News & Articles

Your Perfect Donor Communications Plan

By Sean Triner. This article is Part one in a two part series

Part I: The Big Picture

Traditional Communications

In the olden days it was easy. A typical donor communications calendar may have seen you send out a quarterly newsletter, a special appeal at Christmas and another at another special time, for example Chinese New Year in Hong Kong and tax time in Australia.

Such letters were relatively easy to get out and your donors were treated as being of one particular type, so everyone could get the same letter. There were few fundraising trained professionals in the industry – most people had ended up in fundraising by accident, or because they wanted to change the world; not by training.

Phone calls to donors were rare – maybe in response to a complaint or for some other unplanned purpose.

A good communications plan should consider many factors including external data, different audiences, brand and tone, resources, and much more.

Pulling together a donor communications plan

Most donor communication plans are pretty simple and revolve around ‘What we did last year.’

More advanced plans may include the line ‘But a bit better.’

Simple is good, but this is too simple. Donor communications are key – if you rely on individual donations they are your lifeblood. What you did last year, is probably what you did the year before and so on. At what point did someone work out what should be done?

In an article, it is hard to suggest what a perfect donor communications plan should be with so many diverse organisations, with different resources and donors but I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest some key aspects for pulling together comms plans for all organisations.

1. Audience

Audience can be split into various groups by channel of acquisition i.e. was this donor recruited by mail, phone, face-to-face or online and type of support i.e. are they a classic donor, regular giver, bequest or events donor.

The modern charity has diverse donors.

The ‘traditional’ donor (female, 55+, middle class suburb etc) still dominates for most, but those who have sensibly invested in face-to-face street and door-to-door recruitment of regular givers have a whole new audience of 30-50 year olds to deal with. Clearly these two groups should not get all of the same communications, all of the time – but they do share enough in common to get some of the same communications some of the time.

The essence of the communications are the same though. Thank the donor, ask them to please help more or keep giving. And deliver stories demonstrating the impact their donation is having.

2. Content

This is not rocket science. We call our approach to fundraising communications ‘The Pareto Way’ which really is another way of saying ‘making sure that we do everything that has been developed, tested and written about by marketing and fundraising experts from David Ogilvy to Mal Warwick’. Of course, we have tested and developed some tweaks and tactics, but the basics still work.

It is amazing what I see arrive in my letterbox and what I observe online from charities. Statistics, facts, ‘we are the largest blah blah’, ‘we have been around since 1982…’, ‘Australia’s leading blah blah’ etc which all the experts say not to do. Every good training course or book will tell you this.

Each and all of your communications should be story driven. Stories are what all marketers use to sell a product be it soap poweder, a new car or an ipod. One advantage we charities have over soap powder is that we have a plethora of stories at hand.

Content should be driven by stories about beneficiaries and enhanced with, ahem, more stories. All the material in a direct mail pack or newsletter, additional pieces (lifts), your response coupon – even reply envelopes should follow a theme and revolve around stories.

3. Tactics.

The old fashioned tactics still tend to work better. For appeals, Johnson boxes (the leader text above the ‘Dear Sean’ bit) still tend to lift response. Letters that look like letters, stories with a beginning, a middle and an end – just like direct mail from years ago tend to work. For newsletters, websites and emails, features linking donor and beneficiary (not pictures of CEOs getting big cheques) is what works best.

The key formula for appeal success is a letter, from one individual to another individual in first person singular that tells a story and makes a clear proposition. For non-ask communications like surveys, the same applies.

I think one reason that first person singular (I not we) makes for better reading is that it implies an acceptance of responsibility. Taking the time to explain the reason for why a gift is needed and what impact it will have, helps establish respect – I don’t expect you to give me money because I say so; I am willing to take the time to explain. This could go some way to explaining why longer copy and more inserts tend to lift response rates (despite donor focus groups leaning more towards ‘short and to the point’.

All the way through, I say ‘tend’. This is because it depends.

It depends on having a great, clear proposition, argument and case study. Sometimes these things are short, sometimes not. Sometimes they need lots of information, sometimes they do not. What is clear is that a good, personal communication linking donor and beneficiary always works better.

5. Media.

Whilst I have mostly spoken about mail examples, some rules apply across the board. Honesty, first person singular, one to one personal communication applies to email, phone and even face-to-face.

Deciding what media to use is important. It is easy to send only email appeals to donors recruited online, yet we see that emailing and mailing them will keep them closer, and get them giving more. Donors who generally respond to mail, should be emailed too. With phone recruited donors, we should generally also use mail and email. Basically, all forms of communication should be used with careful testing working out the optimum expenditure.

The final aspects when looking at a donor communications plan are timing and the number of communications sent.

There are some things that are a given for example a Christmas appeal tends to work better towards the end of the year. But many things are not as straightforward. When do you send your survey? What emails should go out? When do we talk about bequests? And the big one, how many communications should we send? How many is too many?

Part two in this series will look specifically at these areas in greater depth.

ADMA Forum 2010

Sean Triner along with guest presenters Chris Washington-Sare of Greenpeace, Trudi Mitchell of Cancer Council NSW and Cameron Watson formerly of World Vision will present a pre-forum workshop titled ‘Fundraiser’s Guide to the Ideal Comms Plan: How to Make Direct Marketing Raise More’ at ADMA Forum 2010. This exclusive workshop is all about pulling together a great communications strategy that takes into account your cause, your resources, your brand and your goals. Using real case studies and evidence Sean will show some counter-intuitive ideas, how to integrate new media, reduce time on newsletters and make donor communications ever more effective. The workshop will also help you develop the right measures for a good communications plan so you can easily demonstrate your successes to the board. Learning Outcomes Include:

  • Leave the session with a sketch of your revised communications plan
  • Understand budget and HR implications of your plan
  • Take away a communications checklist and examples of good communications

For more information about ADMA Forum 2010 visit

Comments are closed.