Some advice is timeless. For Susan Loth, chief marketing officer at Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Cold Spring, Ky., her basic recommendation for nonprofit marketing staff is simple in suggestion but difficult in implementation: “Do the right thing.”
The simplicity of Loth’s advice belies the difficult choices she’s made during more than three decades in fundraising. Her career includes five years at San Antonio, Texas-based marketing services firm Harte-Hanks and 26 years at DAV.
Loth’s advice has served her well: The Data And Marketing Association’s Nonprofit Federation (DMANF) recently presented Loth with its 2017 Max Hart Nonprofit Achievement Award, which recognizes outstanding career accomplishments by a fundraising professional.
Loth’s “do the right thing” sentiment struck a chord with Eliza Slone, vice president of strategy at Charlottesville, Va.-based MKDM, a direct response fund raising agency. Slone added her own words of wisdom: “Be curious and ask questions.” Nonprofits and fundraising, she said, encourage and allow for curiosity, and offer “a wonderful place to grow.”
Slone has, in fact, grown there. At the same conference that the Nonprofit Federation recognized Loth, it awarded Slone its inaugural Rising Leader award. Slone said that she feels lucky to have entered the fundraising community when she did. “In 2006, when I started, it was a direct mail world,” she said. “If you had to pick a 10-year period that had been more transformational in this industry, I’m not sure you could.”
Slone believes Loth’s sentiment about doing the right thing is especially important as digital channels become ascendant in fundraising. Slone cited the problems marketers have long faced with attribution — evaluating the importance of each touch in a multi-channel campaign. While a donation might arrive via a webpage, fundraisers shouldn’t overlook the value of a direct mail piece the donor previously received or the reminder value a public service ad offered.
“Doing the right thing has come to mean making sure that you are not focused on what is going to come in through direct mail, but [rather] how you can maximize the performance of your entire organization,” Slone said. “Sometimes that means doing something for communications that doesn’t have the best [impact] on direct response.”
Sometimes it means taking a short-term hit in the interest of gaining longterm knowledge. Take as an example testing different mailers, an activity which often results in portions of a mail campaign underperforming the control package, but which can yield an innovation that outperforms the control.
Working with Max Hart, DAV’s former national director of fundraising “was amazing,” Loth said. Harte-Hanks Direct Marketing had very big clients, but none of them tested. “They just thought ‘this is what we should do,’ and that would be what they put out into the marketplace,” she said.
Loth joined DAV just as the organization embraced gold-foil trim on its address label premium. “That was what turned the tables overnight,” she said. “We were raising ridiculous sums of money just because we were able to make gold foil work on those return address labels.”
Those were very different days, Loth continued. “The economies were good, and you could do a lot of different things. But moving forward, [the emphasis on testing] gave me a good opportunity to draw on a lot of different things. My accounting background certainly helped in evaluating what package worked and why it worked.”
Even gold standard — or gold foil standard — packages need to be challenged now and again. DAV once tested a no-premium package, Loth said. “At the time, and a lot of it had to do with the list and other circumstances, the payoff would have been 10 years. That was not an option for us. But, it is something we’ve been thinking about again because we have been doing some focus groups with our donors.”
DAV’s next set of tests will likely focus on customizing messages to donors, Loth added. “It’s more getting into that data and trying to figure out how we talk to each donor. We have a tremendous number of donors who have been giving for over 25 years. Do you really think they are giving because I am sending them a calendar?”
Testing and relying on hard results rather than expressed reactions is a lesson that has carried across generations. Consider Millennials, who often profess a disdain for direct “dead tree” mail. Slone believes the generation’s actions speak louder than its words. “[A study] looked at which channels Millennials were likely to respond to,” she said. “They actually prioritize mail as more important because Millennials do not get mail.”
It’s important to separate attitudes from response, Slone said. “I don’t care what you tell me you like,” she added. “I care what you respond to and I know that mail works.”
Are Millennials a viable donor market? Fundraising industry wisdom holds that consumers don’t become donors until they become parents. Loth believes that there’s an additional factor: Age begats compassion.
“At 40, discretionary income is much differently spent than at 60 or 70,” Loth said. “You don’t have some of the same bills you had when putting kids through school. And some of it is because [younger donors] haven’t necessarily had some of those experiences where something has affected them to the core where they become advocates.”
It might take 20 years before Millennials “become sustainable donors because they don’t have funds at this point,” Loth continued. “And, I don’t know that we have educated them enough yet that they need to share the resources they have.”
That last bit of conventional wisdom might be changing. “The one wild card in [fundraising] was the presidential election,” Slone said. “That may put a little more spark in people in regards to philanthropy.”
The bigger question about new donors is what organizations are doing to retain them, whether through communications efforts or attempts to enroll them in ongoing sustainer programs. “I think all of this could fall off immediately,” Slone cautioned. “Will [these new donors] re-disappear or sign renewals? What are the conversion tactics we can implement now to get them back on board? I don’t know what Millennial mail names will look like [in terms of their attractiveness to fundraisers].”
Presented with the opportunity to know a prospect through compiled third-party data, the two marketers took a radically different approach. Slone cited a Weg mans supermarket postcard mailing that listed details about her house. “The response to that varied around the office,” she said. “I am creeped out by that sort of thing.”
Would a conservation client sending a map from a potential donor’s home to a nature preserve elicit the same response? “I think that is a conversation which is evolving,” Slone hedged.
Loth took a more measured view. “It doesn’t totally unnerve me,” she said. “You can find me because you can do a ZIP code radius.” She added that it falls to consumers to be mindful of the information they volunteer on seemingly free platforms that provide data to marketers.
“Facebook is what we should be afraid of,” Loth said. “We are telling them everything about us. They know all of our friends. They know the political slant of everyone who is [posting] stuff. We are giving away all of our information. If we want privacy, we should be standing back and looking at our own practices. Not everyone is going to be good stewards of the data.”
Hopefully nonprofits don’t fall into last sentiment. Not that they have made much of the available resources: For the entire industry, digital giving has hovered around 7 percent of total intake. While email is moving into the status of a mature channel, both the industry veteran and the rising star were cautious about overextending themselves as new platforms come online.
“We run into people wanting to do Indiegogo or Kickstarter campaigns for a nonprofit that already has a donation form that can process donations,” Slone said. “What are we getting for being on one of those giving platforms? That can be a bit of a distraction.”
Loth was quick to point out the symbiotic nature of multi-channel outreach. “A lot of the traffic coming for online donations is from people who are receiving our mail. We might be acquiring more contributions from [digital] mediums, but we are driving them there because they received something from us. So are we investing heavily in them? No.” But, she added, the organization’s fundraisers are looking into new channels because it doesn’t want to miss out on a potentially viable source.
One aspect of marketing that hasn’t changed is the concerns that keep marketers awake at night. Loth cited sustaining the direct mail program — especially the need to keep finding lists of viable names.
Slone, who works with a variety of different organizations, went back to Loth’s initial wisdom — the requirement that an organization do the right thing by its donors, especially regarding fulfilling the mission on which it bases fundraising.
“If everyone knew what we were doing, the choices we were making, how would they feel about them?” she asked rhetorically.