Direct-response fundraisers: only the resolute need apply

The KMA whitemail experiment epilogue

All fundraising results are highly measurable but no one is easier to scrutinize than direct response marketers. My hat is off to you.

                                                                                                                       Cartoonresoucre, by permission

Surveying the stacks of direct mail appeals on every level surface of my office, I am struck by the evidence of talent, effort, passion and technique on display. And I think “Direct mail is not a job for the faint of heart.”

That’s true of fundraising in general of course. In many charities, fundraising results may be the only truly measurable activity – revenue generated and costs incurred. In fundraising, the ‘soft” deliverables don’t get much weight: a charity may measure a drop-in by how many people show up, but measuring “lives changed” often eludes us. Yet we can parse to the penny our fundraising results.

And organizations do evaluate their fundraisers. Yet within fundraising, there are also hierarchies of risk-taking and exposure to measurement.

Perhaps the most intrepid are the face-to-face fundraisers: door-to-door canvassers, the people at a display in the mall, the cheerful people who approach you on the sidewalk, often young and always underpaid. Then too, the successful phone canvasser is a special breed, with a high tolerance for rejection and hostility. Successful ones feed off the human interaction, and enjoy making the sale, one person at a time. And the great ones create a good experience for the donor as well. So too, the major gift officer. All face-to-face fundraisers are judged almost entirely by their results, but most get a charge from the interaction itself and may also enjoy the camaraderie of being part of a team fanning out across a neighbourhood or making calls.

Few such compensations are available to the direct-response fundraiser. The people who do direct-response can’t feed off the energy of a personal engagement with a donor prospect. Fundraisers may be relieved when the mail drops and high-five as a team if they made deadline, but the underlying vibe is anxiety – waiting days or weeks while the question hangs: will this mailing perform as well or better than others, or well enough?

In my opinion, their is the most merciless role, because they depend almost entirely on numbers to nurture their enthusiasm and commitment. Their war stories tend to not to be about winning over a donor, but about confrontations with printers, data services and Canada Post. The difference between success or failure is razor thin, and by definition a vast majority of people will say "no" to your latest appeal. Human variables aren't given much weight when the results are minutely analyzed up the food chain.

There are proven principles for direct response, and a boggling array of techniques with which to experiment. You can vary the outer envelope colour, type, photo, shape, and texture; you can fine-tune the length, format, typeface and type size of the letter. You can adjust the use of illustrations, celebrity endorsers, enclosures and premiums. You can entice donors by creating giving clubs and offering recognition or using the language of membership. Larger fundraisers test mailings rigorously and analyze the results, which dictate how all those variables will be deployed in the next mailing or to the next segment. Smaller ones sometimes can only guess.

Yet always there are factors you cannot control. We helped a client prepare and send an acquisition package with an outer envelope illustrated with a troubled-looking teenage girl and the statement “Some days I worry about what’s coming.” That letter arrived in mailboxes two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Rather than revenue for our client, the letter generated mostly angry phone calls.

Of course, if you ignore lessons learned you will fail, and test results matter. Yet direct response fundraising is not hard science. Success comes from a blend of professional technique, luck, art and alchemy. To sustain enthusiasm and do consistently good work requires great commitment and drive.

A lot of that enthusiasm and drive is on display in my office. And I tip my hat to the people who put it there.

- Larry Matthews