Finding the right balance of communication that resonates with donors, but doesn’t suffocate them, is a battle with which nonprofits are all too familiar. With so many ways to engage with an audience, it’s easy to over-correspond these days.

Mapping out communication with donors and constituents is one way to ensure your mail ends up generating enthusiastic responses and donations, instead of winding up in the trash, literally, both physical and electronic.

At Fundraising Day in New York City, Karin Kirchoff, formerly vice president for membership at Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C., and Joan Smyth Dengler, senior vice president, direct marketing at Covenant House in New York City, presented together the session: “Case Study: A Year in the Life of a Donor.” Kirchoff and Smyth Dengler chronicled one year’s worth of communication with the average donor, and demonstrated how detailed planning can help generate more money on each item mailed.

The Defenders of Wildlife takes a more structured monthly approach, while Covenant House uses a model that changes with the seasons. Both managers agreed that the creation of a communication schedule is the most targeted and effective approach to engaging donors. “A plan or roadmap (for communication) keeps us moving in the right direction, when all things are against us,” Smyth Dengler said. “We make sure all channels are integrated, and present a synergistic story to our donors and constituents.” January

Defenders of Wildlife began the year with an acquisition mailing, Kirchoff said. The invoice-style statement has prominent URLs and the charity’s toll-free telephone number displayed, showing a mix of communication outlets. “Multi-channel starts from the very beginning,” she said. “We make sure URLs are sprinkled throughout the direct mail. We want them to have the tools and access they need to reach us.”

Covenant House doesn’t have members. Its first donor renewal is sent during this month, with a notepad and stickers. Donation asks vary from $150 per year, to $10,000 yearly, she said. Certificates are mailed to all donors. “People like the recognition, and we like that they like that,” Smyth Dengler said.


Members receive acknowledgement mailings throughout the month from Defenders, and each letter has a soft ask, Kirchoff said. An email pitch and matching gift pitch are sent to members as well, and all letters are stamped with pre-paid postage, in hopes the soft ask will generate a gift. Members who sign up to receive email will also begin the welcome series of emails from the charity, which includes a sustainer pitch for donors.

A second renewal is sent from Covenant House in February, with a matching gift appeal. Follow-ups for donors are also sent with matching gift appeals, Smyth Dengler said.


Defenders of Wildlife sent an appeal to members, along with a notepad, notepad labels and a back-end premium offer, Kirchoff said.

Covenant House integrated a multi-channel approach right off the bat, according to Smyth Dengler. The charity’s Web site is tied into all direct mail and email addresses are solicited via the phone. A small version of the direct mail appeals also appears on the Web, she said. “We have done work to break down silos,” she said. “We don’t encourage source code manipulation. We bring together mail, telephone and Web staff to see where we can collaborate with one another.”


Defenders uses its magazine as a fundraising channel during this month, and includes in it planned giving promotions and ads in the form of a magazine wrap and bind. This includes a pitch for a donation.

Although it doesn’t generate a huge response, Kirchoff said it is worth the investment. “It costs us about nine cents to ride on the magazine,” she said. “It’s another tool for us to generate support, and a very cheap way to engage with members.”

Covenant House sends spring greeting cards along with messages from its president, Smyth Dengler said. Videos are also incorporated into appeals to once again drive home the multi-channel approach.

May- June

Online messages are sent to members periodically throughout this month, Defenders’ Kirchoff said. The newsletter is sent out once during the month, and petitions and action alerts tied to current events are sent weekly. Full file fundraisers are sent once weekly as well, and targeted local messaging is also integrated, she said.

Summer brings about Covenant House’s Vans Campaign, which is also multichannel. Donors are asked to write encouraging words on a sticker they are mailed, and the sticker is attached to sandwiches handed out to hungry kids on the street from the charity’s vans. The personal action resonates well with donors, Smyth Dengler said. “They are likely to send back a check with the envelope and sticker,” she added.


A sustainer invitation is sent to all recent donors, online activists and those who called Defenders of Wildlife’s 800 number. All scripting is tied into current events, Kirchoff said. Those who join with monthly giving are immediately sent welcome kits.


Voluntary asks are sent during this month, Kirchoff said, which generate a significant net of responses from Defenders’ 24,000 members. Last year the response rate was about 12 percent.


Planned giving newsletters are mailed to members and sustainers who are some of the Defenders’ best planned giving prospects, Kirchoff said. “We mail as many as 15 appeals a year,” she said. “There is an 11-part direct mail renewal series, four magazine wraps and a magazine if the subscription is renewed. Also weekly emails, and if a donor is mobile then two to three messages a month.”

December is often a big month for Covenant House, Smyth Dengler said, with 20 percent of its online revenue coming in that period. The charity often sends holiday cards that are heavily Christmas themed, because its base is Christian. Although one channel typically dominates the fundraising, Smyth Dengler said Covenant House is working hard to have a healthy mix of options for donors and constituents. “Multi-channel donors are worth more to the mission, but the vast majority interact with us on only one channel,” she said. NPT