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A Real Personal Touch Gets Huge Response

By Mark Hrywna - September 16, 2010

When donors receive an appeal from the El Rio Health Center Foundation, they can be sure that the address on the envelope and the signature at the bottom isn’t generated by a computer, but by a human. Executive Director Brenda Goldsmith makes the point to be personalized with mailings for the Tucson, Ariz.-based foundation.

And, they get a 34 percent response rate.

El Rio usually mails end-of-year and mid-year appeals, along with three or four newsletters throughout the year. “We’re not a huge shop. We’re a community health center,” said Goldsmith, so even their appeal campaigns aren’t that big. She’s convinced that small shops can have success with it, too.

With only 3.5 full-time employees, Goldsmith enlists the help of five to 10 volunteers and board members to address envelopes and sign each letter. “It’s worth a half-day or full-day of time for the ROI financially and for networking and deepening relationships with these groups,” Goldsmith said. “Every handwritten program, it’s just so automated. They (donors) can tell. I know they’re getting better,” she said of spotting automated handwritten letters.

El Rio mails fewer than 700 pieces in its holiday renewal. “If you had a larger quantity mailing, it’s just not possible to pull together a group of volunteers to offer such personalization,” Goldsmith said. The foundation has experienced a significant jump in average gift size and number of gifts.Goldsmith and Laura Alexander, owner of Alexander Associates, credit fundraising consultant Andy Robinson, who Alexander said has recommended the use of personalized notes and mailings.

Goldsmith tried a new strategy of smaller, handwritten mailings for holiday acquisition as opposed to the previous four campaigns that sent anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 pieces. “People think I’m crazy,” she said, but the campaigns had very close to the same return.

Goldsmith said they made the switch to hand-address their holiday renewal appeals in 2005. A response rate of 23 percent (152 gifts out of 657 mailings) netted more than $28,000 the previous year. In 2005, response jumped to 34 percent (202 of 600) and netted more than $51,000, with average fit increasing from $187 to $255.

“Even though we’re moving so much into an electronic age, with e-newsletters, and driving people to the Web, social networking sites like Facebook, I still personally believe a lot of people like getting a handwritten letter,” Goldsmith said.

Alexander said she’s made the recommendation to every organization and they’ve all seen dramatic increases in response rates once they started sending letters First Class with personal notes.

Robinson suggests that the closer the relationship is from the person writing the note to the person getting the note the better, said Alexander, which is why El Rio assigns specific staff and board members to recipients. “It’s better when it comes from within,” she said, from someone who has a better relationship with the donor. Now they use handwritten letters for invitations to their gala and fundraisers as well.

The foundation raised $2.1 million last year. When Goldsmith joined the organization in 2003, it was still only two years old and raised about a half-million dollars annually.

“We’ve chosen in this day and age of automation, to work to stay with customer service and be more personalized. It’s had a significant impact on the very rapid growth we’ve had, both in the number of gifts, the number of donors and dollar amounts,” said Goldsmith.

El Rio serves about 75,000 people at 16 clinic sites in the Tucson area. The health system itself has more than 700 full-time employees and an annual budget of almost $80 million. The center previously had not done much fundraising or branding and marketing of itself until the foundation became operational in 2001, said Goldsmith. While most hospitals have separate marketing departments and foundations, she said El Rio’s foundation has a two-fold function of primarily fundraising but branding and marketing right alongside.

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