Gripes About Direct Mail Appeals

2013-Nickel-Unc-obv_D_2000Has anyone yet come up with a replacement for direct mail solicitation as a funding source? No, I didn’t think so. Individual donors still comprise the bulk of nonprofit funding, and direct mail is a tried and true way of reaching them.

(Email? Just a variation on the mail theme. Crowdfunding? Nah, best for small projects of limited duration.)

The trouble is, the tried and true sometimes becomes the tired and annoying. Or is it just me who groans at receiving yet another thick envelope that I have to open up, tear my name off the various contents of, and check for any U.S. currency before preparing the now-ragged pile for its trip to the recyling bin?

It’s apparently not just me. Or at least, not according to the results of my entirely informal, unscientific survey of friends. I asked what aspects of charity mail appeals most got their goat.

There was no shortage of answers, with most falling into one (or more) of four categories: cost, frequency, freebies, and over-the-top entreaties. Here are some of the actual replies:

Cost:

  • “Using all your money to send you more appeal letters.”
  • “Those that come with a nickel glued on – it shows they don’t need mine.”

Frequency:

  • “When the next appeal comes before the thank-you for the previous donation!”

Freebies:

  • “I don’t like when they send address labels or greeting cards — such a waste of paper.”
  • “I hate the mailing labels or small change (“a nickel will do x!”). Feels manipulative.”

Over-the-top entreaties:

  • “Dogs with sad eyes.”
  • “Animal charities that target children (sending progress reports on a particular animal) and then use the kids to pressure their parents to make a larger monthly donation (your ‘own’ animal needs more food, a new bed, etc).”
  • “Membership cards that imply you’ve already committed and they are just following up to get the money.”
  • “The . . . ones where you innocently open them and are confronted with a poor kid with a harelip or no arms . . . .”
  • “I hate the ones that are in a blank envelope that look like reports from a credit bureau or something else that matters so you can’t toss them without opening them.”
  • “I know there’s research behind it — but I HATE letters that end with a p.s. & question (Won’t you help TODAY?)”

Of course, there is research behind nearly everything that a nonprofit puts into a direct mail piece. And for everyone who hates the address labels, there’s probably someone who likes them. (Actually, that would be me. I’m running short. Could some group . . . uh, never mind.) But isn’t it a bit disturbing that people can so readily recite a list of the common strategies?

For more on direct mail and other forms of fundraising, see the 2013 edition of Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).

Oh No, Not “Grant Proposal Prose!”

swordPaul Sehgal must have been secretly delighted to realize how little respect he had for the book he was reviewing for the Sunday, December 15, 2013 New York Times Book Review. (The book’s title doesn’t actually matter here, but to assuage any curiousity, it was Art as Therapy, by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong.)

Having found it to be “depressing” and a book that “lays bare the flaws in de Botton’s method, chiefly that, well, he does regard his readers like ants,” Sehgal treats us to a snarkfest of words and phrases like, “dispiriting,” “shtick,” “unhinged,” and “never done it so badly.”

And, for the coup de grace: “The grant proposal prose saps all the fun from the proceedings.”

Uh oh. Did you catch that? “Grant proposal prose” has been elevated to stinging insult.

And the worst thing is, we all know exactly what he means: tired recitals by some nonprofit staffer who resents having to fill in a bunch of repetitive blanks with jargony blather and send it off to a faceless foundation committee that will probably reject it half-unread anyway.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Art flourishes within constraints, remember? For the nonprofit staffers of the world, a good New-Year’s resolution might be to reexamine one’s approach to proposal writing, and put the fun back into it. The writers will be happier, and heaven knows the folks who have to read million of these things at the other end will be happier. (Fear not, Paul Sehgal will find some other way to shred the next book he’s not pleased with.)

For detailed advice on preparing compelling grant proposals, see Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits; Real-World Strategies That Work, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).

Fundraising Kudos to: PFAW, for Emailed Holiday Wish List

fireWith all the “noise” of incoming emails from nonprofits and retailers alike, it’s a miracle that anything short of a fire alarm (plus smoke) can catch my attention these days.

But a recent email from People for the American Way (PFAW), with the subject line, “Holiday Wish List,” created just enough curiousity in my addled pre-vacation brain to induce me to click and open it.

And that already means they cleared a huge hurdle. The rate at which people open nonprofit emails is low — around 27%, according to a Silverpop survey for 2013.

Inside, I found the following message:

Holiday wish list:

  • A constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United
  • Good judges confirmed and the end of right-wing dominance of the federal courts
  • Full equality for LGBT Americans and their families
  • Safeguards for voting rights and women’s health
  • TEA PARTY EXTREMISTS DEFEATED AT THE POLLS!!!

Ilona, We’ll be working our tails off to fulfill these wishes in the coming year.

Help us do it by renewing your PFAW membership for 2014 with a generous donation now.

Its a mercifully short message, with some pretty compelling material. Here’s what I think the group did right:

  • Surprise the reader a bit — I was expecting a wish list like, “Please someone send us a new laser printer,” or “Our clients desperately need x-and-such.”
  • A hook to current events. Instead of just repeating their mission, they put it in terms of holiday wishes.
  • A concise, jargon-free reminder of their mission and work. This gets left out of nonprofit email messages more than one might expect.
  • An ask! (Gotta have the ask.)

Contrast this with an email I received from another nonprofit lately, which says only, “Pretty much of a donations disaster at this point, a record bad fundraising day. We need so few of you to contribute to make this work. Who will step up? Now is the time.”

Which group would you support, if you believed in both causes equally? (And I haven’t even named the second group, because I don’t wish to beat up on them.) Most donors would rather give to the group with an upbeat, clever message; which may, in fact, explain the second group’s “donations disaster.”

Do Donation “Discounts” Devalue Nonprofit Brand?

stormThere’s a winter storm coming in, and I’m not talking about the weather. It’s the relentless flurry of emails from both commercial and nonprofit marketers, all wanting to get my attention and hopefully the last of my end-of-year dollars for either gifts to people or gifts to charity.

They’re all starting to sound bizarrely similar, especially when it comes to “discounts.”  Taglines like “Adopt a wild animal for 50% off!” or “Membership half price through 2013!” are not uncommon.

I get it that, in some cases, you’re literally getting something for less, like a regular newsletter reporting on the nonprofit’s doings. But in others, the nonprofit is actually promising to provide the same service for less money. And that’s disturbing, when our whole notion of nonprofits is that when they ask for something, or tell us, “It takes $x to save a wild animal,” they didn’t build in a profit margin. They’re a nonprofit, after all.

I assume that someone out there is testing these supposed discounts, and that they work to get email readers’ attention. But what are the long-term implications of convincing donors that, like a for-profit company, your original “price” was just puffery, and you’re actually willing to do the job for less? I predict some rough sailing ahead.

If Reich Is Right, Should You Forget About Attracting Wealthy Donors?

stairwayNo matter what type of cause you fundraise for, Robert Reich’s recent blog, “When Charity Begins at Home,” is relevant to your work. Reich makes a convincing case that:

  1.  – Wealthy donors are increasingly removed from, and therefore uninterested in, the less fortunate members of society, and
  2.  – Even the purported generosity of affluent Americans is directed mostly at causes that directly serve them in return, such as their colleges, favorite music and arts institutions (for “hobnobbing” with their fellow elites), and so forth.

There’s a certain sense of inevitability about this. We’ve all read the headlines about the social divide between rich and poor increasing. And it doesn’t take a social scientist to tell us that people (potential donors included) have less sympathy for people whose lives seem utterly alien to them.

So, where does this leave nonprofits who do serve the poor, or immigrants, or workers, or the disabled, or any other group that’s not on the radar screen of the 1%?  Other than frustrated, that is.

Simply recognizing the dynamic that’s at work is a good start. That will help avoiding wasting your time courting prospective donors who may never be interested in your cause.

It may also change your language and approach. Think about, for instance, how your cause interests wealthy donors at a personal level. Find tie-ins between the lives of those you serve and those of your prospective donors. If, for instance, you’re working with a particular young immigrant or a youth who has been accepted into an Ivy League college but is hindered by something that you’re trying to help with, that person’s story might be a good one to highlight. Work those points of connection!

New Donor Group Interested in Charitable Deductions: Same-Sex Married Couples

iStock_000000131834XSmallAs explained by Sandra Block in the December, 2013 issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, this is the first year in which same sex couples who have entered into a marriage that’s legal where it occurred are also considered married for federal tax purposes.

(At last count, 16 U.S. states and the District of Columbia offer same-sex marriage.)

This has some important implications for such couples’ interest in tax matters. As with any married couple, says Block, dual-income same-sex couples “who earn about the same amount will likely end up paying a marriage penalty.”

But nonprofits should be happy to hear one of Block’s suggested ways to avoid or reduce the penalty:

Increase contributions to charity, and take a tax deduction.

If you’re with a nonprofit that promotes LGBT marriage and other rights, you’re particularly well-placed to remind potential donors about the importance of this deduction. But, as society is finally figuring out, gay and lesbian folks come from all walks of life, and may have multiple interests.

Therefore, any charity should be thinking about how to reach out to newly married donors (of the same or opposite sex, come to think of it) who are seeing, for the first time, some significant tax benefits to giving to their favorite cause.

Forbes Publishes List of U.S. Nonprofits With Most Individual Donations in 2013

cash_handsIf you’re with a small or struggling nonprofit, get ready for some pangs of jealousy: Alth0ugh Forbes calls them the “largest” U.S. charities, its top-50 list for 2013 actually uses “private donations received” as its “main metric” for inclusion.

Together, the listed nonprofits pulled in $30 billion worth of donations this past year.

Not surprisingly, you will have heard of many of these: United Way, Salvation Army, and . . . Task Force for Global Health?

Okay, I hadn’t actually heard of them. But as a newcomer to the list, they’re clearly a group to watch. What are they doing right, to have rocketed to the third spot on the list? It looks like most of their giving (to the tune of $1.7 billion) was not in the form of cash, but donated medicines.

Still, one has to admire a couple of fundraising-related aspects of the Task Force’s website: They post their annual report quite visibly (thus emphasizing financial transparency); and when you click the “Donate” tab on the home page, you’re given interesting background information on where your dollars go before being presented with the form to fill out.

For tips on achieving results with your group’s own website, see Nolo’s article, “Your Nonprofit’s Website as a Fundraising Tool.”

Is Public Speaking Part of Your Job at a Nonprofit?

radio_mikeAmong the many skills required of nonprofit executive directors, development directors, and board members, public speaking is one that doesn’t receive much discussion.

It is, however, a skill that people in the above roles may have to call on for various reasons: to give a welcoming or fundraising speech at a gala dinner or other event, to address a group of decision-makers at a foundation, to represent your nonprofit at a community fair or other public event, to speak with a radio or television reporter on air, and so on.

So, does public speaking make you nervous? (Or, I should ask, do you suffer from “glossophobia?”) Around three quarters of Americans reportedly do.

If you’re among them, you’ll find no lack of advice on dealing with the topic — everything from breathing exercises to picturing your audience in their underwear. For a simple, straightforward message, however, check out marketing guru Seth Godin’s blog today, titled, “Speaking in public: two errors that lead to fear.”

Godin doesn’t single out nonprofits, but his points couldn’t be more relevant to them. When you focus on the cause, not yourself, and “realize that you have a chance to be generous in this moment, to teach and to lead,” your fears will recede into the background.

Shoutout to All the Nonprofits Providing Thanksgiving Services

CAKEThe degree to which nonprofits have become a backbone of American society is never clearer than on holidays such as Thanksgiving — for those who realize what a nonprofit is, at least.

Many people forget how many organizations are run based purely on love, donations, and volunteer labor. Such organizations may not get to fold up their tents while others enjoy a vacation. In fact, their services may be more important than ever, as they provide:

  • medical treatment to people in need
  • Thanksgiving meals to the hungry and the incarcerated
  • shelter for those needing a break from the ever-colder weather or from domestic violence
  • care for animals awaiting adoption
  • hotlines and support groups for people in difficult straits, and
  • much more.

They’re during it during a tough year economically, too, with donations down, and headlines announcing things like, “Nonprofits face turkey-free Thanksgiving.

I’m taking a moment to be truly thankful for the open hearts and determined spirits of the people who join together on such projects. (And I’ll be putting in a couple of hours at my local animal shelter, too.) Happy Thanksgiving!

Congrats to 2013 “Purpose Prize” Winners!

golfing womanThe best — or the most meaningful — may be yet to come for any of us.

Don’t believe it? Check out the stories of this year’s winners of Encore’s Purpose Prize. They’re all over 60, in the so-called “leftover years” of their life, when they’re supposed to be playing golf and poring over glossy brochures for round-the-world cruises.

Yet they’ve all drawn on their significant experience, professional and otherwise, to throw themself into a cause in an innovative way.

What struck me about the winners’ stories was that each seemed to have identified a truly unique need or approach. Just when you think the U.S. contains every type of nonprofit or charitable program imaginable, you hear about someone like winner Carol Fennelly, who saw how difficult it was for family members to keep in contact with their incarcarated relatives, and created Hope House. It offers programs that arrange video teleconferences between school-age children and their fathers in prison, helps inmates make recordings of themselves reading books aloud for their children, and operates a series of summer camps for children ages 9 to 14 that allows then to spend a week visiting their incarcerated fathers. Wow.

And there are six other winners, all with inspiring stories of their own. After reading them, you’ll be asking yourself the same question as presented on the Encore website: “What’s your encore?”