Southern Comfort

September 15, 2006       Craig Causer      

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans escaped the most significant lashing that Hurricane Katrina had to offer. While damage caused by the storm was minor, the subsequent looting of its gift and coffee shops shuttered the museum for three months. As a nonprofit that depends on tourism to boost admission receipts, the hurricane cast a dark cloud over the future of the museum’s ability to survive. The museum, also known as the D-Day Museum, counts approximately 85 percent of its members as living outside of the Gulf states area. As a national institution, it was able to reach out to those people in the storm’s aftermath. It did not begin mailing appeals into the hurricane-affected areas until recently, when the United States Postal Service put in place a plan to allow nonprofits to mail at standard rates to the affected areas.

“The first thing we wanted to do is to communicate the status of the museum,” explained Stephen Watson, associate vice president of development at the D-Day Museum. “We did two (national) appeals to specifically inform people as to where we stood and to ask for their support in September and October 2005.”  The organization is not alone. Charities throughout the nation are attempting to find their Gulf Coast donors, some of whom were evacuated to other parts of the nation and have not returned.

The D-Day Museum’s appeals raised operational funds and while Watson declined to discuss the amount raised, he described it as “a very productive mailing where our members really came to our aid at a time where there was no admission revenue or store revenue.”

Within the last few months the museum sent out its first mailing to the affected areas via First Class postage rates. The package included a membership card, valid for one year. The mailing asked for a gift, if possible, and to consider the membership as a way for the museum to express its concern for area residents.

One of the big challenges of mailing to the affected areas was that the Postal Service never saw their change of address system being used the way that it was post-Katrina, Watson said. The change of address system that the museum uses for its house file and in its prospect mailings only takes in permanent moves. There were so many temporary moves or multiple changes of address per person, it really threw the change of address system into a spin for a while, Watson added.

As a resident of New Orleans, Watson saw the importance in resuming the museum’s mailings within what was deemed the affected areas.

“People in the affected areas want to know about the museum, too,” Watson said. “When you talk about the affected area you really have to define that. I live in New Orleans — in Orleans Parish, the city itself — and I did not flood. I am considered in the affected area and I’ve been back at my house since two weeks after the storm. There are tens of thousands of people like me in the affected area. You really have to dig deep and get an understanding of what’s going on down here to get the specifics of neighborhoods and what’s back and what’s not. There are 1.1 million people in the metro New Orleans area living relatively normal lives who to go to museums and get back into a normal routine.”

Returning to a normal mailing routine is another story, as Watson described the museum’s list cleansing as an ongoing process with “no starting or ending point.” The organization will continue to utilize Postal Service tools and reach out to donors to ensure that records are up to date as more people return to the city.

“There are certain ZIP codes you don’t mail into because there’s no one there anymore,” Watson said. “Where there was damage, you’re not going to be mailing into those places for a long time. But there are people who are back, schools and businesses are operational and we’ll continue to mail to those people.” Like the D-Day Museum, The Salvation Army (SA) stopped its fundraising in the region. Following Katrina, SA shelved its Thanksgiving, Christmas and year-end appeals. It wasn’t until this past Easter that the mailings resumed, and even then the organization did not mail into the impacted areas.

“We made a divisional decision not to mail into those areas,” explained Caesar Grantham, associate director of development for SA’s Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi Division, based in Jackson, Miss. “The upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas appeals also will not be mailed directly into the affected areas. We have a new officer who just went into New Orleans in the latter part of June. Prior to that, we were just doing disaster recovery work. Our officers are living and working in the communities. As they communicate with the community and the people start coming back we’ll make the decision when to resume our mailings.”

Many fundraisers believe that the people in New Orleans still have too much on their minds, said Dodee Black, president and chief operating officer at Atlantic List Company in Arlington, Va. “A lot of our national clients are still not mailing into those ZIP code areas,” Black added. “I don’t know how long that will continue and I don’t know if every charity can afford to do that.”

Many nonprofits continue to withhold from mailing to the affected areas out of respect for the people recovering, said Marilyn Michie, executive vice president, The Heritage Company, in Little Rock, Ark.. “I think a lot of organizations feel like it’s better to wait a little longer than risk jumping back in now. What they should be doing in the meantime is updating their list and developing a strategy on how they’re going to re-integrate their mail into those areas,” she said.

The American Red Cross (ARC) has not specifically targeted New Orleans in its national mailings, but its chapters located in the affected regions have approached local donors, according to Margaret Carter, interim director of direct response fundraising at the ARC in Washington, D.C.  The New Orleans chapter did not conduct mailings until November and it worked to get the Postal Service overlays focusing on ZIP codes that were deliverable. It mailed all of its pieces First Class so that the mail would be forwarded for people who had filled out change of address forms, Carter said.

On a national level, ARC manages a disaster donor conversion program with the goal of converting disaster donors to ongoing donors. “We did not suppress any donors in the Gulf area,” Carter said. “The donors from that area are less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the entire file.”

Other national nonprofits have chosen to resume direct mail to New Orleans. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is strictly following the U.S. Postal Service’s recommendations regarding mailing to approved ZIP codes, said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based organization. Magazines, newsletters, annual reports and updates have been mailed, the “standard stuff,” without any Katrina-altered content, Pacelle added.

Online bridge Many nonprofits performed admirably when it came to online relief fundraising for Katrina. Animal charities, such as HSUS and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASCPA), and traditional international groups including Mercy Corps, seized an opportunity and performed beyond what people predicted, said Rick Christ, president of nonprofit consultant npadvisors.com.

“One of the strengths of online is that if you knew you were going out with an appeal for something else, when Katrina hit you could hold off as opposed to having to mail 200,000 direct mail pieces and taking a beating,” Christ said. “You also have a tool that doesn’t require people to be at home to access their mailbox.”

The online mailbox proved invaluable to Audubon Nature Institute (ANI) in New Orleans. Following Katrina, the organization did not drop mail until March, 2006. For the most part it had been relying on its email to stay in touch with its members, said Laurie Conkerton, vice president for development for the New Orleans nonprofit. “We’ve mostly reconnected with people who have moved away through email,” Conkerton explained. “We had slightly less than half of our member households’ email addresses. We’ve been doing an aggressive online effort for fundraising. There’s been a series of e-campaigns through our Web sites. That has picked up for what we would normally do for direct mail for lower level donors. We’ll probably do some phone effort for higher level donors toward the end of the year.”

ANI recently dropped its membership publication for the first time since the storm. Normally a quarterly publication, it was sent in late August. Conkerton, who lives in the New Orleans area, said she began receiving publications in the mail just a couple of months ago. She described the mail as “touch and go right now.”

As a result, the organization has made a concentrated effort to capture information in person. Traffic to the institute has been “pretty decent,” Conkerton said, and as people have visited, the organization directs them to update address information at its membership window. Conkerton added that ANI’s aggressive onsite sales staff has also helped collect updated information.

The in-person updates are ongoing and a membership appeal is on the horizon for September/ October. Since it will be the first real test with a list that is not its house list, ANI has decided to be very selective.

“What we probably won’t be doing is huge bulk mailings like we would do for membership acquisition in the past,” Conkerton said. “This year we did not drop our spring membership appeal. We’re trying to capture people as new members as they come in, but we’re going to resume our mailings. Like the city’s recovery, it’s just going to take some time.”

The fundraising climate around the Madison, Miss., headquarters of Special Olympics Mississippi (SOM) was not affected as much as the organization had anticipated following the storm, although the number and size of contributions and sponsorships for the summer games on the Gulf Coast decreased, said Helen Parish, president of SOM. It also had to coordinate its athletic event at Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., which was damaged by Katrina. A deluge of volunteers responded and while the event tallied approximately 75 percent of its usual attendance numbers, Parish considered it a success.

It has yet to be determined if the organization’s post-storm mailings attain the same prosperity. Parish admitted that like many other organizations, SOM didn’t know where people were or which post offices were open in the months after the storm. Its mailings to the impacted areas resumed this past January.

“We started mailing to the affected area but we won’t have any hard numbers until the end of the campaign,” Parish said. “We do know that overall, (fundraising) has been down 5 to 10 percent statewide, which is a lot better than we predicted. I don’t think our fundraising will be 100 percent in 2007. I think it’ll make a big rebound but will be at least 2008 before it returns to previous levels.”

Special Olympics Louisiana (SOL) proceeded to mail to all regions, except to New Orleans proper. Its direct mail has sought both updated information and donations. The plan is to make up the money not coming in from New Orleans in other areas of the state, according to Pat Carpenter, president of the Hammond, La.-based group.

“We knew in the beginning that those relief efforts would be the number one priority,” Carpenter said. “But we had a national event and a New Orleans team of athletes qualified to go to that event. We were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to go until individuals in the community came to our aid and we were able to take our athletes from Louisiana. We have been able to continue to offer our programs to New Orleans even though they might not be ready right now to take advantage of all of them.” Carpenter said she can see that individuals are returning to the New Orleans area, but many area business aren’t up and running. With businesses rooted in the recovery process, SOL is in a holding pattern with some aspects of fundraising.

“Businesses have not recovered and we’re definitely holding off on that group,” Carpenter said. “Hopefully, within the next few months we can begin soliciting as we always have in that greater New Orleans area.   DRFE

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