Richard Pordes finds that direct mail fundraising still works best – and international mailings, when done correctly, work even better
More and more often, I hear fundraisers say: “Oh, we gave up acquiring new donors by mail last year because direct mail just doesn’t work anymore.” Sadly, this tells me more about the charity’s fundraising team than about the current state of direct mail fundraising in a particular market.
When a charity gives up on large-scale donor acquisition by mail, it is likely to begin a downward spiral, as its house donors gradually fade away and its renewal mailings become smaller, less frequent and more expensive. Even today, there is nothing that can beat the classical donor acquisition process: acquire one-off donors, convert them to regular giving, and then keep them loyal with frequent communications that show them how their money is being put to good use.
Other channels, such as DRTV or face-to-face solicitation on the street are not viable alternatives to acquiring donors by mail. These donors cannot easily be renewed through such channels and also tend to be unresponsive to renewal appeals by mail. In other words, donors acquired through one method are best renewed using the same method, and will only reluctantly continue their support when approached through a different channel. As a result, attrition rates for face-to-face and DRTV-acquired donors tend to be extremely high.
Using direct mail, there are many ways to overcome the twin challenges of falling response rates and inadequate return on investment. I would group these into four categories: list usage, package, channel and price.
List usage probably has the most impact on response, but is also the hardest to fix. If the best lists available do not give us the response and ROI we need, there are only a few options for improvement. These include using demographic overlays, better list filtering and more list exchanges with similar charities. However, these are complex topics in themselves and are best left to experts in list management to explain.
In today’s world of high-speed electronic exchange, many donors expect the information charities send them to be constantly fresh and comprehensive, with instant feedback and close communication, at least virtually, about the results of their giving.
In order to bring the donor closer to the beneficiary and provide fresher information, some charities have started printing their acquisition packages in developing countries or wherever they can get good quality for the lowest price. They then mail them from field offices where their projects are located. Imagine receiving an envelope from Botswana, Bangladesh or Burundi, covered with brightly coloured local wildlife stamps and a foreign postmark? You’d be much more likely to open it, wouldn’t you? And if its contents, typically written by a local doctor, teacher or social worker, appeal to you, you’d be far more likely to send a contribution. Of course, having a well-known and dependable international charity brand also helps.
Donors no longer want or need to deal with intermediaries. As in e-commerce, the middleman is out. Donors want to hear directly from project managers who are on the ground, even though they may be thousands of miles away in a developing country. But they still want to be able to make their contribution effortlessly and securely, by posting a cheque or donating online to the charity’s office in their home country. Don’t assume that someone will send a cheque to a far away country: they won’t, and even if they did, it would be virtually useless over there.
One of the most critical factors in achieving direct mail success, especially when mailing internationally, is to establish credibility for the organisation, the mail pack and the content of the appeal. Obviously, if you are going to send an appeal from Africa, you must have projects in Africa.
An international appeal will work best if there is a compelling reason why the letter is coming from Dr X in country Y, rather than from the charity’s HQ. It could describe a recent catastrophe, a sudden shortage or a newly discovered need. If it has the ring of urgency, not emergency, it will stimulate a generous response.
For best results, the message should refer to the charity’s home office, so that the reader will be assured that the appeal is genuine and related to a familiar brand at home. You never want potential donors to worry whether they are at the receiving end of a fraudulent appeal. People should be asked to send their cheques to a charity with a known name, a UK address and BRE permit.
You might wonder, wouldn’t postage costs be prohibitively high, coming such a long distance from overseas? The answer is not necessarily, for more than one reason. Many post offices have been privatised and now offer bulk mail rates that are far cheaper than traditional air mail rates. Moreover, developing countries are allowed, under Universal Postal Union agreements, to send letters to industrialised countries at special low rates.
You might even be able to negotiate your postal rate with some mail carriers – often these rates are close to or lower than domestic postage in the receiving countries. So a very attractive package, with an emotional appeal and a compelling theme, could become your control pack and cost virtually the same to post from overseas as your existing in-country mail packs.
Using international mail appeal is not something for the uninitiated. Printers in the developing world vary enormously in quality of output and reliability. You have to know who you can depend on. Some post offices are notoriously corrupt and will gladly sell you their stamps, then dump the mail you deliver to them. Other post offices, mostly in developed countries, will reject mail that comes from developing countries at a reduced rate, claiming that bulk mailings are not covered under UPU low postage allowances. You therefore need to work with an international mail expert, or a company that is experienced in handling large shipments of international bulk mail such as magazines who can steer you through the many potential obstacles along the way.
And finally, here’s a multichannel suggestion that won’t cost you much to implement: if you have that donor’s or potential donor’s email address, you can send them an email alert about the pending arrival of the mail pack from Botswana. That will really get their attention. And then, after it has arrived, why not send a follow-up reminding them that the need is still there and whether they could again consider sending a contribution?
Richard Pordes is an international fundraising consultant
This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 18, June 2012