The Pareto Principle
The fundraising pyramid, aided and abetted by the Pareto principle, has been the fundraising professional’s touchstone for many years now. Pareto was a polymath and, among other professions, a psychologist, who observed that in any group of organisms, 80% of the activity came from only 20% of the participants. Marketing experts use the same principle, knowing that in general they can obtain 80% of their orders from 20% of their customers. Once fundraisers had considered the Pareto principle in relation to maximising income from an organisation’s supporters, the information technology revolution had provided helpful computers with infinite storage and recall systems, and American direct mail gurus had tested every possible variation in appeal letters, there was little to do but sit back and let the money roll in. The majority of successful non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in North America, Europe and Australasia now pursue a fundraising strategy based on the Pareto principle and refined by the common experience of countless NGOs, from Church groups to pressure groups, and from hospitals to political parties.
The central tenet of the strategy is to build up those areas of fundraising that maximise income in the medium to long term, ie. , three to five years, the timescale best suited to maximising returns from investment in a donor-base. Of course, any areas of fundraising that look promising in the short term are not neglected; and you need to vary the mix of fundraising techniques as a defence against the effects of the product cycle (which says that any successful area of business runs down over time unless renewed or replaced). At each step up the pyramid the numbers giving funds decline, but the amount given increases, and it is only with extensive work at the top levels that the 80/20 ratio can be met.
The Fundraising Pyramid
The base of the pyramid consists of supporters who have made an initial donation or paid their first subscription. They are not, however, really supporters until they have made their second donation or renewed their subscription, as their initial gift may have been just a passing whim, spurred by an effective piece of fundraising. Fortunately, however, the trend among donors is away from impulsive giving and towards making deliberate choices of organisation, to which they remain committed, but only if they find the organisation effective in fulfilling their expectations. Unfortunately for those who like an easy life, these expectations are becoming more significant as donating out of a sense of duty is replaced by the baby boomers “one donation at a time” attitude which is increasing the volatility of donated income. Translating that initial gift into a lifetime’s support is therefore crucial, and starts with the organisation’s first contact with the donor. This should make them feel good about their gift, that it is appreciated, and will make a difference. It should be a positive experience, warm and timely, the start of a long-term relationship. Remember, at this point the donor has the highest regard for the organisation, and is very open to suggestions about how to help in future. Many organisations waste this opportunity by sending the annual report, the latest newsletter, any leaflet that comes easily to hand, and a photocopied letter from the director that has not had its date changed for a few decades.
The first communication should be one of thanks. From the code on the membership form returned by the supporter, you should know if joining or donating is in reply to an advertisement, a loose-leaf insert, or whatever, and the theme and content of the appeal. The letter should mention this: ‘Thank you for responding to our recent advertisement concerning …’.
If the real need is to develop monthly giving, this is the best time to emphasise and encourage it. Rarely will the donor be as receptive again.
Set out all the possible options for donors to help you (financially and otherwise), and allow them to choose simply, say, by ticking the appropriate box and returning the form in a reply-paid envelope. It is a good idea to use a brief questionnaire to learn more about your new friends.
Make sure that you do not put the organisation between the donor and the person they are trying to help. People give to people, not organisations. The results of split-testing direct mail letters (dividing the mailing list into at least two distinct parts with different codes on each reply device, so that the difference in pulling power between the variations in the pack can be accurately evaluated) indicate that recipients of direct mail letters tend to be very hesitant. They are by nature very shy, need clear, strong guidance about how to respond, and will not act at all if given the least cause for concern. In practice this means that if someone has to look for a stamp, write out their name and address, or buy an envelope, they are far less likely to reply. Hence it pays to make things really easy.
Keys to success
Offer a form with the donor’s name and address clearly printed on it, so that they have very little to fill in, preferably just tick-boxes stating how much they are giving.
Supply a FREEPOST or pre-paid envelope to return the form in.
Make matters easier for yourself by using window envelopes in conjunction with the address on the reply form, thus avoiding the need to match two labels in the same pack.
Legal note: the Data Protection Act
Under the Data Protection Act, if you intend to hold names and addresses on computer, then you should let people know clearly at the point of joining if you intend to use these for any purpose supporters would not normally associate with membership or the reason why they responded. The information must be as clearly presented as all other information. According to the Data Protection Register’s particular view, this does not include reciprocal mailings from other organisations. These are classified as trading, not direct mail . You must register such activity as trading and ensure people can opt out of such activity at the point of joining. As the European Data Protection legislation comes into force do check to ensure that people do not need to opt in to such activities. There is more information in Managing a Fundraising Department. It is a wise precaution to include this information in the new members’ pack as well, mentioning that people can opt out if they wish. Many organisations are now often mentioning reciprocals in their advertising and other first-point-of-contact literature.
Second Level of the Pyramid
On the second level of the pyramid are donors who have responded to an appeal. (Usually this will have been a direct mail appeal.) Ways of soliciting donations, in descending order of effectiveness, are:
This order reflects the fact that these methods are progressively more personal and more interactive. The first two methods allow questions about the organisation to be answered immediately. The most cost-effective approach to ask for additional funds from existing donors, for organisations where the donor-base is in the tens or hundreds of Thousands, is usually by direct mail letter. A number of these can be sent each year, provided they have a genuine and persuasive reason for requesting that extra donation. Test to ascertain the point at which an increase in the number of appeals becomes counter-productive. The maximum appears to be twelve per year, largely because most people are paid twelve times in the year, but many organisations limit their appeals to a maximum of six per year, for logistical reasons and because, when appeals have arrived within a month of each other, the results have been far worse than expected. Most organisations seem to average four per year.
In between these appeals members usually receive a newsletter. This serves a very important function for the organisation. The newsletter is the key mechanism whereby your relationship with your supporters is built up and developed. It should
educate readers regarding the nature of the organisation they have joined, its objectives, how these are achieved, and how effective and efficient the organisation is in achieving them.
show clearly that the cause is worth supporting, ie. that a very serious problem exists and that the organisation is addressing it effectively.
Through reading the newsletter the supporter should become more knowledgeable about the organisation in a way that leads to a long-term commitment. There is no reason why the supporter should not also be led to become a campaigning activist as well as an active donor, e.g. by writing letters or joining a local group; but the prime purpose of a national membership or donor-base is to secure the financial future of an organisation.
The psychology of activists (and staff and volunteers) is very different to that of donors. Activists basically give time, and donors mainly give money. Neither should be made to feel guilty about this, or that their contribution is in some way second best.
Activists are usually brought together in local groups for mutual support. Donating, on the other hand, is often a lone or perhaps a family event. Acknowledgement of this act is the key to its repetition. The thank-you letter (or phone call) should be prompt, apt and friendly, letting recipients know that the organisation has appreciated their personal generosity and will use the money in the way that was intended, and to good effect.
During their lifetime a person may, however, change from being a student activist to, say, being a young donor, then a local group activist, then a top donor and later leave a legacy, so make sure your supporters realise you welcome these changes.
Third Level of the Pyramid
The third level of the pyramid is populated by those who have arranged with their bank to make a regular (usually monthly) donation to the organisation, as well as paying their subscription. Often the inducement for this method of giving is a donor club whose subscription is much larger than the usual fee. In return, club members receive special privileges. Many organisations have several of these clubs with different levels of giving: for example, the WWF had Gold, Silver and Bronze members. The Medical Foundation has their “Friends of the Foundation” who covenant £30 per month and meet once a year for dinner with a celebrity speaker and their charismatic Director. American zoos have the Chairman’s, Keepers’ and Friends’ Clubs. Often their club members pay substantial fees. This system is possible, firstly, because people are usually paid monthly, and a relatively small monthly donation is much easier than the same sum taken from one month’s pay; and, secondly, because the clubs are formed to meet the needs of donors at higher levels of giving.
Often, monthly givers are not approached again with regular appeals. (Sometimes this is used as an inducement to become a monthly giver.) This is a mistake, however, as donors soon miss the involvement of helping by responding to appeals, and receiving their regular thank-you letters, and would begin donating again as well as maintaining their covenants. Many donors cannot even remember with which organisations they have standing orders or covenants. Often they donate to show approval of a particular project, and miss that close involvement with the work of the organisation when they become monthly givers and the opportunity represented by appeals is taken away. Club members are usually among the highest givers to appeals. Amnesty International in the UK has a club, the ‘Partners of Conscience’ scheme, whereby members make out a covenant for at least £25 per month. A covenant allows the charity to collect from the government the tax paid by donors on their gifts. Amnesty club members receive a smart but discreet lapel pin in gold and black, bearing Amnesty’s logo and the club name.
Segment your donors into groups by dividing them up on the basis of their previous gifts (in total, per annum and by the largest amount given at one time). This analysis should reveal how many clear categories they fall into, and so how many clubs you could create. Think carefully about the appropriate level of giving and rewards for each club. This will usually be a rather messy value judgement, and should involve a testing programme to ascertain what level of annual or monthly gift people are happy with, and which rewards meet their own needs best. These can be needs for recognition, thanks, a feeling of armchair involvement, actual hands-on experience of the work, confirmation of status or real improvement in social status, the opportunity to meet celebrities, etc. It is usually worthwhile to test your ideas by discussing them with small groups of supporters, being very careful not to lead them to tell you just what you want to hear.
Covenants are a promise to pay a stipulated amount for at least four years for no material consideration, ie. any return to the donor must be of very little value. It is worth checking the assumed worth of your newsletter or other club benefits with your VAT inspector. The covenant can, however, run on for the donor’s lifetime, so it is not wise to put a finishing date on the covenant form.
Covenants can only be made out to a registered charity, which can then reclaim the tax already paid on sums donated. Incidentally, the Charities Aid Foundation runs an excellent scheme, administering covenants and collecting the tax for those charities which find this an administrative burden. Even many quite large charities become hopelessly behind in reclaiming their tax. Linking the covenant to a direct debit is sensible, as the bank’s administration of banker’s orders has become a nightmare. In much of Europe this will take the form of an auto giro payment; which will be paid into a post office along with the monthly utility payments. Check a variety of other organisations’ literature to see how covenants are best made out stylistically but always take legal advice on the final form and remember the law is different in Scotland (you will need to have “signed as a hologram” on the form – honestly).
Fourth Level of the Pyramid
The next level of the pyramid is drawn from those who make a special, major gift to the organisation. Usually, these people are researched, located and systematically approached to support special projects requiring large donations. This could be in relation to a capital appeal (say, for a new building) or for an important new area of work, etc. The solicitation can be done in one of several ways.
Potential major donors are often already members of monthly giving clubs, and many organisations do very well merely by creating separate clubs for their top donors which have very high entrance fees and suitable incentives. Often major donors can be found by comparing your donor-base with lists of affluent individuals. The best fundraising consultancies should be able to do this for you electronically. The third key route to discovering major donors is by encouraging your known major donors and influential supporters to use their networks to produce prospects for you.
The best approach is always face-to-face, whether you are raising a few hundred pounds for a playgroup or a few million for a new University building. The approach should be made by someone in the same peer group as the potential donor, preferably someone who is known to them and who has given a large donation themselves.
Whether the approach is through a personal visit or by phone, letter or email, a persuasive case needs to be developed beforehand, and presented along with a clear statement of the amount being asked for. Research will be needed to ascertain the level at which each person can give. It is important to suggest an amount or range within which the donation may fall otherwise the person being asked is left in the uncomfortable situation of not knowing if they will be thought foolish giving at a one level or mean giving at another. If your director has charm or charisma they may have to be the person to undertake the approaches. Do think long term. Large donations are raised by such fieldwork over a number of years.
Big gift clubs and individual solicitations to potential major donors are key techniques in the fundraiser’s repertoire. The Pareto principle shows just how important they can be for your organisation.
The Apex of the Pyramid
Finally, at the apex of the donor pyramid, sits the legacy or bequest programme or, as it is increasingly called, the ‘planned giving’ programme. A bequest leaving a percentage of the estate is often called a residuary legacy. There are also pecuniary legacies where a sum of money is left, and specific bequests where an object is left. Always let people know that a valuable object is quite acceptable. Many charities have been left valuable oil paintings, china collections and even houses! Reversionary or life interest wills are those that take care of friends or family by giving them a stated interest in the estate. A member of the family might, for example, be allowed to live in the house during their lifetime, which would afterwards revert to the charity. This is a useful way of securing the interests of the family and still ensuring that a charity benefits.
Sources of legacies
Legacies appear to come from two sources. One source is people who have never made a donation to the organisation and do not appear anywhere in the records; and the other is people who have given regularly through a large part of their lifetime and continue that practice by planning their future and final gift. Interestingly, legacies come equally from both sources. This means that you should take a broad approach.
Remind all supporters that it is possible to leave money or goods to the organisation in their will (and, if it is a charity, that it can be done most tax-effectively), after they have taken care of their families. This can be done through your newsletter by an insert of your legacy leaflet and by mentions of large gifts you have received.
Those who are not known supporters also need to be reached. The main method of doing this is to advertise a free will-making guide in the press and, naturally, to introduce the organisation in that guide.
There are bound to be a number of lawyers on the donorbase who could undertake this. (A donors’ research questionnaire will tell you which newspapers and magazines the supporters read.) It is customary in doing this to ask the recipient to let the organisation know if they are leaving a legacy to it. For example, by offering an incentive to do so in the form of a small but suitable gift such as a pen, badge or book, or putting their name in a remembrance book. A remembrance book may seem a quaint idea but if you are leaving money in your will the thought that your generosity will be recorded permanently is very powerful.
Generally, incentives work well and are a useful tool for the fundraiser. In many areas of fundraising, from appeals to the returning of lifestyle questionnaires, the introduction of incentives yields an improved response.
If you use incentives they should be:
appropriate to the organisation. (For example, Amnesty sometimes uses a pen as an incentive because it calls on its members to write letters, and Friends of the Earth will plant a tree in the name of someone leaving a legacy.)
of good quality, because, to the donor, they reflect the quality of the organisation’s work.
accompanied, when used in an appeal, by a clear indication of the level of giving you would like to see, so that the donor feels comfortable at that level, rather than worrying about being thought foolish for giving so much or mean for giving so little.
In Amnesty’s loose-leaf inserts a good quality fountain pen was offered to people who gave £35 or more. Split tests showed that this led to a rise in the number of people giving £35, and an even bigger rise in the number who gave £50. The perceived value of the pens was, of course, much higher than their actual cost, and the increase in income was at least five times greater than the added cost.
The psychology behind incentives used in this way is that they give reassurance, rather than a reason to give. If you give donors an incentive to return a coupon which indicates planned giving, they receive a message that the organisation regards this as an important way of helping. They respond to that message, rather than simply acting to gain the incentive.
Visiting solicitors and bank managers
An interesting method of encouraging legacies is to organise a volunteer team to visit solicitors and bank managers, letting them know all about the organisation and leaving posters and leaflets for them to use if asked by a client to advise on an appropriate charity to which money can be left. Though solicitors will not put forward any particular organisation without being asked, they are often called on to suggest names of organisations in certain categories. Advertising in the Law Society Gazette or Solicitors’ Journal serves a similar purpose, as these are the two main publications shown to clients from which to pick a charity. There is no research to suggest how effective the plethora of other publications might be. See also Legacy Leaflets
Befriending elderly supporters
In recent years a new approach has grown up which is very close to a much needed social work programme for the elderly. This works extraordinarily well and will become a very large component of most voluntary sector organisations’ fundraising, though it is still in its infancy. The approach is for a full-time member of staff to identify those people who are both elderly and major supporters of the organisation, and to return to them some of the kindness they have shown to the charity during their active lives. This can range from the occasional call, to spending time with the donor, to carrying out errands and assisting with difficulties. This is always at the donor’s complete discretion, and does not involve any approach for funds. This service is often very highly valued by the elderly.
Other techniques for use inside the pyramid
There are several other fairly significant ways of drawing funds from supporters in the pyramid. The most important of these for many organisations are raffles .
Another key area is trading. Supporters provide a sympathetic niche market and will buy branded goods at a premium. This operation can also be used to provide a springboard for selling outside the pyramid to the general public through licensing deals, the stocking of branded goods in shops and on-pack promotion.
The fundraising pyramid is now a traditional tool but one which has been improved by good practice over the years. Relationship fundraising has codified much of this improvement though how closely our fundraising can match with all our donors’ needs and still remain efficient has yet to be determined.
What is certain is that for any organisation that can raise large numbers of supporters the pyramid provides a simple framework for effectively maximising the income from those supporters over a number of years.
All donations from individuals or companies, no matter how small, are now available for Gift Aid (this scraps the old £250 limit from 6 April 2000), and everyone can join the scheme by a simple phone call or by sending an email message. This must be followed up within thirty days by a written declaration stating that the donor wishes the charity to be able to reclaim any tax they have paid on the donation. Higher bracket taxpayers can, as before, reclaim the difference between their rate and the next lowest rate for themselves. The declaration can be backdated to 6 April 2000.
It can also be for all donations from 6 April into the indefinite future. A Gift Aid declaration can be revoked on future donation and it has a thirty day ‘cooling off’ period, within which it can also be revoked.
Gift Aid declaration forms can be introduced in many inventive ways. For example, they could be on the back of tickets to an event, provided that they referred to a donation not to a fixed ticket price, and the donor could therefore have enjoyed the event for free.
Current conditions are available from the HMRC, http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/charities/gift-aid.htm . Remember that for companies, Gift Aid forms cannot be used if the company has paid via its charitable trust or via the CAF (Charities Aid Foundation).
Incidentally, tax relief given under a deed of covenant will now move to be covered by the Gift Aid scheme; but it remains to be seen if this process scuppers the chances of tying in donors to a four year promise, and increases the volatility of donations, which would not be helpful. Covenants should still be regarded as good vehicles to retain committment over the long term.
Age may play an important part, as younger professionals give to their causes through TV and older viewers stay with press ads and direct mail. This means that charities have to keep a very careful check on their supporters’ age profile, to avoid being wiped out as the age of those using TV to give rises inexorably. Conversely, fundraisers may need to segment their appeals with care. Do you advertise for legacies on TV, to get into the wills of young professionals, or do you advertise in the press to reach the older generation? Can you afford to do both? We could be entering a very uncertain era, where the old adage of ‘test, test and test again’ becomes the most important touchstone of our efforts.
Much more importantly, demographic changes are arguably the largest current external challenge to fundraisers. Those people now in their sixties, seventies and eighties are said to give out duty. Traditionally they gave relatively small amounts (a heritage of war-time prudence ?) but on a consistent basis to a select few charities. They also kept on giving, almost obstinately, unless the charity really upset them. Fundraisers relying on these people, and most charities typical donor was an elderly lady, are now faced with a wake up call of alarming proportions. The next generational cohort of donors are the baby boomers and we are selfish, fickle and demanding. Baby boomers are numerous and have lots of money which they give in large amounts. They cannot see the point in making a five pound donation which will be used up in processing charges. They are more likely to give £50 but they won’t give again unless they are satisfied with their interaction with the charity. Boomers won’t put up with inefficiency or charities that are not addressing their concerns. There is no giving from duty or loyalty. They will move to the next charity as soon as they perceive a new problem that needs solving, and they will move on if the charity doesn’t seem to be sorting the problem out pronto.
Well educated and politically aware, boomers are reached through leaflets in magazines, direct mail and all new media. Boomers expect charity literature to be professionally written and well presented. Poor quality paper and badly printed photographs will not say economy and careful use of funds to them. It will say “We are hopelessly unprofessional in everything we do and we will waste your donation on poor quality trash”. It costs much more to recruit a boomer and it may take two years before it becomes profitable but the profit will be considerable if you can retain their interest. They are living longer and believe in spending their parents money which is now coming down to them in the form of houses they do not need. The effect of the lack of adequate pension care for their long healthy old age is likely to be met as much by continued economic activity as by frugality (not a boomer characteristic). Boomer children, if they have any expectations, are going to be disappointed as boomers like to spend (on themselves) and party (lifestyle is crucial for them).
Boomers need to be nurtured and brought into the work of the charity in the same way they buy into commercial goods. The brand name is one they have to be happy seeing on their coffee table. What is the lifestyle of a donor to Amnesty International, to Oxfam, to the British Heart Foundation, to UNICEF, to Save the Children etc ? Which will boomers support ? Re-branding is essential right now for many charities who are blindly ploughing on in the face of falling incomes. Boomers want to know just what their money is buying and expect to be thanked quickly and offered the opportunity to see over the work. Once they feel a part of the organisation boomers will give large sums. At this stage they like to meet celebrities. The me generation expects to have its rewards.
Think also about the fact that women are working en masse and have developed new life styles that do not resemble those of charities little old lady donors. We need a completely new approach to capture and hold their interest. In showing supporters around the Medical Foundation (we have five Open Days per year) I am always struck by the questions men ask about numbers of clients, total income of the organisation and the number of staff. Women on the other hand ask about the interaction between clients and clinical staff. Like all generalities, if observations like this are to be used in say, segmented appeals to donors, then they need careful testing.
Beyond the boomers are their dot-com Thatcherite children that don’t give to anything away and generation X’ers who have absolutely nothing to give anyway. The picture is not, however, entirely bleak and every cohort has passions and can be reached but churning out the same old appeals just will not work. There are now strong generational differences at play and we need to respond to them.
These are laid out in Judith Nichols fascinating book “Global Demographics – Fundraising for a New World” in which she explores the giving patterns of each of these cohorts in detail.
The other demographic quality of the UK is its ethnic mix. In my experience, charities do not have a particularly good track record of promoting staff from ethnic minorities (in particular black and Asian staff) to middle or senior management positions. Neither have they attracted donations from ethnic minorities. These donations will, of course, go more often to needy minority projects. Indeed, as minority populations establish themselves in a new country, profits will be ploughed back into building businesses, and salaries into helping other members of the family survive and develop. We are, however, now at a time when mature minority populations have the ability to make both ordinary gifts and very large donations but with some notable exceptions this is not taking place.
I have no magic formula to address this; but I suspect that this problem will only be solved when charities promote ethnic minority staff with ease, and their experience begins to permeate the literature, outlook and branding of the charity. I do not think this is likely to lead to fundraising campaigns aimed at ethnic minorities but that it will capture the individual who is ready to give but would otherwise be put off by the way the charity promotes itself. This is all to do with subtle indicators of a lack of inclusion and understanding rather than (except in some cases) a completely naff approach.
As a fundraiser, I am deeply fascinated by supermarkets’ checkout tills, with such huge amounts of money passing through such a small space so quickly.
Why not introduce your organisation’s leaflet next to all those tills, with a simple bold appeal and a bar-code so that donations can be rung up? £5 to ‘Save the Snails’ would appear on your grocery bill alongside your cabbage, etc., and at the end of the month the chain of stores would pay a huge sum into your organisation’s bank account.
Of course, bar-codes have many uses. Your organisation’s membership card could have a bar-code on it so that your members, too, could give £5 every time they shopped; and when they took part in your AGM they could be booked in, out, and vote, all by means of their card. They could also use the card to pay reduced fees on a large range of products. It might even reduce your membership drop out rate considerably.
Bar-codes could also reduce your processing time and cost for appeals. Next to each address on the coupon a bar-code could be read, instead of the membership number being entered or the whole name and address being typed into your database. The Post Office should not be far behind in being able to deliver letters by means of bar codes. This would mean much greater accuracy for deliveries
and for your database memory.
Bar-code readers are relatively inexpensive and their speed and accuracy are very high. The only current limitation on their use is your imagination. Eventually, they will be used by all charities – but you can steal a march on them and move up the learning curve by investing in the technology now.
The secret of charity advertising
The secret of advertising for charities is to prevent your advertising agency from trying to enhance your profile or engage in “prestige” advertising which just boosts your brand awareness, but to have them treat the advertisement just like a piece of direct mail which requires an immediate response. An excellent book on advertising is Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy, who founded the giant advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather. It was published by Guild Publishing in 1985, but I doubt if it is still in print. If you see it, buy it!
Commercial advertising and charity advertising: the crucial difference Good commercial advertising works long after the advertisement has been seen. It makes sure that when the customer is looking for a product he or she has a favourable impression of the company’s brand firmly in mind at decision-making time. It takes a long time (and often much money) to establish this. The advertiser will know what benefits the customer is likely to require from the product – customers are purchasing the benefits of the product not the product itself – and which newspapers, journals and TV spots the customer is likely to watch. This will be established through thorough research. You can use similar techniques to discover where it is best to advertise for new supporters, and who are the most likely kinds of people to support your cause.
The crucial difference is, however, that your supporters will be required to respond immediately by filling in a coupon and posting it with their cheque to your organisation. This means that they must stop their perusal of the paper and feel so strongly that something must be done about your cause that they will fill out the coupon there and then. The way to do this is to create a powerful headline to hold their interest and a dramatic picture that tells a significant part of the story, with just enough text to bring them to the most important part – the coupon. The coupon must be large enough to fill in easily.
The headline is often much harder than the rest of the text for an agency copywriter to compose, because they are trained to write a line which tells the story and sticks in your mind for a long while afterwards. This is often done with an intellectual twist, such as a pun or play on words. If the story is told in the headline the reader will ‘get the picture’ and move on. A good charity headline impels the reader, if he or she has a heart, to read the rest of the text and then to respond. This is not easy for copywriters trained to write commercial advertisements. The headline must be physically large and bold to stand out above the other headlines on the page.
The text can be quite long (but need not be the full page format which Amnesty almost, alone among not for profits, has found successful). A succinct statement of the problem, and why joining or giving money will help to solve it, is all that is really needed for most organisations. A large amount of text requires a brilliant copywriter who makes it well worthwhile for the reader to read every word. If one paragraph is boring, unnecessary or irritating, the reader will turn over the page.
Judging advertising copy
Most advertising copy will be short, as the advertisements will only occupy a small space on the page. Legibility is the first requirement. Do not be tempted to cram a large amount of copy, however well written, into such a small space that it is hard to read. People just will not bother to read it and will turn the page. Be ruthless with your copywriter in this regard. Do not reverse out your text, (“reversed out” is white print on a black background). If you really must do this, make sure you see a proof but beware the newspapers own printing which is often not up to reversed out text. Is the text large enough to read easily ? Agency staff often have much better eyesight than your middle aged supporters. The copy must make a connection between the headline (with supporting picture), and the coupon. It must answer the question, ‘Why should I give you my money?’ It is not an explanation of your organisation. Resist the temptation to say more than you need to. The main objective is direct response – it is not a funny joke or an attack on your competition. It describes what the problem is, how your organisation can solve it, and how the kind and gentle reader can help.
It is human and personal. Good copy is so well written you do not know you have just read it until you are writing out your cheque. It is a call to action for a very good reason. So, the writing flows. It is not stilted and does not talk up or down to its readership. It sounds like a friend. One of us!
The copy must be no longer than it needs to be to obtain a response. A single problem raised in the reader’s mind will give an excuse for not giving. More than one and you are in trouble. Go through all copy looking for turn-off points. If in doubt, cut the word or phrase right out rather than trying to find an acceptable substitute.
When he or she is composing, your copywriter should think just like your supporters, and they should aim to use the same words and mental images that they do. It helps to brief the copywriter on the demographic profile of your supporters. The better the picture you can build up, the more effective the copy will be.
Use focus groups to discuss your advertising. This will enable you to cut across all those unpleasant truths that you have mentally screened out. Did no one respond because a plane crash was first in the news, or because your advertisement did not really make a convincing case for support? You know you have got it right when your existing supporters give to your advertisements. They are saying, ‘This is why we joined! This is what we think is important!’ Listen to them.
The picture, with the headline, should clearly convey as much as possible about the problem or the work concerned. Do make sure that you have the copyright for any picture you use. If you are using an agency picture which has featured in the media this can be expensive, but iconographic images that the reader has seen before will convey much more than a picture seen for the first time. Often disasters and problems are encapsulated in one image that comes to stand for the situation with all its complexities. For example, pictures of sick and malnourished prisoners behind barbed wire in Serbian camps once summed up the whole conflict in former Yugoslavia. Creating an image that does this for your cause will be a very powerful tool in persuading people to help you. You can let the picture state most of your argument, but it need not be shocking.
The ASA code of practice
If your cause is important, then something in your advertisement will probably shock, but it should not offend. Seek advice from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) if you are in any doubt. This will help to avoid the situation where you spend time and money creating an advertisement, only to find no one will use it because it contravenes the ASA code of practice. The code of practice is voluntary and, if you do offend, you will just be asked not to use that advertisement again; but being seen to infringe the code will not help to gain you support. Complaints are published, even if they are not upheld. Reply immediately to any enquiry from the ASA, as a delay in response can mean you are infringing the code. Bad publicity is much worse than good or even neutral publicity, and can damage your organisation.
You can obtain a copy of the code of practice from the ASA at Brook House, 2-16 Torrington Place, London WC1E 7HN.
The coupon must be preceded by a call to action, such as ‘Please join us today’. The customary ‘today’ is used to give urgency to the message. If the reader thinks they will send off the coupon next week it will languish, tucked into the side of the mantelpiece mirror, or simply never leave the newspaper. Direct mail letters have been used to carefully test different approaches and have shown that the simple psychology of giving a date by which the reply must be received (‘Reply by the 27th and receive a free clock’) or a reason for writing immediately (‘Hurry whilst stocks last’) increases the response very significantly. You can think of many ways of adding a note of urgency: ‘Any delay means they will …’ The coupon should make it abundantly clear just what you are asking for.
If you would like a donation, say so, and suggest the amount. This is not the total amount of the appeal, which would just make an individual contribution look puny, but the amount you desire from each donor.
It helps to give a variety of amounts with tick-boxes, which gives the donor confidence they are giving an acceptable amount. If, as often happens when you open the envelope, there is no cheque enclosed, it enables you to write back effectively. The tick-boxes really help people not to feel foolish about giving away a lot of money, and not to think you just need £35(much of which will go in administering the donation).
Have the highest amount on the left, so that people give the highest they feel comfortable with rather than the lowest. The theory is that, as people read from left to right, they will work their way along the line of boxes to the amount with which they feel comfortable. If the boxes are the other way around they will feel comfortable much earlier. Interestingly, however, many people seem to give the amount which is in the middle of the range. Circling the ‘average’ donation in the range can help to upgrade small donors.
Make sure that the coupon is large enough for everyone to write their name and address clearly. Include ‘postcode’ in the address space because handwriting is often difficult to decipher, and the postcode is often the most legible part of the address. Use Mr, Ms or your preferred combination. This is very important, as later you could be laser printing these names, addresses and salutation on to an appeal letter. It will be much more personal and effective if you can address people by their name rather than merely as ‘Dear friend’.
A FREEPOST address helps. No one ever has a stamp to hand, and waiting to find or buy one means the urgency goes out of the appeal. If you wish to set up a FREEPOST address, contact your nearest Post Office manager. The address will be the same as your current address, apart from the postcode, and you can alter the rest as you like. The service is quite cheap. The words ‘You do not have to use a stamp but it will save us postage’ also seem to work for those who do have stamps to hand, and will save you money. About a third of replies respond to this message.
Remember to put your name and logo on the coupon or elsewhere in large type. The vast majority of people who see your advertisement will not respond but, by associating your organisation with the copy, people will begin both to learn about your work and to think you are an active organisation. Your current members and donors will also gain that impression. In fact, members often return the coupon with a donation to show their support for the part of your work featured in the advertisement. For aesthetic reasons designers always create tiny logo’s – be decisive about changing this. Advertising looks like action.
It is essential to monitor the results of all your advertising. All your coupons should have a code on them signifying from which advertisement, in which newspaper, on which date, they have come.
Position on the page
The advertisement’s position in the newspaper is important. Do not just buy the cheapest space. People read the papers selectively. If you are a third-world development organisation it makes sense to test the foreign news pages. Do not neglect the front page. It may be twice as expensive but nearly everyone reads it, and it has impact and memorability, yielding results that are often more than twice as good as those from other spaces. Test space rigorously, but remember that this is difficult because the news has a habit of changing each day.
The simplest and most effective piece of pre-advertising research is to survey your existing membership. This can be done through a printed questionnaire placed in your newsletter with a letter of explanation and a FREEPOST envelope.
People love questionnaires, and you will continue to receive the replies for years after your closing date (heavily prompted with a note of urgency). You can ask a lot of questions. Thirty questions is not uncommon. Unless you can retain this information against your membership records (without offending the Data Protection Registrar) the survey should be completely anonymous. Expect at least one in five questionnaires back; though sometimes as many as three in five are returned.
If you have the computer facilities to keep a mass of information on each member, then you can abandon anonymity and, using a window envelope, send the questionnaires out like direct mail with the name and address already on the form. This may reduce the rate of return, and will mean that your explanation of how you will use the data should be very clear and reasonable, but it will give you an excellent chance to segment and target those who respond. Some organisations waste no time and do this in their new members’ pack.
In general your questions will ascertain the demographics of your donor-base. So you will find out:
how old they are
what kind of education they have had
what they do at work and play
how much they earn
which parts of your work they think are most important
which newspapers and magazines they read. (A list for them to tick will indicate where you should advertise and place your loose-leaf inserts.)
Where to place your advertisement in the paper is not the only thing you should test. A key rule in fundraising, if not the key rule, is to test as much as possible. You don’t really know anything until you have tested it. So, test concepts as well. Amnesty concentrates on individuals in its advertisements as a way of reaching the public; but it could concentrate on countries or themes like torture or political killing. There are probably many different ways of putting across your organisation’s work. With advertising, the difficulty of testing is that the response will vary depending on the paper you use, the position on the page and, most importantly, what else is featured in the press on that day. This means that exact testing is impossible. The willingness of people to support your organisation’s work may not appear to be affected by what else is in the news, but be very careful. There could be several other charity advertisements in the same issue and one of them may relate to a news story, which may mean that readers are drawn to support someone else, or your cause appears insignificant by comparison.
Much use has been made of focus groups , and they are easy to arrange through an agency. The idea is that groups of your supporters and others, who have not joined, are brought together, usually in the evening with some food and drink, and asked their opinion of a variety of advertisements. This has to be done very skilfully. Unless you are an expert, the group will miraculously reflect your opinions straight back to you. In theory, focus groups should give you a real idea of why people are attracted to your adverts or put off by them. Your advertising agency should be able to arrange focus groups for you.
Sometimes, we have to take what people say with a bag of salt as they often act completely differently. Focus groups told Amnesty that their strong advertisements were a turn-off and that they would never read or respond to them. In practice, however, it is to the stronger advertisements that people have responded by actually joining.
This is not to say that you will learn nothing from focus groups. Amnesty learnt that people respond best if they can identify with just one individual (rather than read about dozens of people suffering), often saying that they felt they had to act to prevent another individual suffering in that way. If you can afford focus groups, try them out, and you will be surprised how informative they can be.