Going Half Way

April 15, 2009       Michele Donohue      

The Redemptorists of the Denver Province sent an appeal letter strictly for mid-level donors. The appeal was to raise funds to buy a Jeep that would help missionary work in Nigeria. It was the first time the Denver-based organization strategically sent a piece only to mid-level donors. It paid off.

The organization mailed 4,500 donors within its active database of fewer than 20,000. Nearly 600 mid-level donors responded, raising $92,576 with an average gift of $144.

The amount raised was enough for the organization to buy two Jeeps instead of one. “I think everyone was surprised about the level of response, both at the number of people who responded as well as the size of the gift,” said Joseph Roos, development director at the organization.

Organizations have to figure out what mid-level means for their particular organization before targeting this segmented group. For some organizations mid-level donations will be $500 while for others it will be $50. Whatever the gift amount, nonprofits should view mid-level donors as valuable supporters they are – and talk to them that way.

“Mid-level giving is the backbone of most of our clients’ programs and most of the direct marketing industry. And it’s the area where we suggest clients invest more because they will indeed get more out of it,” said Dan Doyle, president and CEO of Mal Warwick Associates, based in Berkeley, Calif.

“[Mid-level donors] essentially provide the largest share of net dollars to most organizations,” said Greg Fox, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Merkle, in Columbia, Md. “They are also great prospects for cultivation, upgrading for planned giving and entire continuum of giving.”

Fox explained that a mid-level donor might not be any more or less committed to the organization than a low-dollar donor. The only difference might be the capacity to give more. “Therefore you have to recognize what a person’s potential is and invest accordingly,” he said.

“There are a lot of different kinds of donors and we want to make sure we talk to them based on who they are,” said Dave Dogan, vice president of client services in the Washington, D.C., office of Mal Warwick Associates. Dogan recommended a “highly personalized, first class treatment” for mid-level donors.

The Student Conservation Association (SCA) allows high school and college students on conservation projects, like restoring national parks and urban green spaces, across the country. The Charlestown, N.H.-based organization has the students send personal, handwritten thank-you letters to mid-level donors at the end of their conservation trip. “The letters are extraordinary because they are very honest and very real about someone’s individual experience,” said Robert Holley, SCA’s vice president for advancement. “The letters are just great because sometimes they will have squished bugs on them or there are words that are misspelled. So, it’s a real, live letter from the field. And our donors love them because this is the reason why they support SCA.”

These mid-level donors contribute $250 to $500 and are considered a sponsor of an SCA member. The letters are sent directly from the SCA member to the sponsor and not filtered through the organization. The organization then asks donors to send copies of the letters they received to the organization to be archived. Holley said these letters – not the direct mail copy or newsletters Ð are what hook mid-level donors. Holley said while lower dollar donors are dropping off and high-end donors are decreasing their average gifts, mid-level sponsorship is holding steady despite the economy.

“I got a letter last week from an elderly gentleman who said given the economic climate, they decided to hold back on their support of SCA this year,” said Holley. The gentleman then received a student’s thank-you letter from his previous sponsorship contribution. “He said ÔAs soon as my wife read the letter, we changed our mind and here’s my contribution,'” according to Holley. “It reminds people we are not just an organization Ð SCA is a group of young people who are doing service work.”

Fox explained that each organization should develop its own acknowledgment strategy and test to see what works. Acknowledgment mailings often have less testing done than other mailings, according to Fox, and it might take various tests to understand if a special acknowledgment approach will yield more gifts for the organization.

One way to tailor acknowledgments is by campaigns, according to Fox. “Especially at that mid-level, if I’m responding to a particular campaign you sent me, then my acknowledgement to my gift should also be specific to that gift,” he said. “It looks more personal than just automated.”

The strategy becomes particularly important if mid-level donors are responding to multiple campaigns. That way, donors are receiving the same acknowledgment letters again and again, he said.

Acknowledgments are “crucial” according to Matt McCabe, vice president of community for Dallas-based technology firm Orange Leap. Organizations that send acknowledgements as an afterthought or simply to send a receipt are missing out on an opportunity to cultivate donors.

McCabe recommended sending a separate, personalized acknowledgment letter with the donor’s receipt. Hopefully donors are looking for that receipt to file away and will be more likely to open that mailing. “It’s a very good place to upgrade because you’re going to have to be mailing them anyway. So why not for a little added cost put an extra letter in there to try to connect with them?” he said.

Fox recommended giving a special acknowledgment telephone call to consistent mid-level donors. McCabe said that to create a personal connection, callers from the organization should “talk about one individual and how their life was changed and how their gift was a apart of that.” If the organization utilizes volunteers to make the calls, the acknowledgment calls could be personal as well as cost-effective.

Organizations should treat the mid-level givers as the valuable donors they are, even if those donors aren’t giving as robustly as they have in the past. “If a client is well positioned now I would say to them continue to invest in these people,” said Doyle. “Even if people who normally would have qualified to be mid-level or high-level donors aren’t quite qualifying now, treat them as the gold club members they’ve always been and when times get better they will return to those levels.”

Doyle explained that mid-level donors should still receive some special treatment, but organizations that must preserve their net income should re-evaluate their acknowledgement strategies and determine what level of investment makes sense.

The investments you ask donors to make in your organization also have to be realistic. “A year ago or two years ago, I wouldn’t have any problem asking a $100 donor to join a $1,000 giving club. You may not necessarily get that $1,000, but your average gift is going to be nice,” said Dogan.

“At this point, we have sat down with our clients and said that at this point getting a $100 donor to give a $1,000 gift might be too aggressive. It might be overreaching. It might turn a donor off. Asking that donor to make a $250 donation is a much easier sell and much easier to do,” he said.

Fox said organizations shouldn’t be afraid to continue to ask within acknowledgements. “I think that everybody who gives a gift to a charity expects to be asked to make a contribution so I don’t think it’s seen as a negative if you continue to put a reply contribution in there,” he said.

“If they have just given to you, asking again, at the very least softy, is highly appropriate because they are with you,” said Dogan. “I think folks understand, at this time, organizations need support, especially people who are good stewards of money. I think it’s highly appropriate to ask again.” NPT