Raising Funds from Members
Appeals to members or donors are very similar to prospecting letters. Naturally, you are dealing with a sympathetic and knowledgeable audience, although, if your organisation is rapidly expanding, it is unwise to expect too much sophisticated knowledge from the new supporters (who, incidentally, will also be the most likely to give). You should, therefore, be careful to explain all those internal references and inscrutable acronyms.
This means that you should appeal not just for the organisation in general, but for new, real needs that they would not expect their membership fee or initial donation to cover. This is possibly the most important factor in appeals. They must come across as genuine pleas for additional urgently needed funds, not just the usual bi-monthly appeal for more money.
Successful organisations typically appeal between four and six times in the year, often sending a newsletter between the appeals. The number of these appeals can be increased until the financial return threatens to drop below the cost. In some organisations it is quite possible to appeal twelve times in the year relying on the commitment of supporters who are, of course, usually paid monthly. A typical fundraising programme, however, contains a combination of direct mail appeals with a monthly giving programme and ‘soft’ fundraising in the newsletter to provide a greater variety of interest for the recipients.
Soft fundraising includes raffles, legacy appeals, merchandising catalogues and member-gets-member schemes.
Taking each element of the appeal package in turn:
The covering envelope as with all fundraising techniques, some thought needs to go into even this the simplest of devices in the appeal package.
Imaginative envelope design can be very effective. An appropriate picture and phrase helps recipients realise what the contents are about and should entice them to open the envelope, but be careful not to mislead them into thinking the appeal is something else entirely. They will not be well disposed towards you if they feel they have been deceived into opening the letter. Different sizes, colours and textures of envelopes are useful in making a distinction between different approaches, and avoid your appeals seeming like a routine affair.
A return address is important (it need not go on the front of the envelope). Do make sure your membership department is ready to adjust the changes in names and addresses from returned envelopes, which are usually marked ‘gone away’, “deceased” etc.
A window envelope is useful, as you can then place the name and address on the return coupon (positioned to show through the window) and save donors the chore of writing it out for you – which they will inevitably do in a way that differs slightly from your records. The resulting confusion can last for years. Sometimes the donor will just return a cheque without filling in their name, and if you have no name and address your records will not be able to allocate the gift correctly. This will also cost you dearly if you begin donor clubs based on amounts previously given and you wish to issue end of year letters thanking people for their help. (In the US that letter forms the basis for the charitable tax returns which are deductible against American income tax. Americans giving to a UK charity will also appreciate this consideration from you).
Naturally, you should use the Post Office’s Mailsort system to keep your costs down, unless you are mailing to a special group who you feel should receive something different. By the way, short runs are not liable for the Mailsort discount. A real postage stamp or one of the Post Office’s special issue stamps will be appropriate and make the recipient feel more personally involved. A first-day cover can be used to great effect especially if it is relevant to the organisation. Contact the Post Office to discuss the possibility of a special stamp – though they do have a long waiting list, and very few organisations are likely to be accepted. You can also have your logo on the Post Office cancellation stamp – at a cost.
The letter Ideally you should select the most highly respected person in your organisation to sign the letter – but not to write it, which should always be done by a copywriter or experienced fundraiser. Rarely does your CEO have the talent for this though they may believe they do. If so try a split test with a copywriters letter. It will not work unless it is written specifically to bring in donations, and the sincerity and enthusiasm for the work to be done with that money must be clear. These are definitely not thank-you letters or progress reports, which should be kept separate from appeals.
The basic format of the letter is a statement of
the current need
what your organisation can do about it
how the donation will be used
a very clear request for money.
As far as possible use examples of real individuals and the problems they have that you are trying to solve. One individual with a strong story is much more effective than a dozen, hundred or thousand people. Several such “cases” can be brought into an appeal letter.
Supporting material Lots of other material can be added, but they should all build up the case for the donation and be specially designed, not just added because they happen to be around at the time.
A lift letter from an appropriate celebrity (or expert) can help a great deal, as can a leaflet showing the problem in pictures. Imaginative and money spinning additions have included a piece of opaque plastic to demonstrate the effect of cataracts; postcards to MPs protesting at the problem and saying, ‘ I have today given a donation to help’; and harrowing pictures sent in a separate envelope clearly marked ‘Harrowing pictures: do not open if you may be upset’. Personally, I have always been drawn to maps, and find them a very useful and effective addition to an appeal – provided they do not replace the personal stories.
As usual, always test such material by sending out a separately coded control pack, without the enclosure, and seeing which is more productive. Then you will really learn about your donors’ preferences and increase your effectiveness and fundraising skills. Try testing something in each appeal.
The FREEPOST envelope Make it easy for your donors and give them a FREEPOST envelope in which to return their cheque. They will also use it to return letters of complaint, and sometimes stuff the whole appeal back into the envelope before returning it to you, in the mistaken belief that this is an environmentally sensitive gesture. Surprisingly, however, those envelopes will also turn up months and even years later with generous donations. The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture recently received a donation for £40,000 to an appeal sent out a whole year beforehand.
Try to make the return envelope part of the whole pack by designing it anew each time. Occasionally I have seen appeal papers which are cleverly converted into envelopes for re-use in returning a donation. This is fine as a one-off but is unlikely to be effective each time, as the appeals will begin to lack variety.
The return coupon Arguably, this is the most important part of the appeal, and deserves quite as careful copywriting and design as any other part of it.
Give the donor a voice by saying something the donor can identify with. Commonly this is on the lines of, ‘Yes, I enclose a donation to support your work for …’ , but I am sure that you can easily improve on that.
Emphasise the amount you are requesting. This is usually done with a short line of tick boxes to help the donor feel that they are doing the right thing, rather than being mean by giving too little or foolish by giving too much. Donors do fret over such things. Help your donors by setting out all the possible ways to pay, including credit card donations and any credit card hotline that you can set up.
Most importantly, enter the member’s name and address on the coupon, using laser, Cheshire labels, or whatever process looks good and is accurate and cost-effective.
Remember to code each coupon so that you will know from which appeal it has been returned, and which segment of your donor-base it has come from. If you are sophisticated enough to segment your appeals into different categories, try mailing each segment with an appeal for donations the size of which is based on the donors’, or groups of donors’, past giving record.
Time of year Whether the time of year makes a difference or not is highly debatable. For example, most fundraisers will avoid August, as a large percentage of your target audience will be away enjoying their holidays – yet many fundraisers will claim to have had their best appeal in August. Personally, I would stay away from July and August but I have had great success in January and February.
Will people arriving home from their holiday feel rested and in a generous mood, or will they be fed-up with the prospect of returning to work, and broke? Many organisations appeal before Christmas and this makes sense, as it is traditionally a time of goodwill and giving to charity. Your supporters are more likely to give to you than someone else, but they won’t if you don’t ask them. Again, many fundraisers, like me, claim to do well in January, because there is no competition and people are relaxed, perhaps feeling guilty after the Christmas indulgences, and, on opening a fresh wage packet, inclined to be generous. On the other hand, other fundraisers think that this is too soon after the Christmas appeals and people need January to get over the usual Christmas extravagances.
Fundraising appeals and issue campaigning A powerful, well planned fundraising campaign will powerfully advance your organisation’s issue campaigning. Sometimes the money invested in generating new members and donors is far greater than that available for pure campaigning purposes. So it is natural for the organisation to look for a strong campaigning message to be used and this should ‘fit’ with your fundraising concepts.
The fundraising media are high-profile, e.g.:
national press advertising, which, by its nature, is designed to have impact
inserts in magazines which are read by thousands of people who, even if they do not join, will be positively influenced
direct mail, which will also bring your message home to thousands of people.
All the techniques used in these media are intended to generate a response, and so will have been designed and written to be easily accessible and persuasive. The fact that their power is measurable (via the response coupon) means that you know the message is being put over correctly.
Pure campaigning rarely has such a self-correcting mechanism, and so it is hard to tell how effective it is and to revise whatever technique was used if it is not performing as well as expected. Naturally, some campaigning has goals which can clearly be seen to be met, e.g. by the passing of an Act of Parliament – but without a response device in your letters it may not be until the actual vote that your organisation has an inkling of how effective it has been. Having said that, the justification of your expenditure budget is the financial return it will bring. So that is the prime purpose, and decisions on copy, choice of media, etc., must be taken primarily on fundraising grounds within the overall guidelines of the organisation.
Achieving synergy It is important that fundraising and campaigning go hand in hand through the year to gain the maximum synergy. If your next campaign is on acid rain it is foolish for your next appeal to be on the ozone layer – unless the campaign is a deliberate attempt to include an unpopular subject in the year’s work, and the ozone layer happens to be everyone’s deep concern at the time the appeal is going out.
Bringing advocacy (campaigning action) and fundraising closer together also helps to build bridges with other departments, staff and committees. If you are seen to campaign, actively and effectively, it will help to create the recognition that fundraising has a powerful role to play at the heart of the organisation.
Taking advantage of the media Your work will fare much better if, in general, you deal with topics that are featured in the media, especially television, rather than those your organisation particularly wants to highlight. In responding to fundraising literature, members and donors often behave in a very similar fashion to the general public, which reacts to television as if it was the real world and is grateful for the opportunity to help alleviate any dreadful situation that is presented. One TV programme, however, is rarely enough to ensure this. The news itself is much more powerful, but this can be influenced by programmes like the compelling documentaries that themselves become news and so spill over into the rest of the media.
How effective is advocacy? Asking the recipient of a fundraising appeal to undertake an act of advocacy often enhances the response, but it needs split testing to see if your organisation’s advocacy methods have this result. You ignore split testing at your peril, and the first time you try mixing advocacy and appeals you might get the formula wrong – so
test just 10% of your list (not 50%, as is common) · if you can, test several variations, both of technique and of tone, at the same time. You could, for example, test five different approaches using 10% of your list for each one. This is best done after you know the basic concept is sound.
Linking advocacy with response to an appeal You must link the act of advocacy with response to an appeal. If you are asking someone to write a letter, they should be asked to use words such as ‘I have today joined/made a donation to Save the XXXXs ‘. Use approaches like, ‘Please make a donation and then send our card to your MP. Tick the box on the return form and fill in your MP’s name so that we know how many have been posted and to whom can work well, both for your income and your campaigns. If you do not do this you will probably find your supporters send off the cards because it is the easiest option presented to them and fail to make a donation.
What can go wrong This whole process can, however, misfire badly. If it is not absolutely clear that what you really want, more than anything else, is money, then people will not bother to send it. They will see a campaigning letter, and may campaign or not, but they will rarely respond to a call for money that appears to be just tagged on. It is vitally necessary to make it clear just how important additional funds are to your work.
Thank-you letters This is a most important part of the appeal because it is the first step to the next donation and, as usual, it should be appropriate and prompt. Speed is very impressive and donors often feel the professionalism you show them reflects the professionalism (or lack of it) in your organisation’s charitable work. If you can tell your supporters how well the appeal is going and how much you have accomplished so far, you may receive further donations.
The thank-you letter shows that you care about the individuals’ gift, so make sure it is not merely a poor photocopy that devalues the gift. A real letter, signed by the person who signed the appeal letter and referring to the basis of the appeal, is important and will help to build a lasting relationship. It does help if you can quote the exact amount received. Be sure that your software has this capability. If you are signing letters always look at the name and address as well as the amount. You will find countless mistakes in the form of address and often in the full address but also in the £ sign and the spacing of the amount in the letter.
Do not be tempted to let your supporters opt into receiving a thank you letter. You want them to receive this letter even though it is a great effort for your team to send it out. Many organisations use volunteers to do this and the finding, training and losing of volunteers is such an effort it is hard to remember how important they are in building your future prosperity.
Monthly giving is a crucial step in ensuring the long-term financial stability of your NGO. It works on the simple proposition that, because most people are paid monthly, it is easier for them to give, say, £10 per month than £50 out of one month’s salary. Of course this means that twelve months later you have received £120 instead of £50. More importantly, because monthly giving is either by standing order or by direct debit, you will receive £120 the next year, and the next, and the next, until the order is cancelled. Naturally, there is an attrition rate as people face financial problems, but that is surprisingly low compared to annual or irregular giving.
If your organisation is a charity and the monthly gift is by means of a covenant, then this will last for a minimum of four years and your organisation can reclaim the tax. This is a slightly complicated procedure that seems to baffle many finance departments, who pile up unclaimed tax year after year. Each donor does have to be asked to fill out a short form each year. The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) will undertake this work for you for a fee, but this is much better than not claiming the tax at all, which happens surprisingly often.
Technically, covenants can be ‘variable’ by being linked to another event, e.g., the royalties from a book or interest rates. It is not a good idea to encourage these complicated schemes unless large sums are involved and there is a real reason for such linkage which meets the needs of your donor rather than being a fanciful whim. At least one major NGO owes its financial survival to the power of monthly giving, which persisted at a serious level long after the cynic would have thought all links with the organisation would be cut.