When I’m asked how high-dollar direct mail differs from garden-variety direct mail, I’m always tempted to say “in every possible way.” But it’s more accurate to say that there are four distinct dimensions in which the two approaches diverge: (1) in who the letters are sent to; (2) in the case for giving; (3) in the packaging; and (4) in the follow-up. Let’s take a look at each of those four dimensions in turn.
• The list of prospects or donors must be painstakingly chosen.
Time for a pop quiz.
Which of the following would you include in an invitation to join a $1,000-a-year annual giving society? (Select any that apply.)
A) Donors who have contributed one or more individual gifts of $250 – 999 during the past three years.
B) Donors who have contributed two or more individual gifts of $100 – 999 during the past three years.
C) Donors who contributed $1,000 – 4,999 at some time in the past but have not given during the past year.
If you selected (A), (B), and (C), go to the head of the class. Your answer might not make everyone happy, but you’re clearly on the right track.
Some people would question whether donors of as little as $100 should be included in mailings that might cost $5 or more per piece. Others might contest the inclusion of any donor who has ever given more than $1,000 in a mailing that asks for only that amount (which is something I would only do with lapsed $1,000+ donors.) But I’ve produced strong results using all three criteria. If you doubt that, take another look at the results reported at the beginning of Chapter 1.
Ideally, grouping all these segments together, you’ll muster a list of at least 1,000 high-dollar giving club prospects. With one thousand – or, better yet, several thousand – you’ll gain enough economies of scale in production to keep the unit cost somewhere within the bounds of acceptance.
The temptation will probably be strong to drive the unit cost even lower by including a number of prospective donors in the appeal. But this would be a mistake. An offer tailored to high-dollar donors is likely to be ineffective with donors who habitually give less than $100.
• The case for giving must be compelling and tailored to high-dollar donors.
In direct mail, the case for giving is built around an “offer” – a marketing concept that conveys how much money the signer wants the reader to send and what the gift will accomplish. Most traditional direct mail fundraising offers fall into one or another of the following four types:
A) “Send $25 now, and we’ll save the life of this [select one: child, small furry animal, adorable major mammal, starving person, natural wonder].”
B) “With your $25 contribution, we can continue the great progress we’ve made in the fight [for/against] [fill-in-the-blank].”
C) “Your $25 gift will remove the object of your [select one: fear, guilt, shame, doubt, etc.].”
D) “If you send us $25, we’ll guarantee that [the ideal you hold most dearly] is kept alive in the hearts and minds of humankind.”
Now, for just a moment, step out of your fundraiser’s skin and apply the B.S. test to these four propositions. Could you stand face-to-face with anyone over the age of six and say any of these things with a straight face? And do you think for even one second that any serious person would respond to an appeal of this sort if you asked for $1,000 instead of $25?
I’m going to assume your answers to those questions are the same as mine, okay? Let’s move on, then.
With a little bit of careful thought, we can imagine what sorts of offers might be taken more seriously. This line of thinking will lead us into an examination of donor motivation – the real reasons people respond to fundraising appeals.
Traditionalists in the field of direct marketing speak about five “hot buttons” or “triggers” that explain donor motivation (just as they allegedly explain buyers’ behavior): fear, guilt, greed, exclusivity, and anger.
These base emotions lie at the heart of the offers that dominate direct mail fundraising today, as you can easily deduce through a quick re-reading of the four stereotypical approaches I listed above.
To some degree, one or another of these five emotions is probably associated with almost any offer we might imagine. But I regard this approach as simplistic and misleading.
The human psyche is far more complex than any five-point typology would suggest. And positive emotions can be just as powerful as negative ones.
In fact, marketing research makes clear that religious or spiritual values are among the most compelling drivers of philanthropic behavior – not just in North America, where the research has been most extensive, but all across the globe.
After all, every major spiritual tradition – Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity – lays great emphasis on sharing and generosity. Philanthropy is universal, though it may take different forms from one culture to another. Surely, the universality of giving behavior alone suggests that positive emotions must play a role in fundraising!
In fact, I believe there are five positive triggers that just as often play key roles in motivating donors to give: hope, love, faith, duty, and compassion.
• The appeal must be packaged in a truly engaging way.
Which of the following methods do you use to sort the mail when you return from a vacation or a business trip?
1) Immediately discard anything that’s not personally addressed to you.
2) Set aside anything that looks interesting or important and toss out the rest.
3) Put all first-class mail in one stack and “junk mail” in another (to be glanced at casually if you have the time and the inclination sometime later).
4) Separate the mail into four piles: bills, personal mail (if any), solicitations, and commercial advertising matter.
No matter which approach you (or your high-dollar prospects) might follow, your high-dollar package needs to stand out enough to be selected in to the pile that actually gets read. It must appear to be personally addressed. It must have an air of importance about it. And it must bear first-class postage (preferably live postage stamps).
Forget the trappings of standard direct mail: the lurid teasers, the bulk rate postage, the raggedy ink-jet addressing systems, the barcodes, the window envelopes, the cheap 50-pound paper stock. High-dollar direct mail packages must avoid the look and feel of junk mail at all costs. They must be distinctive.
As a practical matter, this will usually mean that your package must incorporate, among other things, the following elements:
• An oversized envelope;
• First-class postage stamps that are hand-affixed and include at least one colorful commemorative;
• Addressing that appears to have been done by a human being;
• High-quality paper stock for all package contents.
• Personalization on both the letter and the reply device to match that on the carrier; and
• A reply envelope bearing a first-class stamp (or no postage at all) – but not a Business Reply Envelope.
Ready now? Do you have all your ducks lined up in a row: targeting, messaging, and packaging? Terrific! Now the real work begins.
• You must follow up – and follow through!
It won’t take more than a few seconds’ reflection to realize that a high-dollar mailing of the sort I’ve been describing would be only marginally useful as a one-shot proposition.
Oh, sure, you might be able to upgrade a significant number of your donors and realize a substantial profit. Chances are, you’d receive phone calls and letters from a few of your donors, perhaps including members of your board, who are impressed with the letters you’ve sent. (If you do your job well, you’re bound to receive such comments from people who’ve always detested direct mail.)
But if you merely send out a simple high-dollar mailing once every year or so, you’ll be squandering the true value of high-dollar direct mail fundraising. Keep in mind that, from a strategic perspective, high-dollar direct mail is a way for you to bridge the gap between the small-donor world and the realm of major gifts.
Functionally, high-dollar mail needs to serve as a communications platform to upgrade the most promising candidates from your small-donor program to a level of giving that’s high enough to warrant attention from major gifts staff and volunteers. That requires a continuing program – a fundraising track of its own, really.
And like any well-managed fundraising track – membership, major gifts, legacies, whatever – a high-dollar fundraising program consists of at least the following elements:
• Gift acknowledgments;
• Cultivation, education, and reporting;
• Annual renewal efforts; and
• Special appeals.
Every one of these efforts must be conceived and managed with a view toward the special needs, preferences, and circumstances of high-dollar donors. For example, it’s a mistake to include such donors in a standard annual renewal series or in traditional special appeals – even if the immediate result might well be to turn a substantial profit. Keep your eye on the long haul, and your rewards over time will be even greater.
Mal Warwick is the founder and chairman of Mal Warwick | Donordigital (www.malwarwick.com, Berkeley, CA, and Washington, DC), a fundraising agency specializing in integrated, multi-channel fundraising and marketing that has served nonprofit organizations nationwide since 1979. The agency has served many of America’s biggest and most-loved causes and institutions. Currently, Mal is an entrepreneur and impact investor who reviews books on his blog, www.malwarwickonbooks.com. He is one of three partners in the One World Play Project, which has distributed more than 1.5 million virtually indestructible soccer balls that never go flat to disadvantaged children in 175 countries.