National Charity Mailings Work Around Suppressed ZIPS

October 15, 2005       Paul Clolery      

Nonprofit mailers are still working through their plans for holiday mailing in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. For charities in the affected areas, fundraising has come to a halt.

For example, all of its direct mail fundraising is on hold for The National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, said Paul Martin, a vice president at Atlantic List in Arlington, Va. Atlantic works with the museum on its mail program.

“The people (staff) got out with the original evacuation. A big mailing is temporarily postponed until they see what’s happening with the building,” said Martin. The museum was scheduled to drop between 1.5 and 2 million pieces of mail nationally, he said.

The museum’s Web site contains a message that all events are cancelled until further notice and that, “We know that education, culture, and tourism have crucial importance to the rebuilding of New Orleans . Therefore, we intend to reopen our museum to the public as soon as it is safe and feasible to do so. We are relieved to report that the losses to our facility and collections were limited, but the restoration will require much work … Please check this Web site regularly for news of the museum.”

There are two schools of thought working, mail and don’t mail. Obviously, mailing into areas where the United States Postal Service has halted delivery was cancelled. But with the holiday mail almost ready to go, a decision has to be made. The decision is often being made region-by-region, mailer-by-mailer.

“We’ve divided it into a couple of areas. First is national clients that are helping the victims. We’ve ramped up immediately and are doing a fair amount of fundraising support for them. We are doing new letters but we are also looking at newspaper advertising, radio, TV, phone calls,” said Thomas A. Harrison, president and chief executive officer of Russ Reid Company, Pasadena , Calif.

“We’ve got local clients in the affected areas. In those cases we are delaying mail, both acquisition and cultivation, because we don’t want to find ourselves asking people who just lost everything to help,” he said. “Then, we’ve got clients that are unrelated to the disaster that happen to the national clients that would have been doing mail all over the country, including into that area. In those cases we are delaying the mail that would have gone into the affected areas, but we are not delaying the rest of the mail.”

National programs will not be hurt as much as local and regional fundraising, according to Larry May, president of Direct Media and May Development Group in Greenwich, Conn. “For the national mailers, the affected ZIP codes that are currently undeliverable seem to represent one percent or less of their donor base. So the impact financially for them from these donors is fairly minimal,” said May. “The story would be far more serious if you were a local New Orleans charity or the Louisiana / Mississippi / Alabama chapter of a national charity. That’s a more challenging episode than it would be for a national mailer,” said May.

“I’ve been telling people not to stop mailing,” to the donor file, said May. “Acquisition is more dicey. Would you send an acquisition piece to someone in Louisiana to help a charity that works nationally or may be based far away when that person might well be only interested in giving to the local community? I, personally, still say ‘yes.’”

The fear of not making the fundraising numbers after a major tragedy is unfounded, according to data from the Center on Philanthropy in Indianapolis . The center’s study shows fundraising always increases in the years after ––a major event.

“We’ve been though so many of these things in my career. The first one I remember was the big Ethiopian famine. Everyone since then is convinced when these thing occur people will stop giving to the charities that they commonly give to,” said May. “I’ve never seen that occur. If anything, when there’s an outpouring like there was for the tsunami, people give to the immediate need but they don’t stop giving to a charity they care about.”

Something to consider is how members and lapsed donors are treated. “If you’re unable to reach a percentage of donors because you can’t get mail to them, or even if you do get mail to them and they are distracted by other issues and are not responding to you, do you develop a more open attitude to when they become a lapsed donor and get less frequent communication,” May asked rhetorically. He suggested extending memberships by six months in affected areas. “If I were the mailer and could find a way to do that, I would do it,” he said.

Another issue is changing copy of the fall mail. It appears to be cutting both ways. For example, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis will make a reference while the American Heart Association (AHA) in Dallas will not change copy.

“We do not have plans to change our copy for the fall mailings at this time. Past results have shown that including an additional insert talking about a will be re-evaluated after results are in from the fall mailings,” said Sherry Minton, director, direct response, of the AHA.

Less than one percent of AHA’s donor file is in the suppressed ZIP areas, she said. But for St. Jude’s, roughly 6.5 percent of direct marketing income is derived from Louisiana, according to John P. Moses, chief executive officer of ALSAC/St. Jude’s. That 6.5 percent comes from just three percent of the hospital’s donor file, Moses said.

The hospital doesn’t have a choice but to make reference to the disaster in its mail. “We do not want to use it as a marketing tool. That is a difficult messaging issue. I think we have to let our donors know what we are doing. It’s their money we are using,” said Moses. “They should also know it’s not a time for charities to be competing. It’s a time to take care of the people who have been the victims of a disaster.”

St. Jude’s took in children with cancer from the affected areas and worked through an affiliate network to place additional children so treatment would not be interrupted, he said.

Mailing most likely will be stepped up in areas that are not directly affected, said both Moses and Minton. “We may increase acquisition in other areas of the Southeast, however, that decision will be made prior to our beginning of the calendar year mailings,” said Minton. “Depending if any negative impact is realized, AHA will address this shortfall in additional mailings and the changing of text in our appeals.”

Charities are reaching out to other groups and victims. The AHA, American Cancer Society and American Diabetes Association are jointly contributing $1 million to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund to help get hospitals, healthcare systems and the patient support services in the devastated areas up and running again. The Muscular Dystrophy Association donated $1 million of its Labor Day Telethon proceeds to Katrina relief.

That doesn’t make sense to some charities officials. “If I’m a donor to Muscular Dystrophy, I’d be pretty upset if they gave my money to another charity,” said one direct marketing official.

To mail or not to mail was a decision that charities had to make when terrorists attacked on September 11, 2001 . There were lessons learned from those decisions. The decision to mail proved effective for many charities, even in areas that were attacked.

“When 9/11 occurred a couple miles down the river from my house, I gave money to the New York police and the New York firefighters,” said May. “I still gave money to my church and my kids’ schools and to lots of charities I give money to.”

Katrina is different than the terror attacks, according to Harrison . “I think that they are really different. The issue on 9/11 is different because there were a few thousand people who were killed in that tragedy and New York was traumatized by it. But in this case, you have whole areas that are completely wiped out and unemployed. You can’t get the mail through, Even if you could get it through people aren’t there to receive it,” said Harrison .

“One thing we did learn from 9/11 and from other crises is that we immediately pulled TV and radio acquisition off the air from the affected areas because we thought people were going to be watching news about the flood and the hurricane and they are not going to be responding to the causes that are not related,” said Harrison.

He’s telling clients to mail the rest of the country. “We are not afraid that people aren’t going to respond. We think in this area we have to be a bit more sensitive.”