I teach a fundraising overview class at UCLA’s Extension School, and last week was my favorite of the 10-week course: direct mail. But after going over controls, grand controls, bouncebacks, premiums and freemiums, and a wealth of other direct-mail staples, a student asked, “But what about those of us who only have a few hundred on our mailing list? What can we do?”
A great question — and so I dedicate this article to my Thursday night students. And to all you readers with mailing lists that are small today but with your hard work and passion will grow into direct mail at some distant tomorrow.
Yes, you must send out a letter at year-end. People are in a giving mood. They are being asked on the sidewalks, in the mail, in the email inbox, in person and at the mall. If you miss your opportunity to take advantage of the natural inclination to share at the year-end, you do so at your own (and your organization’s) peril. But perhaps even more so than the large nonprofit that is putting thousands (or even millions) of pieces into the mail between now and the end of the year (not even eight weeks away), you need to be super smart to maximize your response. So, here are my “smart tips” for a prosperous year-end.
Smart Tip No. 1
Write a letter that is from your heart and feels very personal — but doesn’t neglect good direct-mail practices. In other words, yes, these are your friends, former classmates, family members and other names you’ve acquired since you began your work. But the vast majority of them are being bombarded by your competition for their limited supply of charitable dollars, and you won’t break through with a timid letter that makes it sound like you’re doing just fine without their help. Instead, tell them what you have done in 2014 (just the highlights), but then say how much more you want to accomplish in 2015 with their support. Ask clearly and boldly. Tell them how much their gifts will matter to you and your organization. If they have never given, urge them to join your growing work by giving a gift today; if they have given, let them know that you used their past support wisely (you did, didn’t you?!) and their gifts today will be invested just as wisely to maximize impact.
Smart Tip No. 2
Don’t be afraid to admit you’re small. “I believe you are committed to our mission, and I assure you, we are working tirelessly to achieve it. But frankly, we are just getting started — and that’s why your most generous gift before December 31 is so important. With your help, we will do even more!” In other words, show them they matter. We all like to feel needed; let them know that you really do need their support.
Smart Tip No. 3
See if a board member, a donor or a group of donors who are close to your organization (or you) will pledge a matching gift. We all love sales, and a promise that “every dollar you give will be matched by another $1 from a generous donor” is the closest we come to a bargain in charitable giving. Since your list is small, a matching pledge of $3,000 or $5,000 may be adequate (depending on the size of your list). Matches are powerful; they lift response and can encourage donors to upgrade (give more than ever before). Beg if you have to, but get a matching gift and offer this magic multiplier in your letter.
Smart Tip No. 4
Don’t overcomplicate things. Yes, sponsorship programs or multiple levels of recognition with various benefits are great — but they can be a disaster if you rush into them without thinking through all the ramifications. If you cobble something together seemingly overnight so you can offer it in your year-end mailing, you are likely to regret it before long. Keep it simple. “We need your support. Give today and help make 2015 the best year ever for the [people/animals/environment/whatever] we work tirelessly to help.” The time for creative giving schemes is when you can carefully think them through before the launch.
Smart Tip No. 5
Ask for referral names and addresses. I generally caution not to mix messages in your appeal, but at year-end, you have a once-a-year opportunity to get the attention of your donors. (Remember, ’tis the season of charitable giving.) On a separate insert, ask them to also share a few names of friends and family who may be interested in learning about your organization and possibly joining your family of supporters in 2015. (Notice it’s not instead of a gift — it’s along with a gift.) Explain what you’ll do with the names to break down the natural barrier of not wanting to subject your closest friends to exploitation. I recommend that you promise to only send them one letter about your work and invite them to support you, state that you won’t add these names to your mailing list unless they respond, and assure your donor/prospect that you won’t mention his or her name in the material you send.
Smart Tip No. 6
Make your letter look like it’s a personal letter from a friend — because it is (or should be). If possible, use a monarch-sized envelope and stationery. Avoid a window envelope at all costs. Use a First Class stamp and preferably a commemorative one (that captures attention and says “personal” far more than a meter or even the ubiquitous flag or nonprofit stamp). Put your name and street address in the return address, not just a corporate name and Post Office box number. Remember, you are writing from your heart, so make sure it looks like a “from the heart” letter, not a mass-produced, impersonal one. You may be preparing the mailing in your office off your desktop printer, so make sure the size and type of paper you choose feed through without a lot of problems, but avoid a white offset No. 10 envelope if you can. At this time of year, a letter screaming “boring” — or worse yet, “junk mail” — doesn’t stand a chance of standing out in the crowded mailbox.
Smart Tip No. 7
Don’t neglect email and social media. Chances are you have a lot of followers, “likes,” email-only contacts and a variety of other people who have a connection with you (even though they haven’t provided their postal addresses). Reduce your letter to a much shorter e-appeal for those for whom you only have an email address and add multiple links to give. Extract some short, punchy lines for social-media posts, and add an “ask.” Tell your followers what you’ve accomplished, then invite them to “take the next step” and become a supporter today. You probably won’t get a massive response, but every person who gives can be cultivated in 2015.
Smart Tip No. 8
Be in the inbox and on the social-media news feed on Giving Tuesday. This is the one day a year when we all get free media urging people to make donations. Sure, it may not be as explicit as, “Make a donation to XYZ organization,” but when your contacts hear about Giving Tuesday, be sure they also see an email or post from you with a link to make a gift. Don’t make people scramble to find your donation page; spoon-feed them the link so when the urge to give happens, you’re front and center for their response.
Yes, your organization is small, your budget is smaller and your available time is the smallest yet. You want to grow so that this time next year, you have more supporters — and more money to accomplish the mission you are passionate about. This old dog knows from experience how hard it is to get it all done when you’re doing the work of two or three (or more). All this makes mailing at year-end even more important. Take a chance … share your heart … ask boldly … and invite your mailing list to be part of your greatest year ever: 2015.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.