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Operation Smile: multi-channel fundraising

Operation Smile has enjoyed great success during the last couple of years – thanks, in part, to a brilliant multi-channel campaign. Jann Schultz shares her insights


Operation Smile is an international children’s medical charity with global headquarters in the United States and a presence in more than 60 countries. With the help of our supporters and medical volunteers, we provide free, safe reconstructive surgery for children around the world who are born with facial deformities such as cleft lip and cleft palate.

To successfully build relationships with our supporters and raise funds needed to treat suffering children, we’ve created a fully integrated direct response programme – with an approach that places our donors at the heart of our multi-channel activities.


Putting the donor first

To effectively build long-lasting relationships with people who provide financial support, volunteer or advocate for Operation Smile, we implemented our ‘Donor First’ philosophy. Simply put, we’re committed to making the donor’s experience as exceptional as the services we provide to children around the world. The goal of Donor First is to create loyal constituents who are highly committed to Operation Smile.

An example of this commitment is to ensure we are engaged with our donors in the channels they want to use to communicate with us. This may be via more traditional methods, such as direct mail and telephone, or more modern channels, like email or social media.

We’ve found that the donors we engage with through multiple channels have higher response rates, retention and lifetime value. This requires coordination and effort across our entire fundraising team, from marketing and communications to donor services to direct response.

At the centre of our campaign planning is the donor, whose generosity is the lifeblood of our organisation. It is the donor’s heart that we need to connect with – which means the key to integration is looking at the campaign from the donor’s perspective.


More than mail

The assumption when talking about multi-channel integration is that you simply mean direct mail + email. While we’ve found that this is a cost-effective way to cultivate donors, a problem arises when you don’t have an email address to do the most basic cross-channel integration. So what else can you use to lift the response and engage donors?

One simple way is to talk to them. After analysing our data, we found that many of our donors begin their relationship with Operation Smile by calling to make a donation: speaking to a living, breathing person was clearly something they wanted. From there, we hypothesised that our donors might be open to receiving a tele-fundraising call – a channel we had not previously used as part of our multi-channel mix.

However, we were concerned about “poaching” donations from our direct mail channel so we conducted a test. Using a control panel and a test panel of similar donors, we ran a 30-day tele-fundraising campaign on our test panel. Then we monitored their giving behaviour for the next five months.
The results were significant. After the donors received a phone call from a tele-fundraising professional, we saw a 17 per cent increase in income.
Even when the donor declined to donate by phone, subsequent giving to the direct mail programme was 14 per cent greater than for donors in our control panel, who weren’t contacted by phone.
Clearly, a donor-centered, integrated approach increased the effectiveness of our direct mail program.


Targeting mid-level donors

Our next objective was to apply what we had learned to a broader, multi-channel campaign.

Operation Smile has a healthy file of donors who have given a single cash gift of $240 to help provide surgery to a waiting child. However, our previous approach to this mid-level audience had used only a single channel. Our objective now was to engage these donors so they gave again, upgraded the amount of their giving and helped us to raise more net income in the process.

The campaign strategy was an emotional, compelling offer used across every possible channel, complete with consistent graphics, images and messaging. Audience selection was 0-12 month active donors who had given a single cash gift of $240 or higher. Gift ask arrays were from $240 up to $6,000.

Based on our previous testing, we knew that tele-fundraising would be an important element of this campaign. We launched the campaign with a 45-second recorded voicemail message from Operation Smile’s co-founder, Dr Bill Magee, where he asked the donor to “watch their mailbox” for a special mail package with an urgent message.

Two weeks later, our tele-fundraising professionals made them a personalised phone call to offer more information and solicit donations, basing the ask levels on each donor’s gift history. This final phone push was critical to our campaign’s success.

Donors who pledged by phone received another recorded phone message from Dr. Magee, expressing gratitude for their continuing support.

The results of the campaign far exceeded our projections. The high-value audience selected for this campaign had a 383 per cent higher response rate and an 86 per cent higher average gift than what was typical for other campaigns.

The tele-fundraising channel generated 30 per cent of total revenue, with our pledges fulfilling at an astonishing rate of 85 per cent. We exceeded our objectives in upgrading average gift and raised three times the net revenue compared to prior campaigns.


Measuring success

Reporting on integrated campaigns is challenging, because donors don’t behave as we’d like them to. Our supporters are often inspired by one channel and respond to another; many read their mail and then go online to give. Sometimes it takes multiple interactions before a donor is inspired to donate.

Multi-channel campaigns inherently create discomfort around the need for reporting in traditional ways. The most common way to report is to give credit to the last channel used to make the donation. However, we recognise that this is simply the collection plate, not the driver of the response.

So, if you have higher response rates online, don’t assume that your mail programme is not working. Ask the question: “What drove our donors to the website?” Look holistically at all channels during an active campaign and continue to measure offline channels for 120 days due to the long ‘tail’ on mail. Review donor-level revenue over the period of time of the integrated campaign to report on upgrade strategies. Measure each channel on its own and use bottom-line measurement to quantify success.


Jann P. Schultz is the associate vice president of donor services at Operation Smile

This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 24, December 2012

5 tactics for running a successful multi-channel campaign

1. Keep your donors at the heart of your communication strategies

2. At a minimum, use basic integration of channels such as direct mail + email or direct mail + tele-fundraising 

3. When your donors engage with your organisation through multiple channels, they will have higher response rates, retention and lifetime value

4. A phone call can enhance the sense of urgency and provide a campaign with an emotional touch

5. Don’t sabotage your fundraising efforts by cancelling so-called ‘non-performing’ channels

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