altogether. When the car breaks down, I want to be ready to bike, so I'm getting my winter biking gear stowed together for easy transitions from four wheels to two. When a colleague calls me for lunch, I'm going to be ready to leave the house instead of scrambling to find a clean pair of pants or to brush my hair for the first time that day. And when working at home isn't going so well, I want my laptop bag ready to roll, so I can hit the road without losing too much of my day.
What are you doing to get yourself organized in 2014? Any other tips for me? I could use them!
Now that all three of my children are in school, I've noticed that time seems to move much more quickly than it used to. Although it's been an entire year, I'm still not entirely used to the idea of 2013…and here we are almost at 2014. Which means it's time to reflect! I rarely make New Year's resolutions, but I do like to take a few minutes at the end of every year to think about what has changed this year, and ponder where I'd like to be at the close of the next.
And part of those reflections is asking myself how well I served my clients this year, how the relationships are working, and how we can work to achieve even more in the coming year. Even if you're not a consultant, I think these are valuable questions to ask yourself at any time of the year:
What surprised you about the last year? Good or bad, surprises have things to tell you. Did a campaign you thought was sure-fire actually bomb? Did a relationship go awry? Did an idea you had on the fly turn out to be a life-saver? Reflect on those things that surprised you -- and why you didn't see them coming.
What worked well? It's easy to focus on what's not working, but I think the more helpful trail to follow is what is working. Chip and Dan Heath call it "following the bright spots" and I've found it to be incredibly helpful as I move forward each year. Where are things going right? Can you pinpoint why it's working so well? What can you do to keep that momentum going and even expand it? Can you apply any of those lessons to other areas of your life? While dwelling on things that went wrong might be tempting, looking at what went right often yields more positive results.
How can you make things that aren't working better? That's not to say that you shouldn't examine your failures. I had a colossal mess on my hands at one point this year, and although I'd love to pretend it never happened, I know that it actually has a lot to tell me about where I want to go in 2014. Where did you fail this year? How can you turn that failure into a positive next year?
I enjoy all this reflecting -- and find it deeply helpful. But even better is coming back to work on January 2nd and beginning to make my reflections reality. Bring on 2014!
(But if reflection isn't for you, you could try one of these ways to welcome in a New Year.)
Cheers! And see you in 2014!
When clients and potential clients ask me to help them with their social media, I often groan (silently) and wonder what I should say. Your social media tells a story about your organization. Are you telling the story of an active and dynamic organization that is mobilizing and engaging supporters in the passion of their mission? Or are you telling the story of an organization that would prefer your supporter hand over their money and let you get on with your work?
Social Media is not just another leg on your marketing stool. It's a whole different seat at the table.
The problem most non-profit organizations and for-profit companies have with social media is the social part. This isn't old-school, get-your-message-out promotion… Creating a successful social media presence requires you to actually interact with your customers, constituents and supporters.
Which is why I cringe when nonprofits ask me to bid on writing their social media content. I write my own tweets, Facebook posts and LinkedIn updates for my consulting practice, and I really believe it's critical that you have an organizational insider conducting your social media.
It's easy for a consultant to come in and say something like, "You should make sure you tweet your message XX times per day." or "Engage your supporters in conversations on Facebook."
Social media is another way of telling a story -- the story of how your organization functions on a daily basis. How do you treat supporters and staff? How do you view your mission? How nimble are you when news breaks or a crisis rises up? Social media is a big plate-glass window into all of these areas.
And an outside consultant -- even one specializing in social media -- cannot deliver that authenticity you need. A consultant will never, for example, be able to walk out of an energizing meeting and tell your donors and supporters about the excitement in the air around the office.
When you have an actual social media professional leading your SM efforts, you'll get
- Someone with their finger on the pulse of the organization.
- Someone who can seamlessly integrate the rest of your marketing, communications and fundraising plan into your social media.
- Someone who can explain social media to those in your organization who might not understand what it can do…and what it can't.
- Someone who can be the "voice" of your organization on a ground level.
Better yet, make sure your social media person also has a working knowledge of donor-centered fundraising, so they can give your SM-savvy supporters a more personalized, high-touch experience.
Of course, social media isn't (yet) a fundraising powerhouse. But like fundraising, social media is about creating and nurturing relationships. And investing in key relationships is something that all successful nonprofits are committed to.
Social media isn't going away, and it is increasingly the way people are checking out the organizations they decide to support. What are you doing to make sure your social media plan is as engaging and authentic as it can be?
I tend to take a workwoman’s approach to writing: Get a theme, write to the theme, revise and polish, let go and move on to next topic. As someone who has spent the last 15+ years writing to deadlines, that work ethic has kept organic broccoli in my fridge and a roof over my head. But as my husband would be eager to tell you, I am not by nature such a practical soul. At root, I am a dreamer. Which I think is at least part of why I choose to make my living with stories.
As my friend and colleague at ARC Communications, Amy Blake, pointed out, we all tell ourselves stories every day. Sometimes those stories are heroic, as when we think about the deadlines we met, the performance evaluations we exceeded, the kind words we spoke when they were most needed.
And sometimes those stories are less positive, as when we criticize ourselves or others, or lament what might have been.
In fact, because we’ve been telling stories as a species for 100,000 years, our brains are hard-wired to organize information that way. We can’t help but see stories all around us, nearly every minute of the day. Our very histories – personal and global – are all organized around and passed along as stories.
Love stories, bedtime stories, campfire stories, origin stories, stories we tell around the dinner table, children’s stories, adult stories, erotic stories, traditional stories, fables, fairy tales and myths…the list goes on and on.
I think we sometimes become distanced from our own stories when we try so hard to quantify and prove or disprove everything that crosses our paths. Don’t get me wrong – I love science and data… for the stories they can tell.
But it's all too easy to forget that every conclusion we draw is a story we tell ourselves. I know that when I'm writing -- whether it's an appeal for funds or a blog post or a personal email -- I am often so immersed in the information I'm trying to convey that I forget to just let my story unfold.
For the last few fundraising letters I've written, I've added a step to my process: I'm taking the time to reconnect with the larger story I'm trying to tell. I edit to let the story itself convey the information, rather than simply presenting the information. It's a subtle but powerful difference, and ultimately, I think it has made for much stronger pieces that pursue the core truths about my organizations' missions.
And let me be clear. I'm not talking about just adding a story from your program staff and hoping it illustrates your point. No, I'm looking at a broader definition of "story," one that is more holistic and that tells your donors who you really are as an organization.
Of course, I won't know how the story of this experiment ends for a few weeks, until the data on these mailings tells its story. But for now, I'm doing my best to cultivate my clients' organization-wide stories and let those stories do the hard work for me.
What stories are you telling in your fundraising efforts? Are they narrow and specific? Or broad and holistic? Do they emerge organically from your process, or do they require cultivation?
In this season of go-go-go, giving, and -- for my family -- birthday parties, I often find myself running a wee bit ragged. That's why I'm so excited about ARC Communications' "All About You" month, filled with great reminders about how to take care of myself, even as I take care of everyone and everything else. Those of us who work for and with nonprofit organizations tend to overlook the fact that we can do the most good for our missions if we are well rested, healthy and filled with joy. Remember: no one hands out prizes just because you persevere with stress steam coming out your ears and a headache the size of Maryland.
Make sure you look after yourself this month and enjoy all the season has to offer. See some art, take in live music or a play, go for a walk or have a drink with friends… and have fun!
One of the most common refrains I hear from my friends and colleagues in the nonprofit arena is "I'm just not sure how to make my Board understand fundraising!" One executive director friend dreads his quarterly report to his Board -- not because his organization isn't meeting its fundraising goals, but because he feels like his Board holds him to impossibly high standards and is always disappointed. I think every nonprofit should endeavor to recruit at least one fundraising professional onto their Board. Having that insider who can bridge the gap between the staff and the Board is so beneficial to both groups that I've always been surprised it isn't standard practice.
But until that happens, there are several key ways you can engage your Board in fundraising and help them understand how to strengthen your organization and its fundraising efforts.
First, you need to understand where your Board Members are coming from. Who are they? What is their background? Why are they involved with your organization? What activities spark their interests and passion? What stories do they tell about their involvement with your nonprofit? Understanding your audience is key to persuading people to give to your organization, and it's key to persuading your Board members to engage, as well.
Once you understand broadly and deeply who your Board is, then you can start to use their language, tap into their concerns and hopes, and create a culture of fundraising throughout your organization.
Cultivate that culture is by communicating openly and often with your Board members.
- Use Storytelling to tell them about the impact they're having in your community.
- Set clear expectations -- in other words, tell them what needs to be done and give them the tools to do that work.
- Set aside time for one-on-one meetings with Board Members, and use that time to listen to their stories. Ask them what first excited them about your organization, and what their goals are for the next year.
- Thank them often -- and personally -- for their commitment and participation. And ask them to personally thank your donors. This circle of gratitude makes everyone feel valued, needed and appreciated -- and makes your mission possible.
I also love this handy info-graphic on increasing Board engagement, which outlines practical, achievable steps for both smaller and larger nonprofit organizations.
Above all, it's critical to remember that you're all on the same side. You may come at the problem you're trying to solve from different perspectives -- and that's great because it means you'll cover all the bases -- but you are all working for a common goal: the mission of your organization.
When my younger daughter was 2, I took her to the pediatrician for a check-up. The doctor came into the room and started talking to my girl, who refused to say anything. The doctor pressed her to answer, and my daughter refused. When she looked at me for help, I said, "She's feeling shy today." Oh, the hell I had to pay for using that s-word! The doctor lectured me about the words I use to describe my children, how powerful they can be, and how I could easily doom my child to a life of social awkwardness by calling her "shy" at such a tender age.
Not long after that, I switched to a different pediatric practice.
Look, I know that shyness is not valued in our culture. We're supposed to be outgoing and friendly to a fault, and while being introverted has recently become slightly more socially acceptable, being shy is still seen as a problem you should work relentlessly to overcome.
But as an essentially shy person, I honestly believe that shyness can be a huge advantage, if you're willing to embrace it (and if you learn to step out from behind it when it's not getting you where you want to go).
Shy People Are Great Observers
When you're not busy talking and mingling, you have a lot more time for listening and watching. While un-shy colleagues can make more contacts and bring in more donors, shy fundraisers often know better what to do with those donors.
My younger daughter -- the "shy" one -- is aces at reading other people and understanding intuitively what they want. Since fundraising is primarily about understanding what your donors want and how to give it to them, shy people have a great leg up when it comes to cultivating donor loyalty.
Shyness Can Keep You and Your Organization Safe
I loved that my girls were a bit shy. I never had to worry about them wandering off or talking to strangers. My son, however, routinely wandered off to visit neighbors he knew and meet those he didn't. More than once, a stranger showed up at my door, my little red-head in tow, saying, "Is this one yours?"
Direct threats aren't as common for fundraisers, but being shy can keep you from leaping before you look. The natural caution and reticence of shy people make them the perfect people to sit back and say to bolder colleagues, "What if?" -- saving the entire organization from chasing unproductive or damaging ventures.
Bottom Line: "shy" shouldn't be a dirty word.
Although it's easy for shy people to feel like they fade into the background, they can be extremely valuable to your organization -- as observers, as listeners, as an oasis of calm, as a voice of caution.
Make it easy for the shy at your nonprofit to participate.
- Give them space to speak without being interrupted or talked over by more boisterous colleagues.
- Axe the group brainstorming sessions in favor of post-meeting reflections. Allowing shy and introverted people to step back and think over what they've heard will give them a chance to contribute great ideas.
- Try to pull them aside routinely to see if they have any observations that might be helpful or important to your organization.
- Encourage shy people to come out of their shells and to take risks…while encouraging the less shy to listen more and think before they act.
Being shy isn't a disaster -- it's just a different way of being, one that can, and should, be valued in the workplace.
This past weekend, my husband and I took our three kids up to Seattle for what we called a Tourist Weekend. Living so close to the city, we've often popped up there for ballgames or concerts, or just to spend a day or two in different surroundings. But we generally make it a point not to travel like tourists, preferring to ferret out the spots where locals go, the neighborhoods where people actually live. So it had been years since we'd done any of the typical tourist things that visitors to Seattle often do.
We booked a hotel near the Seattle Center, visiting every tourist attraction we had time and energy for. I'd forgotten what a vibrant and fun city Seattle is for travelers, and how much history and knowledge there was for my kids -- and me! -- to soak up.
Our Tourism Experiment got me thinking, though, about how donors experience their interactions with the organizations they support.
Are they tourists, visiting the highlights on your website, giving to the flashiest campaigns?
Or are they travelers, enjoying the chance to feel like insiders in your cause, proud to support efforts that might not be popular, but are just as deserving?
And when was the last time YOU acted as a tourist to your own cause?
As we head into the last rush of year-end madness, it might be a good time to take a fresh look at how your donors experience your organization…and how you experience the organizations you support.
- Log onto your website -- or another organization's -- with a specific question and see how long it takes to find the answer.
- Try giving a gift over the phone.
- Ask a friend to read your newsletter and report what stands out to her -- without coaching!
- Browse through a few old blog posts and see how long it takes you to read them -- and what you retain.
- Respond to one piece of direct mail, taking time to note how easy or difficult it is to follow the instructions. Track how long it takes to receive an acknowledgement.
How does this Tourist Experiment make you feel? Excited about the cause you're touring? Or exhausted and ready to curl up in your generic hotel room?
There is room in most organizations for both Tourists and Travelers, and the most successful organizations are adept at catering to both. And the easiest way to figure out how well you're doing is to take a tour yourself.
Earlier this year, my friend and colleague Amy Blake posted a fantastic musing about storytelling and her concern that it has evolved (or devolved) from a valuable tool in the fundraiser's toolbox to a meaningless buzzword-du-jour. As I've made my year-end rounds, I've noticed that it's not just storytelling that's getting the magic bullet treatment. As I've mentioned before, right now is a fantastic time to be a fundraiser. There's so much information out there. But be careful when you're implementing all that free advice because there are nuances to using story-telling, donor-centricity, compelling emotion and all the other keys to great fundraising. And those nuances could mean the difference between a blockbuster campaign and a dud.
Being donor-centric doesn't mean putting yourself in your donor's shoes.
Because you can't. You know too much, you've taken the red pill (The blue one? I can't remember.), you're in too deep. You're already sold on the issues you care about, and it's really hard to be objective enough to take a step back and understand how those issues appear to your donor.
Instead, try to remember the last time you tried to learn something new. How did it feel to not know anything about a subject? What key pieces of information did you need to help you understand the subject and what was required of you? What kind of encouragement did you need? What spurred you on to learn more?
Even the most devoted donors are not as well versed in your issues as you are. Being donor-centric means understanding what your donor needs -- emotionally and intellectually -- to spur them to give.
Storytelling is not a magic bullet.
I'll tell you a secret: storytelling will not singlehandedly save your fundraising.
Donors do not read stories and automatically open their wallets. In fact, stories without context not only don't help you fundraise, they actively hurt your fundraising efforts. And sometimes, even stories with context don't work in fundraising -- if they're not the stories your donor wants to hear.
One of my clients launched a big storytelling push last year. It bombed. In reviewing what went wrong, we realized we weren't telling the donors the stories they wanted to hear. We were telling them the stories we wanted to tell. The difference cost the organization a lot of money.
Guess what? How your donor helps your cause IS a story. Two lines of copy addressing what's at stake IS a story. And often it's those stories-that-don't-look-like-stories that are the most effective in fundraising.
You need the right kind of emotion.
One of the biggest mistakes I see with organizations is confusing pathos for emotion. I feel sorry for a great many people and sad about a great many situations in this world. But I don't -- I can't -- fix them all. Emotion is no good to a fundraiser if it doesn't move a donor to act.
Anger is a prime motivator to action. Outrage makes us jump out of our chairs and get things done. Positive emotions like hope and gratitude are also super-motivators. Pathos, sympathy and sorrow might push people to act, but they're far more likely to make donors feel overwhelmed or depressed.
One of my favorite things that Tom Ahern says about fundraisers is that it's our job to "deliver joy." There's no joy in a sad story if it doesn't make the donor feel like he or she can do something to alleviate the sadness.
Get that information -- and go deep
The volume of information we have and our almost-instantaneous ability to get it can sometimes encourage a broad but shallow understanding. But our fundraising can be so much more effective if we deepen our knowledge. Track what moves your donors, continue to refine that knowledge through tests, and listen to what your donors say about your organization, your cause, and the other things that interest them.
In the end, it is your donors -- not experts like me! -- who will tell you how best to fundraise.
Many, many nonprofits rely on big events for much of their fundraising. For several months of the year, their staff is engaged in seeking out sponsors, securing locations and donations of food, decorations and other necessities, publicizing the event and working tirelessly to make sure it goes off without a hitch. But from a purely fundraising standpoint, is all this energy well spent?
I've been reading Situations Matter by Sam Sommers, and one of the studies he cited jumped out at me:
In one creative set of studies, researchers instructed participants to visualize themselves in a crowded theater or out to dinner with thirty friends. After answering several unimportant questions...participants moved on to an ostensibly unrelated charity survey.
Having just pictured themselves in a crowd, respondents pledged smaller donations compared to participants who had earlier been instructed to visualize an empty theater or more intimate dinner for two.
The emphasis is, of course, mine. But it seemed important enough to call out on my blog.
Big events can be fun. The wining and dining, the camaraderie and kinship, the fancy clothes and entertaining speeches by luminaries -- all of that can be an intense and excellent bonding experience for your donors. They can also call attention to your cause and engage the public.
But are they really good fundraising?
If the results of that study cited in Sommers' book hold true for your donors, events might actually reduce the amount of money your supporters are willing to give. You know that you'll get more from a one-on-one conversation. But might you also raise more money simply by catching your donors alone at home?
It's definitely worth considering.
I spend a fair amount of time reading interesting articles that people tweet or send me, or that I stumble across on the Internet while procrastinating. And as Amy Blake can attest, I am like the Internet Age version of your elderly Aunt Millie who sends you newspaper clippings from her hometown paper -- I love to share what I read! So here is my Internet Age way of mailing them to you, too! Here are some of the most interesting of the last few weeks:
- In his usual concise way, Seth Godin lists the 3 questions you should ask your marketing team before starting any marketing campaign. Also as usual, it's great and important stuff.
- Jeff Brooks has it right: you can't stop acquiring new donors and expect to thrive. Please read this and share with any nonprofit you know that is neglecting to invest in acquisition!
- Being married to a visual communicator -- he asks me to draw him a picture of our finances whenever I try to talk to him about the budget! -- I am fascinated by this article on the use of storytelling to help create more usable products, programs and aps.
- I'm always interested in creativity and how it works. This fascinating article on the strange and idiosyncratic habits of famous writers doesn't have applicable tips for boosting your own creativity...but it does show that creative people are a little nutsy. And this one about the ten paradoxical traits of creative people made me chuckle. I recognized so many people I know in this list!
- This blog post at Get Storied is a bit long for my taste, but it has some great stuff about how to use story to inspire change, particularly this little gem: "Give people something from which they can find themselves in your story. Sometimes if you share your own personal motivations for change, they may let down their guard a bit. They may listen more. And they might open up to your ideas."
The last Direct Mail Myth I want to bust is the one that is the most true: Premiums always boost response. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, but adding a premium to an acquisition package very often will boost your response rate. And while I have less experience with premiums in house mail, it's certainly true that a well-chosen premium can increase both your average gift and your percent response. But premiums in direct mail come with a host of complex issues, and the truth is they don't always work.
Here are three things to consider when you're looking at premiums:
-- How much do they cost? And I'm not just talking about the cost of the actual premium. What will your costs be to fulfill the premium? If it's an up-front gift -- a magnet, notecards or address labels, say -- will the added weight up your postage, or will the item itself distract from the real purpose of your package, which is, of course, to get a gift? If the premium is something you're sending out once people donate, how much will it cost to mail it to them? Some seemingly cheap premiums have hidden shipping costs that make the item prohibitive.
-- Is the added cost worth it? If you get a boost in response -- either in larger average gifts, or more donors -- you need to do the work to see if that pencils out against the cost of the premium and fulfillment. And how do those donors renew? Are they joining just to get the premium, then dropping like flies? Or are they sticking around, ensuring that the added costs are made up by their years of giving?
-- And most importantly: How does the premium fit with your mission? An environmental organization that sends address labels may acquire more donors, but that extra paper is sending a subtle, unintended message that they may not be quite as green as they claim. On the other hand, an environmental that promises a tote bag is putting their money where their mouth is -- and getting more effective advertising when donors carry the bags in public. Carefully consider what your chosen premium says about your organization: is that a message you want to send to your potential donors?
To me the biggest question to ask yourself about premiums, encompassing all the things I discussed above, is this: Do you want donors who support you because you shower them with gifts, or because they believe in the importance of your mission?
I've worked with many organizations whose development directors desperately wanted to move them toward a more member-supported structure, rather than relying exclusively on grants, foundations or one or two heavy-hitter donors. And one of the biggest stumbling blocks they've faced has been trying to convince reluctant board members and executives that $25 direct mail donors are worth pursuing.
It's one of the most persistent myths of direct mail: that the "small-time" donors will never amount to anything significant for the organization.
Direct Mail Donors Have Hidden Depths
Sure, they may start out giving only $25, but treat your donors right, and they may just grow with you. Many of the largest organizations' major donor lists are made up primarily of people who started out giving small amounts -- people who tested out the organization with a $25 or $50 gift, then gradually gave more as they liked what they saw.
And who hasn't heard a story about a nonprofit receiving a massive bequest from a donor who'd never given more than $30 a year while alive?
When you show your donors you know who they are, you appreciate your support, and you're using their money wisely, they reward you by continuing to give -- and perhaps even increasing their donations.
Direct Mail is a Volume Business
One $25 donor might not ever give you the same amount as one good foundation grant. But many $25 dollar donors will. And not only that, these are the people who can create a groundswell of support for your cause, who will tell their friends and family and neighbors about the good work you do, and who will -- if taken care of properly -- be your most loyal and vocal public advocates.
Of course, that means you must invest in your outreach to these "small-time" donors so you can collect and retain a large enough number of them to support your work.
Embrace Your Smaller Donors -- and Bust Those Myths!
I spend a lot of time reading up on the latest "musts" of direct mail and talking to fundraisers about their programs, and I've noticed quite a few direct mail myths that just won't die. You can read my earlier posts debunking the first two big myths here and here. Today, I want to talk about the third common myth: Direct Mail is too old-fashioned for our donors.
Believe me, I understand where this one is coming from. We all want to think that our donors are different. They're special, more sophisticated than the average donor. They don't need all those underlines and bold and emotional language.
A few years ago, I wrote a letter for an organization run by a very respected, very intelligent scientist. He was widely published in prominent scientific journals and national newspapers and magazines. He was a great writer, and he hated the letter I wrote for them. Ripped it to shreds. He deplored the overly emotional tone and the use of 2nd person point-of-view. He was adamant that his donors would see through such a hackneyed ask and leave the organization in droves.
Naturally, I was upset. I had worked extremely hard getting the complex technical details in the appeal right and melding those with the kind of impassioned, personal plea I know works in direct mail.
The development staff and I sat down and discussed how to proceed, and eventually, we convinced the executive director to test his approach vs. my approach. The results were definitive in my favor.
Now, this guy was a Ph.D. He had a couple of decades of experience in writing about his subject on me. But he didn’t — at that time — know direct mail at all.
He took one look at my appeal letter and saw all the things a good academic writer is trained to avoid like the plague: hyperbole, simplified language, lots of “you”, too much bold and underlines.
But those things work.
Which isn't to say you can't inject some sophistication into your direct mail. Many of my clients routinely fundraise for incredibly complex and technical issues, and they get great results. But they use tried and true direct mail techniques, as well.
Remember, your primary goal is to get your direct mail opened and responded to, so make it easy for people to understand what you want them to do. That means bold important passages, underline key points, bullet your arguments, and include an emotional P.S.
And yes, dome of your donors will be put off by direct mail. It's important to remember that a large percentage of the population is not direct mail-responsive (including me!). Which is why it's critical to have many channels and opportunities for your donors to give.
Next week, I'll bust Myth #4 -- so stay tuned!
Continuing my post from last week talking about 5 myths of direct mail, today I'm going to talk about a myth I really wish were true for my clients.
I have heard this myth time and again, and I really do want to believe it. Honestly! If this would prove true for even one of my clients, I would be forever grateful because I hate writing teasers.
But time and again, I have urged clients to test this to no avail. The Window Envelope with teaser wins every time -- with both a higher percentage response and a lower investment per donor.
Now, I know other organizations have tested this and found the opposite results, so please, please, please don't take my word for it. Test it for yourself. Because remember, it's not a rule until you test it yourself.
But don't become wed to one way of sending out your packages. Instead, remember the function of the Outer Envelope: to get opened. If it doesn't get opened, you don't get a gift. It's that simple.
So if the personal touch -- a closed envelope, the signer's name in the cornercard, maybe even a handwritten font for the donor's name and address -- is getting your direct mail opened, then keep using it.
But if your response rates aren't what you'd like, try mailing a Window Outer Envelope with a teaser. But make it a good one. A great teaser can do a lot of heavy-lifting by setting up your letter -- and your ask -- all in a handful of well-chosen words.
Your teaser and envelope graphics can also do double-duty by drawing donors' attention to their own names. We're all self-centered creatures, and even the most moving teaser probably won't thrill us quite so much as the site of our own names. Many of my clients find that a small teaser above the window that leads the eye to the address block gets their envelopes opened -- and boosts response
As with the first myth, the key to busting Myth #2 is to test, test, test.
Check in next week for more Myth-busting. And until then, leave comments below!
I've written before about the direct mail "rules" people like to toss about. The truth is, every one of these "rules" will fail to garner the response you expect at some point along the way. And accompanying these "rules" are some persistent myths about direct mail.
I often hear versions of these myths when I'm working with a client for the first time. And like most myths, these are stories that have been passed down through the organization so long that people don't even question them anymore.
5 Direct Mail Myths I Hear Again and Again
1. People don't have time to read long letters, so we should keep it to one page.
2. A closed-face Outer Envelope always beats a Window Envelope with a teaser.
3. Direct Mail is too old-fashioned looking/sounding for our donors.
4. Direct Mail only generates "small-time" donors.
5. A Premium always boosts response.
Let's Bust that First Myth
A lot of organizations, especially those starting out in Direct Mail, will listen to board members, staff, or their own guts when it comes to letter length. And that is exactly the wrong approach. Because most of us would say that we'd prefer a short letter that gets straight to the point, but when it comes time to respond to direct mail, we rarely act as we say we will.
That's why most Direct Mail consultants will recommend trying a 4-page letter for most direct mail. It's a pretty standard recommendation, and it comes with a mountain of data behind it. The fact is, even though we say we want shorter letters, for most organizations, longer proves better.
But not all organizations...and maybe not yours.
Direct Mail Fundraising expert Mal Warwick says that a Direct Mail letter should be "as long as it needs to be to make your case for giving." That means that you have to look at why you're writing the letter -- is it an acquisition? A special appeal? A renewal? -- and jot down a list of what you're trying to accomplish with that letter.
Need to squeeze in a story, a couple of asks, a strategy and your history of success on the issue? Then you're probably going to need four pages.
But if you just want to remind your donors why the gave in the first place and of the importance of giving every year to support your work, one or two pages will probably suffice.
But even with those guidelines, you still don't really know how long your letter should be until you test.
Your letters should be exactly as long as your donors tell you they want them. And they tell you not with their words, but with their actions. When you get the most donors to respond to your letters, you'll know your letters are the right length, whether their two, four, six or some other number of pages.
Questions about letter length? Post them in the comment section. And be sure to check in next week as I bust Myth #2!
One of the most valuable lessons of my professional life was first delivered to me in my high school improv class: Always Say Yes. If you've ever taken an improv class -- or read the chapter in Tina Fey's memoir that talks about her application of "Always Say Yes" into her own work life -- then you know that this rule is designed to keep an improv scene going. Actors are not allowed to say "no" to their scene-mates, or the entire scene dies. As Fey says, "The fun is always on the other side of a yes."
I was reminded of this lesson from my long-ago improv class right out of college, when I worked for someone who routinely demanded the impossible. Very quickly, I realized that as long as I greeted his every new proposal with a "yes," then work moved forward relatively peacefully.
Of course, that didn't mean that his every proposal worked. In fact, many, many times, it fell flat. And eventually, I learned how to avoid his crazier demands by saying "yes"...and then telling him exactly what needed to happen in order to accomplish his request.
To this day, I say "yes" to almost every unreasonable demand that crosses my desk -- not out of a misguided sense of people-pleasing, or a secret masochistic streak. But because I know saying "yes" is the quickest way to get to the fun, to the part of a project where the words are flowing, the creativity is happening and things are getting done.
I am always taken aback when I work with someone who tells me "no." How can you ever get to the good stuff if you refuse to even try?
Sure, it might not work. I've pitched many an idea that did not work -- either because they were under-developed, or because I didn't understand something crucial about the project, or because they just ultimately weren't doable.
But those failed efforts almost always led me to successes. And, perhaps more importantly, they taught me to take a joy in my work that I could never have found if I'd let myself say "no."