Mixed Messages

August 15, 2005       Tom Pope      

Your donor gets a letter to join a special event club, but the donor has just made a serious planned gift and is confused about the special clubs he thought came with the gift program.

Mixed messages can confuse the very person you want to see your organization clearly. Fixing those messages was the heart of the Direct Marketing Fundraisers Association (DMFA) luncheon address in New York City, called“Mixed Messages: Multiple Departments — One Donor.”

Such communication affects your response rate and how long the donor stays with you, according to Karin Kirchoff, vice president of client services for Adams Hussey & Associates Inc., in Washington, D.C. When messages overlap, key officers such as the major gifts person could feel their shoes get stepped on. At the same time, another officer might think he has simply reached out to prospects.

With messages coming Your donor gets a letter to join a special event club, but the donor has just made a serious planned gift and is confused about the special clubs he thought came with the gift program.

Mixed messages can confuse the very person you want to see your organization clearly. Fixing those messages was the heart of the Direct Marketing Fundraisers Association (DMFA) luncheon address in New York City, called“Mixed Messages: Multiple Departments — One Donor.”

Such communication affects your response rate and how long the donor stays with you, according to Karin Kirchoff, vice president of client services for Adams Hussey & Associates Inc., in Washington, D.C. When messages overlap, key officers such as the major gifts person could feel their shoes get stepped on. At the same time, another officer might think he has simply reached out to prospects.

With messages coming from many different av enues such as email, telemarketing, planned giving and direct mail, the potential for confusion expands. In addition, many organizations have grassroots functions or local chapters, making the need for uniform messages crucial.

Kirchoff showed several concepts for nonprofits to talk to donors and develop positive outcomes. “Most of the time the problem just calls for better communication and a dialogue,” she said. The crucial part is how to organize different communication links.”

One case looked at NARAL, which is primarily a 501(c)(4), but also has a 501(c)(3) function with a foundation and a PAC. While the planned giving program is active, sending out newsletters targeted to membership, the organization also maintains a major gift department. “Sometimes the major gift people seemed like they were operating in their own world,” she said.

To complicate matters, NARAL consists of affiliates that operate separately from the national office, although prospecting happens with the national list.

“All were sending out renewal letters, and that could be a recipe for disaster,” she said. “Five years ago the organization was having issues with handling the communication, and it isn’t surprising that some personality conflicts interfered with the coordination of strategy.”

The crisis became obvious during the 2000 election cycle, and staff changes helped to better manage the structure. But more strategy for communication was needed. “We are the primary organization to manage the content work with them,” she said. “So it was easy to help shape a strategy.”

Kirchoff created a matrix with all the contact points of communication. This looked at which type of donor was getting which type of message and at what point. Strategically, the question became how that point on the matrix fit into fundraising.

“At what point is the donor in their renewal cycle?” she asked. “Are they eligible for a PAC ask?”

Once the matrix was created, the design was shared with membership people to help clarify each contact point. The next step was to help the Internet program.

“This was a more significant challenge because the Internet names were not owned by the membership people,” Kirchoff said. “Many times, the Internet is owned by communications people.”

The inherent challenge before beginning the conversation of developing fundraising strategy was to overcome the sense by those who owned the email names that fundraising was a dirty process. “We had to show that fundraising was important for their program,” she said. “For that, we needed better communication between departments.”

Look at the message and what it should be, she explained. “What does the message mean to subscribers,” she asked. NARAL not only increased contact with donors but also increased their long-term value.

NARAL found that a lot of the messages didn’t have to come from the same officer. “An issue that is critical for the organization should come from the president,” she said. “Another message may come from the membership director so the program director’s voice is important.”

Putting together a seamless matrix proved to be less of a challenge as it had appeared, according to Kirchoff. “We used the CFO, who never sent out a text message before,” she said. “That item helped to close the loop during a gift campaign.”

Who is the point of contact becomes a vital question, and the message has to reflect that. NARAL ended up building a successful communications strategy that saw significant growth in programs over a two-year period.

All mailings were coordinated through one department, allowing it to ensure that donors would never receive more than one direct mail piece in eight weeks. “The lesson is not to be afraid of multiple communication points,” she said. “The idea is to make sure program people are involved and to make sure service people do direct service communication with donors.”

Kirchoff gave another example from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a recreational and trade association of aircraft owners and pilots. The organization had many communications points from the Internet, and a biweekly newsletter in addition to regional material.

“They could have 150 different email messages going out in a short time,” she said. “They also offer insurance to members and have a monthly magazine along with a foundation and a PAC.”

However, communication was not all coming out of one department. Further, Kirchoff’s agency didn’t manage the communication for the AOPA. “We found what works well for them is similar to what works for NARAL,” she said.

With different messages from different points, AOPA has a strong brand that was adapted to fit the given message while still maintaining the important icon.

The foundation has a separate brand, but one letter comes from the AOPA president while another comes from the executive director of the foundation. “The brand is adapted to fit the communication,” she said.

One concern came that the renewal message would be confusing if a member was being asked to renew foundation support. “We tested that and not only were they not confused, the fundraising generated was 30 percent higher with people receiving the word of the renewal.”

The key is education. “If the people you’re talking to are not fundraisers, you have to step back and educate them about the fundraising process,” she said. “Bring those folks into the discussion and show what the meaning will be for the donors — you could end up with more valuable donors with multiple communication points.

Several points to remember. Be clear about the message, she explained. Adapt the style to the purpose. A guilt renewal letter might call for no one in particular to sign the message, but in some cases the sender makes a significant difference.

“Learn to share with other departments,” she said. “Communication teams can work to integrate the brand with the message.”

Donors will react. “It is critical for your donor to relate to your organization,” she said. “Make it clear the action you are requesting of them.”

Tom Pope, a New York City-based journalist, writes on management issues.from many different av enues such as email, telemarketing, planned giving and direct mail, the potential for confusion expands. In addition, many organizations have grassroots functions or local chapters, making the need for uniform messages crucial.

Kirchoff showed several concepts for nonprofits to talk to donors and develop positive outcomes. “Most of the time the problem just calls for better communication and a dialogue,” she said. The crucial part is how to organize different communication links.”

One case looked at NARAL, which is primarily a 501(c)(4), but also has a 501(c)(3) function with a foundation and a PAC. While the planned giving program is active, sending out newsletters targeted to membership, the organization also maintains a major gift department. “Sometimes the major gift people seemed like they were operating in their own world,” she said.

To complicate matters, NARAL consists of affiliates that operate separately from the national office, although prospecting happens with the national list.

“All were sending out renewal letters, and that could be a recipe for disaster,” she said. “Five years ago the organization was having issues with handling the communication, and it isn’t surprising that some personality conflicts interfered with the coordination of strategy.”

The crisis became obvious during the 2000 election cycle, and staff changes helped to better manage the structure. But more strategy for communication was needed. “We are the primary organization to manage the content work with them,” she said. “So it was easy to help shape a strategy.”

Kirchoff created a matrix with all the contact points of communication. This looked at which type of donor was getting which type of message and at what point. Strategically, the question became how that point on the matrix fit into fundraising.

“At what point is the donor in their renewal cycle?” she asked. “Are they eligible for a PAC ask?”

Once the matrix was created, the design was shared with membership people to help clarify each contact point. The next step was to help the Internet program.

“This was a more significant challenge because the Internet names were not owned by the membership people,” Kirchoff said. “Many times, the Internet is owned by communications people.”

The inherent challenge before beginning the conversation of developing fundraising strategy was to overcome the sense by those who owned the email names that fundraising was a dirty process. “We had to show that fundraising was important for their program,” she said. “For that, we needed better communication between departments.”

Look at the message and what it should be, she explained. “What does the message mean to subscribers,” she asked. NARAL not only increased contact with donors but also increased their long-term value.

NARAL found that a lot of the messages didn’t have to come from the same officer. “An issue that is critical for the organization should come from the president,” she said. “Another message may come from the membership director so the program director’s voice is important.”

Putting together a seamless matrix proved to be less of a challenge as it had appeared, according to Kirchoff. “We used the CFO, who never sent out a text message before,” she said. “That item helped to close the loop during a gift campaign.”

Who is the point of contact becomes a vital question, and the message has to reflect that. NARAL ended up building a successful communications strategy that saw significant growth in programs over a two-year period.

All mailings were coordinated through one department, allowing it to ensure that donors would never receive more than one direct mail piece in eight weeks. “The lesson is not to be afraid of multiple communication points,” she said. “The idea is to make sure program people are involved and to make sure service people do direct service communication with donors.”

Kirchoff gave another example from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a recreational and trade association of aircraft owners and pilots. The organization had many communications points from the Internet, and a biweekly newsletter in addition to regional material.

“They could have 150 different email messages going out in a short time,” she said. “They also offer insurance to members and have a monthly magazine along with a foundation and a PAC.”

However, communication was not all coming out of one department. Further, Kirchoff’s agency didn’t manage the communication for the AOPA. “We found what works well for them is similar to what works for NARAL,” she said.

With different messages from different points, AOPA has a strong brand that was adapted to fit the given message while still maintaining the important icon.

The foundation has a separate brand, but one letter comes from the AOPA president while another comes from the executive director of the foundation. “The brand is adapted to fit the communication,” she said.

One concern came that the renewal message would be confusing if a member was being asked to renew foundation support. “We tested that and not only were they not confused, the fundraising generated was 30 percent higher with people receiving the word of the renewal.”

The key is education. “If the people you’re talking to are not fundraisers, you have to step back and educate them about the fundraising process,” she said. “Bring those folks into the discussion and show what the meaning will be for the donors — you could end up with more valuable donors with multiple communication points.

Several points to remember. Be clear about the message, she explained. Adapt the style to the purpose. A guilt renewal letter might call for no one in particular to sign the message, but in some cases the sender makes a significant difference.

“Learn to share with other departments,” she said. “Communication teams can work to integrate the brand with the message.”

Donors will react. “It is critical for your donor to relate to your organization,” she said. “Make it clear the action you are requesting of them.”

Tom Pope, a New York City-based journalist, writes on management issues.