Did you get at least 2 good ideas to pursue from this list?
Which one was most helpful? Do you have any tips for my readers struggling to make their direct mail copy fresh?
Comments and questions are, as always, welcomed and encouraged!
Best of luck in your copywriting! Cheers,
PS – I TOLD YOU EVERYONE READS THE PS! If you liked this post, you might also like these:
PPS - If you found this article helpful, please comment and let me know. Also subscribe to Real Deal Fundraising so you don't miss a post! You'll get my guide to Call Center Games for Free!
We like choices, right? At any given coffee shop, you get to be king (or queen) of the world for a moment as you decide whether you want coffee or tea, what size, what type of roast, caffeinated or decaf, and more.
Malcolm Gladwell in his TED talk on “Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce” confirms the link between customization and happiness. We are happier when the market provides us with “horizontally segmented” choices: like dozens of varieties of spaghetti sauce: spicy, chunky, thin, with cheese, etc.
Clearly, we should be providing the same buffet of options for our donors, right?
Long drop down lists of designations on our website? Eight different ask amounts on our direct mail reply cards? Won’t this make our donors happy?
I would argue that it will not make them happy. And on top of that it will hurt results for our mission.
Here’s the difference between endless varieties of spaghetti sauce and giving: The donor sees you and your fundraising materials as ambassadors to the mission of the organization. Donors are looking to staff to inform them of the needs of the institution and its priorities.
If you provide so many choices (in both ask amount options and designations) the message the donor receives (consciously or not) is that it does not matter how much I give or what I give to, therefore it does not matter THAT I give at all.
Having umpteen varieties of spaghetti sauce does not communicate a subtext that spaghetti sauce is unimportant. But, by giving an overabundance of options to donors, we unfortunately communicate that our missions are not important.
Let me restate this to make it clear: If you present a range of ask amounts options that too wide and varied, the donor will feel no urgency to act because he or she has no guidance as to how much the organization needs at this time.
If you present a list of designations that is too long, it communicates that the organization does not have a clear set of priorities.
Furthermore, if you do not do the legwork to write a customized letter with a targeted appeal for one designation with tailored ask amounts, the donor learns that you do not KNOW them and therefore you don’t value their contributions.
If you’ll take any amount for any fund, why bother giving any amount for any of your funds.
Here’s an example of the reply cards sent out the year before I arrived at one of the previous institutions I worked for:
Too many choices of ask amounts. Also, the choices were static not variable text ask levels (meaning all the donors got the same list of choices). The $1,000 starting ask was just high enough to scare away modest donors and low enough to insult those with high capacity. This mailing should have been a breakout success since it was a centennial mailer. As it was, the results were less than lackluster.
Also, all of those designation choices make it seem like the college didn’t care where you gave just that you gave something. This is true for many colleges and universities who are focused on improving alumni participation rates. (For the record, there is nothing wrong with this as a pitch. The problem is most organizations operate on that assumption without informing donors that what you need is participation. Be clear.)
However, if what you want is to guide the donor to increase their commitment to the institution, a broad swath of designations won’t work. They want to know that you know their priorities and the priorities of the institution. Match those with a clear case for giving and they will send in checks.
See, if you really listen to Gladwell's TED Talk, you would see that Howard Moskowitz (the guy who "discovered" horizontal segmentation and thereby is responsible for dozens of varieties of spaghetti sauce) didn't exactly advocate for countless choices. (In other writings, Gladwell discusses analysis paralysis, a condition where too many choices makes deciding impossible.)
Moskowitz saw in his research that people's preferences "clustered" around 3-4 varieties of spaghetti sauce.
There is a happy medium between no choice and too many choices. It's Goldilocks. Not too many choices, not too few. I call this the principle of limited choices.
Knowing this, here’s how I modified the reply cards during my first year at this institution.
Don’t you feel calmer looking at this card? As a donor, you still have choice available but you understand clearly the hierarchy of the university’s priorities and a sense of the level of gifts that the institution wants to receive.
Behind the scenes in the production of these letters, there is a segmentation strategy at work which customizes the letter content and ask amounts to the donor, but what the donor feels is clarity.
Upon implementing this more streamlined system, the average gift given through direct mail went from $118 to $149 and the response rates increased from 0.36% to 0.85%. (This was a large state school with lots of non-donors.) The mailings garnered over $41,000 more than the centennial mailer sent the previous year. The principle of limited choices, combined with smart segmentation is powerful stuff.
Confused donors don’t write checks. Give them a well-constructed ask and a little direction and you’ll do much better. Don’t spoil your donors for choice.
How many ask amounts do you offer in your solicitations? How many designations do you promote as choices? Comments and questions are, as always, welcomed and encouraged!
PS - If you liked this post, you might also like these:
PPS - If you found this article helpful, please comment and let me know. Also subscribe to Real Deal Fundraising so you don't miss a post! You'll get my guide to Call Center Games for Free!
ast week, I argued that predictive modeling is not as intimidating as it sounds. In fact, you don't need a consultant to build your models and you are the best person to do it.
You are the best person to build your projections for a couple of reasons: 1) You do/should have the most knowledge about how your program has historically performed and your strategies going forward. 2) You will be the person working with those projections throughout the fundraising year as living documents to guide your path to optimum performance. To work best with the predictive model, you should build it and understand it from the ground up.
A great report (if you can easily get it) is a projections versus actual report that shows you segment-by-segment, side-by-side, where you thought you would be and where you are currently. But if you can't get a report like this designed, no worries. You can easily have your projections (your predictive model) in one hand and your up-to-date actual results in another.
You should do a P v. A (Projections versus Actual) analysis at least quarterly but ideally monthly. My recommendation would be to work up to more frequent analysis if you aren't currently doing it, as it can be overwhelming and time-consuming in the beginning. The benefits are abundant, though, as I will articulate.
Here's how this works on the segment level: I'll use phonathon segments as an example, but this could be anything (direct mail, email, leadership giving, etc.) Say you are getting close to finished with the College of Business but it doesn’t look like you are going to reach your total dollars. You can now use your projections to pinpoint where the downturn occurred and proposed pointed solutions. (See charts above.)
You notice that you are very close to finished (completion rate) and therefore you aren't going to have that many more calls in order to make up lost ground. The next thing that pops out to you is that contact rate didn't perform to expectations. This signals one major thing: lack of data integrity. Lastly, the participation rate for this group is much lower than projected. You have isolated the two major issues with the College of Business results thus far. If you never had the projections, your report to the Dean of the College of Business would probably simply be, "I'm sorry but we are going to fall short this year." Or worse, you might feel the need to follow that up with a bunch of speculations and excuses.
Instead, you are armed with information and can break bad news with prepared data-driven solutions. So, a conversation with the Dean of the College of Business might go like this: “It appears that we may fall about $2,000 short of our goal for your college. This is due in part to our contact rate being lower than expected for the college overall and a slightly lower participation rate than we hoped for in the future donors. So, I would recommend that we send out a 'where are you?' email to try and get updated phone numbers for all of your graduates and we may lower the ask amounts for the future donors to help improve acquisition for this group.”
This works the same way with your higher-ups. You will be able to show which metrics and schools are under-performing and explain the statistics rather than provide anecdotes or excuses.
It works the exact same way if your results are amazing! You are able to report on where and how you beat the goal and therefore where the areas of opportunity are for the future. This perspective can change the course of your career because you will become the most trusted person in your organization. You are informed, realistic, and have solutions and analysis galore!
Try this with your next project. Let me know how it goes.
“Predictive Modeling” sounds intimidating, right? It sounds technical and complicated. You probably think you should hire a consultant to help you create a predictive model for your organization.
Well, let’s all agree together to take the bite out of this phrase. I like Wikipedia’s uncomplicated definition of predictive modeling as a system that “uses statistics to predict outcomes”.
Creating a predictive model is merely using statistical educated guesses to build projections and then work with those projections dynamically throughout the year. Projections is a version (model) of what you think will happen in your program this year (predictive).
I’ll discuss here how to build you’re your projections and next week, I’ll post about how to work with your model dynamically throughout the year as the actual results impact your ability (for good or for ill) to reach the projected goal.
For this exercise, you will need:
You’ll building each segment into your spreadsheet like you’re building a house: brick by brick, cell by cell. This takes a long time but it is the essence of predictive modeling. It must be detailed to be relevant. Once done, you’ll have a powerful tool for the entire year.
So, let’s take an example or two (see the chart above): Let’s say you want to know how your fall direct mail will likely perform. You estimate from past results and database reports that you have 1,156 lybunts (last year's donors) and 567 sybunts (donors who gave 3-5 years ago) to send a letter to this fall. Looking at past years, you see that your response rate has been between 8-10% for lybunts and 4-7% for sybunts. You feel like playing it safe so you put in the low-end values.
Using formulas (see my video on that topic here), the information you have put in so far tells you that you can expect 92 gifts from the lybunts and 24 from the sybunts. Based on past reports and your best guesses, you put in $135 for a lybunt average gift and $87 for sybunts. This makes your likely total dollars $12,484 from the lybunts and $2,096 from the sybunts.
Now, assuming those were your only two segments for fall direct mail, you can then total up the letters, gifts and dollars and you know what to expect. Your models might include just one vehicle (direct mail, phonathon, email solicitations, etc.) or it might include everything your shop plans to bring in. Your model might have hundreds of segments or be exceedingly simple. The point is not to be baroque but specific enough to be valid predictions of results.
This method is powerful because you’ll be able to see immediately which segments have a negative return on investment and can decide actively whether they merit sending the letters anyway to acquire the donors. You will also know exactly where you fall short if results don’t live up to these expectations, which enables you to course correct in future projections and change strategy for the rest of the year. I’ll show you how to do this in next Wednesday’s post – “Demystifying Predictive Modeling, Part 2”.
Don't ever be intimidated about predictive modeling again. In fact, because of your knowledge of your program, you are the best person to build and adapt your predictive models. You can do this!
I'm on record defending both phonathon and direct mail as useful vehicles for fundraising. So out of fairness, I thought I owed my readers a post where I asked the question, "When is it time to throw out a medium?"
To figure this out, I first needed to consider a communication technology that is no longer relevant for fundraising marketing. So, please consider for this example, the telegraph.
The telegraph was the first method of instant communication in the world. As such it was tremendously important during its heyday. We now have so many methods of instantaneous communication today that we can't fully appreciate what a marvel it was at the time.
Still today, if we need instant communication, telegraph isn’t our only option. Email, social media, text messages, do the same thing as the telegraph but they do it with significant advantages. For instance, telegrams don’t contain visual content and they require a translator for the Morse code. Technology has far outpaced the telegraph as a medium for public relations, communication and fundraising.
The reason we still use the telephone and direct mail for fundraising is because they still maintain significant advantages over other vehicles, despite the proliferation of those alternate vehicles. As I have stated elsewhere, phone calls are active asking, two-way personalized communication. Yesterday, I laid out exactly what qualities make mailings still relevant.
It’s important that we are continue to be critical of each media we use for our message. We must be good stewards of the budgetary resources we are entrusted with. However, the fact remains that the more valid vehicles we use to ask for money, the more money we will raise overall.
The short answer to this question is “no”.
But, many will miss this because we personally (as marketers) don’t like getting direct mail and probably are cynical in our responses to it. This bias leads us astray from recognizing the particular advantages of this medium. We delude ourselves that email and social media will take the place of this ancient vehicle of communication because we relish the new and the innovative.
The problem is that our donors don’t think like we do. And groups act differently than any one individual in that group thinks.
The United States Postal Service had revenues of $68.8 Billion in 2015 and that number has stayed rather steady since 2009 (after a drop in revenue associated with the economic downtown in 2007-2008).
In 2015, USPS handled 80 Billion pieces of advertising material. Are all of the organizations and businesses sending through the mail kidding themselves? I don’t think so.
A significant portion of that mail is non-profit direct mail. In fact, 91% of nonprofits are using direct mail. Out of those using direct response, 54% saw an increase from 2014 to 2015.
The real answer to the question “Is Direct Mail Dead?” is “No because bottom line: it works!”
The question we should be asking is, “What is direct mail particularly good at? How can we play to those strengths?”
Direct mail has powerful things working in its favor:
Getting a hand written note (especially a thank you note) in the mail is so much more powerful than an email. Part of this is nostalgic and retro but that nostalgia is rooted in the notion that people today don’t take the time to write notes. Mired in our daily lives driven by insta-communication, when you do take the time to send mail, it’s noticed.
Everyone understands what mail is. We all know the conventions of how to fold the letter, address it, use the stamp, how to check the mailbox, etc. New media like text-to-give and various online giving platforms can be baffling, especially to the very elderly. Mail also allows us to form a visual brand that makes the donors feel comfortable giving because they feel they know that organization and trust has been built.
With all of the various information breaches these days, many donors feel that writing a check and sending it through the mail is more secure. The USPS is still a trusted entity protected by laws that forbid tampering with the mail. This reassures donors.
Although it is much more difficult to personalize than a phone call, direct mail can be highly informative. You can write a long and detailed letter and include points of pride on the back of the letter. You can include buck slips with more information for very little cost. A donor can, after absorbing your direct mail, feel like they have learned a good deal about your mission and organization.
You can hold a letter in your hand. You can keep it in a file for years. If an angry donor sends a copy of the letter with a complaint written on it to your director, it has much more weight and seriousness than a forwarded email with a complaint. Part of the power of direct mail is the same power as real books and real magazines. People like to hold something in their hands other than mobile phone or kindle.
Writing a fundraising letter is tough. Making it sound original and compelling is even tougher. Sometimes you can become stuck, too afraid of writing something that is stale and boring to get anything done. If this sounds like you, you have DMWB: Direct Mail Writer's Block.
Here's 5 steps you can take in about half an hour to break through your writer's block and get a draft completed ASAP:
Step 1: Understand that some words are better than no words.
The most important thing about fundraising is THAT you ask. Sending some mediocre letters out will generate more money than sending zero perfect letters out. Once you realize this, it is a liberating feeling. Something is better than nothing. So, don't worry so much about it being super-compelling and perfect at this point.
Step 2: Find a white board (preferably a big one)
On the top of this whiteboard, write what you are raising money for. This might be "OPERATING FUNDS" or "SCHOLARSHIPS" or something else.
Now go one level deeper and take that (in just a few words) to what it means for people. How will lives be changed because of raising money for this designation. So, it might say, "Funds to allow more students to study abroad", "more meals for the homeless" or "students able to graduate with less debt".
Next, you need to make a short list of 3-5 possible signatories for your letter. Do this step even when you think you've already decided who will sign it. Sometimes a traditional "dean's letter" or "president's letter" isn't the way to go. The best letters I've ever written were signed by students, the recipients of the support.
Step 3: Generate reasons to give
Add a list of 3 EMOTIONAL reasons that your constituents should want to give and 3 ANALYTICAL reasons that they should give.
You need a mix of both of these. Most people tend toward one or the other. For example, I'm wholly analytical. I like to know things like the percentage of the cost of an education that's covered by tuition. I like to know about challenge grants and alumni giving percentages and whatnot. The data makes a rational argument to my mind and that style is much easier for me to write.
If you are like me, you're not great at coming up with the emotional reasons to give, but an exercise like this forces you to work with both kinds of case making. The emotional reasons usually include a story of a grateful recipient of the support and can include nostalgia for the organization or pride in past work that the donor participated in.
Step 4: Evaluate
Based on what you see on your whiteboard so far, can you take the story or voice of one of those possible signatories and work in several of the analytical AND emotional reasons to give in one letter? (If yes, go to Step 5.)
If no, return to the top of your whiteboard. Do you need to re-address what you’re fundraising for or do you need signatories with more authority or better personal stories?
Step 5: Write without self-censoring
At this point in the process, you have a focus for your pitch (your designation), a signatory, emotional reasons to give, and analytical reasons to give. Now, get out of your own way and WRITE, without self-censoring. Don't judge. Just get enough text down in written form. Later, with the magic of cut and paste, you can remove, move and juggle all the juicy bits of language. But you can't get to that point until you generate all the phrases and sentences. Don't forget to think about customizing the language for your different segments along the way.
This is the best method I've used for snapping out of a direct mail writer's block: get your psychology straight, focus on what you are raising money for, the reasons to give and how that matches with who should sign the letter. Then get out of your own way and get it all down in words.
Happy writing! If you try this, let me know how it works out for you.
When your team is working on your strategic plan, you’ll find that sometimes you will have a hard time imagining what environment you will be working in beyond 2 years or so. Here are two things you can truly be certain of: 1) If you don’t do anything different, things will not get better. 2) There will inevitably be a change in circumstance that you will not have been able to predict. Things will change in ways you don’t expect.
Strategic planning should mostly be about things you can control. Actions you will take in order to increase revenue for your organization’s mission. But, an amazing strategic plan takes into account the unexpected.
For instance, there is for most areas of the country, natural disasters of one kind or another that are likely to occur at some point. Where I live, it’s hurricanes and tornadoes. At the seminary I work for in California, it is earthquakes. Floods and fire can happen anywhere. Your strategic plan should think through how your organization will handle these kinds of emergencies.
On the first level, there is preparedness. Do you back-up files regularly? Every employee should regularly back up key files on a thumb drive and those should be collected and kept at an off-site location (perhaps the CEO’s home). Your staff should regularly review emergency plans at staff meetings (once or twice per year) including contingencies for fire, tornado and active shooter incidents. This should also be part of any new employees’ orientation process. For instance, in every office at the seminary I work for, there is a 5 gallon bucket filled with earthquake supplies and the protocols are reviewed regularly with staff. The school estimates that it could take care of 100 people for up to 3 days if necessary.
But, your fundraising strategic plan should go to another level with this preparedness. You should plan for how your staff will coordinate a response in the event of such a crisis and, if necessary, how you will mobilize quickly to maximize fundraising. Your constituents will want to help immediately if a disaster affects your organization.
I got experience with this first-hand at The University of Southern Mississippi, when a tornado sliced through our campus in 2013. We had a website and a new emergency relief fund ready within hours, and a huge direct mail campaign within 2 weeks (which was record breaking). We blocked affected zip codes from phonathon calling immediately. Luckily, our phonathon was off-campus so we didn't have to stop calling entirely. Within about 2 months, we coordinated our first “Day of Giving” campaign to raise funds to replace over 70 lost trees and restore the beautiful landscaping. Was it grueling and sad to see our campus and community so damaged? Yes. Was this campaign a tremendous success that helped the school recover, including funds given directly to affected employees? Yes.
Who will be responsible for the different elements (data, web, social media, etc.)? What if those employees are affected by the same disaster? How will you cross-train employees so that you have back-ups for all functions in an emergency? How might you continue phone fundraising if your student callers aren't allowed on campus or have been affected by the disaster? What are the public relations elements you must think through? It is likely that your CEO will be too busy to provide intense direction in this kind of a situation, so review how protocol will be modified now. Think through these things now and train your staff to think this way. If the unexpected happens, you will be glad you did.
In 1999, I saw a blurb on the Honors College listserv advertising for job in the call center. I thought, “Hey, I can talk to people. Why not?” (Little did I know that I would still be writing about phonathon and doing fundraising some 17 years later.) I interviewed and was hired. I arrived excited but a bit nervous for my first night on the job.
I entered the room and the manager told me, “Sit behind Julie and watch what she does. When you feel ready, you get on the phone too.” I watched Julie manipulated the automated computer and calling system and listened to her phone calls. “Do you have a script or checklist?” I asked. “Not really,” she said. “Everyone kind of makes it up as they go along.”
Really, this was my introduction to being a student fundraiser! It’s amazing to me that I stayed. But, I’m stubborn. The manager that hired me left and soon a student supervisor, Becky, graduated took over operations. Becky taught me something very important: Look to best practices in order to improve and grow. She read books about how other call centers operated and visited phonathons at both peer institutions and aspirational schools. And she began to change some things. I became one of Becky’s student supervisors and was helping her implement these positive changes.
She did things that made us feel like Chicken Little. “Instead of giving up immediately after one ask. We are going to ask two times for money,” Becky said. “Oh no! The sky is falling!” the supervisors would cry. But it didn’t. Our participation rate soared.
Becky said, “I am going make it mandatory to ask for a credit card.” “The sky will fall!” we asserted. It didn’t and our credit card giving rate went through the roof.
Time after time, this was the story. Soon, we began to believe her when she made “crazy” suggestions. I had no idea at the time but I was learning the basics of “evidence-based fundraising”: looking at the data to drive your decisions, not anecdotal evidence or your gut feeling. Your gut feeling is fallible.
At the heart of it, evidence-based fundraising is about using the scientific method. Testing things and looking to the numbers to tell the truth of the situation.
Complaints in the call center are one example of this: your boss hears of 3 complaints. To them it seems like a pattern, perhaps the beginning of a crisis. But – you need to put this into context for them. You could have had over 10,000 contacts that year. That means those complaints represent only 0.03% of your interactions with constituents! That’s pretty great. This is evidenced based fundraising at work.
We can all be a bit “Chicken Little” sometimes, so we have to have the discipline of the evidence to fall back on before we make decisions that can keep from our full potential at best, or at worst, can hurt our institutions.
Goal: a personal or organizational desired end
Projection: a calculation of some future thing
These two terms are related but subtly different. Generally speaking, for a healthy organization, the projections drive the goal setting process. However, at some organizations, the goal is a different (and perhaps totally unrelated) number to what you project that you can actually raise.
At some institutions, an unreasonable, unrealistic goal situation may arise from a team leader that doesn't understand the difference between a goal and a projection and they pick an arbitrary figure that sounds good. ("Let's raise 10% more this year than last year", for example.) Or, it may have come about because of real budgetary needs of the institution for unrestricted support.
Creating projections is a tedious process requiring a patient analysis of past performance and building models for future performance. So, if you have a firm goal set before you that you know (or believe) you cannot reach, why should you bother to create elaborate projections?
Here are three important reasons to do projections even if your goal is already set:
1) Projections will help you to pinpoint the shortfall
Setting projections shows you where the program is not performing to expectations and why the goal is not feasible (assuming that's true). It helps you to tell the story to those in management of what is really happening with the fundraising.
2) The process may help you to identify potential areas of opportunity
Projections can show you opportunities that you might have overlooked. You build your projections segment by segment and it is possible that you might have some new segments that you haven't solicited before or that you have a new strategy for. These may help you get closer to your goal.
3) You need the projections to become a lobbyist for your program.
It's illogical to do the same thing every year and expect different results. With a projections spreadsheet, you can show what's possible with more budgetary resources. You can tell the story that with [this much] future investment in the program, [this much] more revenue can result.
Jessica Cloud, CFRE
I've been called the Tasmanian Devil of fundraising and I'm here to talk shop with you.