By Fiona Paterson
I love working on appeals, particularly the integrated campaigns we run. These appeals utilise digital and the phone alongside traditional direct mail. It gives me a chance to get absorbed by a great story, to remind myself why the charity we are helping exists. It also helps me connect with beneficiaries and remember that there are hundreds and thousands of wonderful Australians and New Zealanders out there who give their hard earned dollars to help others, even when their own financial situations may not be brilliant.
On the flip side sometimes I don’t love working on appeals. Because fundraisers are held to some pretty unrealistic expectations when it comes to their individual campaign outcomes.
For most the need to grow appeal income year-on-year is standard. But what happens when your audience is being asked to do more than just support your appeals? What happens when there is no acquisition to develop the base? What happens when market forces, like the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), threaten our audience’s capacity to give?
The context of an appeal
Christmas 2009 turned out to be a pretty tough one for lots of charities. At the start of 2010 I was in a ‘not loving appeal objectives’ frame of mind as more and more fundraisers began to ask me how had others Christmas appeals faired and set about trying to get a clear picture of the marketplace.
As a strategy director it’s hard for me to just look at individual appeals in isolation. I always want to know what the context is in which they are executed. Has there been much acquisition in the past year? Has the communications program/donor journey changed this year? Were new activities targeted at the audience preceding the appeal? Is a segmentation model used to target the activity? Has one been newly introduced? Was the messaging part of an ongoing, planned communication with donors? Was it an emergency message? And more…
But living in the real world means, as fundraisers, we mostly have to work to individual campaign targets.
I love, love, love, organisations that have the flexibility to look at their programs as whole – judging performance across the year, looking at combined returns across the gamut of activity being directed at the donor audience, but this is not the common practice.
So what happened with Christmas appeals to warm (previous) donors? I had a good dig around in the results of our clients, and spoke with a range of friends in other Charities.
What I found was that there was no one defining trend. A few organisations saw growth over their 2008 Christmas income; others found it harder and were seeing below or on par returns compared to 2008. On the whole however it appears that more appeals struggled than those that didn’t.
How did we do?
Increasing appeal income is not an unreasonable request. And for 2009 many organisations had this goal. In order to grow your appeal income you need to either increase average gift increase number of responses, increase your conversion of new donors to multi givers, increase your donor pool or a combination of these.
Most organisations maintained or grew their response rates. The contributing factors included:
- (Better) targeting;
- Focused efforts on high value/top 20 percent of donors;
- Channel integration (eg using phone and/or email);
- Utilising additional ‘waves’ of communication (follow up or chaser communications).
Many organisations saw average gifts plateau, and in some cases drop. The contributing factors here were:
- Depressed high value giving. Just a few high value donors not giving or reducing their giving amounts can have a big impact;
- Acquisition (in particular lower value cash recruitment). Recruiting more donors, at a lower value will see more lower value gifts, suppressing overall average gift; and
- Anecdotally donors indicating they simply could not give at their previous levels.
For those not making specific asks to donors and/or using their individual, prior giving levels as the basis for your ask, depression of average gifts may have been even larger.
Across the year I have had feedback from major donor fundraisers that their usual suspects were indicating they were not able to give in 2009 or only able to give at a lower levels than in previous years. This has extended through to cash appeals with high value donors tending to maintain response (with a couple of exceptions) but give less.
Those organisations that focused their efforts on this group reaped the rewards. Strong business cases presented justifying higher value giving, follow up communications and person-to-person asking (via face-to-face and phone) and personalised touches helped to encourage this valued group of donors to continue their support.
Context is so important.
Did you change your program in 2009? Maybe you felt the GFC required a change in tack? Did you increase your focus on regular giving conversion? Maybe you had learnings and insights from 2008 that saw you adjust you communications mix or the way you asked your donors?
An organisation I work with changed their 2009 donor communication program. Through the introduction of new tactics in their Spring appeal they saw a significant increase in income from increased response and average gifts. They also introduced an additional communication before Christmas, the purpose of which was donor care and information gathering but unexpectedly generated significant income (lovely donors). And they have increased their active asking (via phone and mail) of cash donors to convert to regular giving throughout 2009.
When it came to their Christmas appeal, major growth in comparison to their appeal in 2008 the previous year was not generated. On the face of it their 2009 Christmas appeal was deemed unsuccessful. Viewed in isolation this is a reasonable conclusion. However on closer inspection we can see over the course of 2009 many of their donors had:
- already given more than their previous annual value through increased average gifts and response rates in other appeals;
- converted to regular giving cash gifts but the value and/or frequency of these gift can reduce)
Also to note was the volume and value of high value gifts had not matched those received in 2008.
Just taking a direct comparison between 2008 and 2009, their Christmas appeal doesn’t look impressive. Looking at 2008 versus 2009 as a whole we can see that growth has been impressive (even without expectations that the GFC had the potential to suppress growth).
In fact, just in the last quarter, nearly twice as many people gave as compared to 2008.
To summarise, what we did observe with the Christmas appeals 2009 were:
1. Response rates were maintained or increased;
2. Average gifts decreased or were static;
3. Fewer people gave over $1,000
There are some other emerging trends to watch out for; most are reflective of or are driving, changing donor giving behaviours.
- More donors who used to only give through the post are now using our websites as a response channel
- The increasing use of email to support direct mail appeals is helping to improving response
- Below are three approaches showing encouraging returns:
- Integrating email, supporting direct mail approaches & driving online to give
- Using email drivers to reactivate lapsed donors
- Using email drivers to convert tepid* supporters to cash donors
- More opportunities/ways to give are being offered to our donors. Many organisations are increasing their approaches for regular giving conversion and upgrades, virtual gift campaigns are on the rise, and advocacy and campaigning approaches are increasing
- Charities are asking more often
On this last point I often get asked “How many times should I ask my donors for a donation each year?” To quote Jeff Brooks “this is the wrong question – the question should be; How can we be relevant in the lives of our donors?” There is no magic formula. It critical to understand that for many donors it takes more than one ask to solicit a gift but they do not want to be treated like ATMs.
The importance of relevance.
If your Christmas campaign, or any campaign for that matter, did not at least match your 2008 returns (and you haven’t lost a whole pile of your active donor base in some freak database accident) then I recommend you consider the relevance of the communication you sent to your donors.
And consider the stage in the relationship journey each donor is with you. There are many questions you should be asking yourself including key ones such as:
- Is this donor relatively new and do they know little about the topic?
- Has this donor heard it all before?
- How did they respond?
- Would they be expecting you to communicate with them at this time, about this issues with this ask?
To paraphrase Jeff Brooks in his Future Fundraising blog: ‘You can’t just raise funds for anything you want. If you go to your donors with a need, topic or ask they don’t associate you with, they just might ignore you in droves. No matter how great your work is.’
Tips for keeping your appeals on track
- Make sure your communications consider your audience and are relevant to them
- Ensure you are presenting a clear need and solution
- Connect donors to beneficiaries (not you, your brand or organisations)
- Tell a story your audience can connect with
- Plan your second gift conversion journey
- Focus your efforts on the top 20 percent (its where your income is coming form)
- Review your online donation real estate (Is it easy to find? Is it easy to fill in? Can it be adapted to reflect your appeal ask?)
- Explore channel integration (Email, Phone) – if you have low email or phone number penetration make 2010 your year to actively collect these. (Analysis shows us that even the presence of an email address or phone number on a donor record increases their retention likelihood)
- Segment and target – don’t mass mail
* Tepid Supporter – non-financial supporters such as activists, campaigners, e-news sign ups and non-cash donors such as event participants, lottery players and merchandise buyers
Jeff Brooks writes the best blog in fundraising, and we look forward to seeing him at the F&P Australasian Fundraising conference later this year click here and subscribe to his excellent, short updates
About Fiona Paterson
Fiona is a Fundraising and Direct Marketing professional with over ten years experience helping to find, keep and grow donors through the expert management of strategic fundraising and database marketing programs. Enthusiastic and passionate about data, Fiona has a solid background delivering successful fundraising programs globally for clients including ChildFund Australia, Children’s Cancer Institute of Australia, MSF Hong Kong, Leprosy Mission New Zealand and WWF-Australia.