Stories And Premiums Ruled During The Holidays

March 15, 2011       Mark Hrywna      

Like children in wonderment anticipating the gifts they’ll receive during the holidays, nonprofits anxiously await the results of their holiday appeals campaigns.

Crossroads Rhode Island, an organization supporting the homeless population of Rhode Island, saw a leap in holiday revenue from $64,883 in 2009 to $84,753 in 2010. With a $3.95 return on $1 invested, Crossroads was able to have a blockbuster holiday season that along with surpassing their goal is going to fund programs for the upcoming year.

The holiday season provides ample opportunity to proposition potential donors and renew supporters’ contributions. According to Michael Nilsen, senior director of public affairs for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), approximately half of all charities get between 30 percent and 60 percent of their contributions during the last quarter of the year. Roughly 20 percent of AFP member organizations noted that in December alone, they received 50 percent of their annual contributions noted Nilsen.

Instead of going the more conventional route of using premiums or a handwritten letter, Providence-based Crossroads sent a colorful catalog, giving an itemized selection of what donors’ money could provide to the organization.

“We tried to make the catalog as catchy and eye popping as possible,” said Ben Borne, vice president and account director at Newport Creative Communications, consultant to Crossroads.”We wanted people to see and then want to open it. The message wasn’t only doom and gloom. We tried to be positive.”

The catalog included various ideas from which donors could select where their money was going. One option had donors contributing $3 to provide warm socks for the homeless, while another was contributing $55 for someone to achieve their GED.

Karen Santilli, vice president of marketing and communication at Crossroads Rhode Island, explained that one aspect that changed from last year was to provide more consistent communication across the board in their holiday appeals.”Since we had recently gone through a name change, it seemed imperative to us to continue to promote our brand awareness. We had used the catalog the year before, but this year we decided to change a few of the pictures to go along with the theme we were using for this year. We also completely redesigned our website to accompany the catalog so donors could give online.”

There was also a corporate component to Crossroad’s holiday campaign that helped them surpass their goals. Accompanying their idea of”comfort and joy,” Crossroads packaged 10 catalogs with mugs and hot chocolate, delivering them to local businesses and faith groups in the area. From the 22 organizations they solicited, they received $7,000 from the 22 organizations solicited, including $500 from the Providence Journal.

“People were very pleased with the catalog we had used in 2009,” said Santilli.”In 2010, we were able to refine and add more ideas. We changed the cover to fit our theme of Ôcomfort and joy’ and added photographs of children with their own mug of hot chocolate.”

Crossroads sent 9,701 catalogs and brought back $84,753, with an average gift of $78.33. Taking out the $21,475 cost to mail the catalogs, Crossroads Rhode Island’s net income was $63,278, with a cost per dollar raised at just 25 cents.

Also using a creative fundraising device was The Actors Fund, based in New York City. Providing a safety net for people in the performing arts, The Actors Fund supplies health care and eldercare for performance artists.

A typical holiday appeal campaign from the group involves putting together a story of a person who is benefiting from the organization and sending it to potential donors as part of its annual membership campaign.

This year, however, The Actors Fund told the story of Joan. A performer in her younger years, she was living in a retirement community and sang to other residents on a regular basis. Potential donors were sent a package detailing her story along with an involvement device of sending in song requests she would sing.

“What we had not had in years past was the involvement device,” said Tom Exton, chief advancement officer at The Actors Fund.”We saw this as a way of cultivating new donors. By asking our members to suggest songs for Joan to sing, we gave them a real tangible connection to the cause. We got over 275 song suggestions and people even called the retirement facility to speak to Joan. We also received handwritten letters from donors letting us know how powerful the story was.”

In addition to the involvement device, The Actors Fund included a”before and after” picture of Joan. The”before” picture was of a young Joan as a Broadway peerformer. The”after” picture was of Joan in older years at The Lillian Booth Home, the residence in which The Actors Fund had placed her.

“I think this aspect was integral in eliciting donations,” said Judith Fish, membership manager.”By placing photos of Joan when she was young and older, people were tangibly able to see what the future held for them, encouraging them to donate more money.”

Lisa Maska, partner at Lautman, Maska and O’Neil in Washington, D.C., added that the personable nature of the package was able to score such high returns,”I think it’s because we had a great story. It was very evocative and personable. At the holidays, your heart goes out to someone like Joan.”

The campaign produced an overwhelming response, with The Actors Fund receiving the most money ever from a year-end campaign. With 7,933 packages mailed, gross revenue was $84,270. Factoring in the cost to mail the package, the program produced net revenue of $73,841 including the money raised from an email campaign.”I think the response was not only due to the technical attributes. Whenever you show an organization’s heart and soul in a solicitation, people really respond to that. Adding all these aspect together, you can have a pretty effective appeal,” said Fish.

At Philabundance, a charitable organization in Philadelphia that provides food and nutrients to needy people in the area, the staff tries to schedule the fundraising and marketing programs together to make the biggest impact in their holiday campaign.

“When you’re looking at mail, you have to look at the fundraising and marketing aspects together,” said Marianne Lynch, director of corporate, foundation and government support.”Planning your marketing around when a piece is going to drop creates a buzz and makes a discernable difference. We use the media a lot of different ways to get people’s attention.”

Changing the holiday year-end appeal only slightly to be more consistent with the organizations mission statement resulted in a tremendous response from donors. The letter sent to renewal donors was simple in its design. Using a personalized, handwritten envelope card, the organization simply thanked its loyal donors for contributing that year and ended with a simple”thank you.” There was no line for a suggested donation or plea for another gift.

“I think the fact that we used a soft ask really resonated with people,” said Sarah Rostedt, account supervisor at Amergent in Peabody, Mass.”Saying thank you seemed to be really successful. People don’t get thanked enough a lot. They wait and wait for a thank you and sometimes it never comes.”

Also included in the mailing package were photographs of the people Philabundance assists. With pictures of different events Philabundance produces, along with the people who are in need of the services, donors were able to witness who and where their money was going.

Initially estimated to raise $58,000, the campaign shattered original projections and brought in more than $200,000. It cost 9 cents to raise $1 in terms of renewal mailings and $81.29 to acquire a new donor.

“We were very surprised with the response from our loyal donors. We hoped to get a boost from our anniversary donors, but received a lot more than expected,” said Rostedt.

Trying not to bother donors during the winter and spring, Retired Marine Corp. Maj. Bill Grein, vice president of marketing and development at Toys For Tots, recognizes that the holiday season is where the organization needs to receive the majority of its funding.”We are in a strange position as a military charity,” said Grein.”We go out and try to make an actual difference in communities. We think that it is very important to show the community how much we care.”

Toys For Tots uses a similar package, year-after-year, that politely asks donors for a gift. Included in the package are various premiums such as gift packaging, calendars, pocket calendars, car magnets, notepads and labels. The package included packets of information, two sheets of gift tags, and a personalized reply device written in silver metallic ink.

“We are of the opinion that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’,” said Grein.”My sister-in-law in Columbus, Ohio, continues to donate every year and waits every holiday season for gift wrapping that we include in our package.”

Toys For Tots continued to be successful through the recession of the past few year, which Geoffrey W. Peters, president of Creative Direct Response in Crofton, Md., credits to their reliance on acquisition mailings.”Although the general knowledge is that the economy is driving things up and down, we have found this not to be true. We found that if our clients continued in their acquisition mailings, they wouldn’t be as susceptible to a decrease in donations,” he said.

Capitalizing on a public relations tour by the president of Toys For Tots, the organization sent 7750,000 solicitation packages, with a 9-percent response rate. The response rate of the 2010 campaign was 10 percent more than previous years and the average gift increased by 2.5 percent clocking in at $33.17. The overall net gains from the campaign increased by 16 percent, with a net income of almost $2 million.

Peters added that reducing mailing based on the assumption people are hurting financially doesn’t make sense.”A lot of our donors do not get laid off due to the economy because they are retired. The typical direct mail donor is not your typical wealthy person with a stock portfolio. They tend to be here today and tomorrow,” he said.

Seeing a need to reinvigorate their direct mailing campaign, National Jewish Health, based in Denver, Colo., decided to partner with PEP Direct in Wilton, N.H., this past July.

Starting with an online campaign, National Jewish Health was able to create a substantial Facebook presence to educate donors about the hospital. After a lot of year round testing, National Jewish Health narrowed down the options to a mail appeal that included a premium of holiday cards. Differing from its package from previous years, the 2010 appeal had different label art and used brighter colors to attract high-level donors.

“We found that using patient stories in the mailing was more compelling to donors,” said Megan Gibeau, vice president of strategic and client services at PEP.”By including a lot of information on the services we provide and explaining where their money is spent we found a positive response in our renewals. I think we as donors need to double check where the money is going. As boomers age, they want to understand where their dollars are going.”

A key element that helped National Jewish Health personalize their holiday appeals was mailing their package under two different organizations. Encompassing both the National Asthma Center and National Jewish Health, different packages were mailed to donors of each organization to cater to their preferences.

With 60 percent of income coming from their holiday mailings, the new donors package for their”Innovators Circle” lifted gross revenue by 85 percent with the average gift of $88. The cost per $1 raised dropped from 7 cents in 2009 to 4 cents in 2010. Even though the physical mailing was seen as a successful aspect of their holiday appeals, their online campaign was just as productive, garnering more than $7,000, 70 percent of the overall amount they received from their online donations for this fiscal year.

The use of creative holiday appeal campaigns continues to grow as it becomes increasingly difficult for a charity to be unique among the other donation requests that fill donors’ mailboxes in the holiday season.

Even though this is as seen as successful, it is not always appropriate to every organization, contended Newport Creative Communications’ Borne.”I think every organization would like to do a creative package like Crossroads Rhode Island. They would like to be more on the cutting edge but I don’t think it’s right for every organization. You have to have the resources to do multi-channel things. The charity needs to be able to handle the interactive elements and not every organization has this kind of unique infrastructure.” NPT