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Looking Back at 2013′s Last Week of Fundraising

January 28th, 2014 Posted in Fundraising

The last six days of 2013 have a different meaning for fundraisers. Instead of a post-Christmas “catch your breath” opportunity, they are vital times for raising last-minute income to ease the journey into the new year.

As a donor to 17 nonprofits in 2013 (and a lapsed donor to others), I decided to keep track of the mail and e-mails I received — as well as the receipts for the year-end donations I mailed on Dec. 20 — and share my observations with you.

This week, I’ll focus on e-mails received, and next week I’ll explore direct mail, receipting, and a random comment or two. While my “database” is much smaller than, for example, Who’s Mailing What!Opens in a new window, there is certainly much to be learned anytime we take a few minutes to look carefully at what others send to donors to raise funds.

Between Dec. 26 and 31, I received 20 e-mails from 13 different nonprofits. Most were national organizations, but two were from local charities. Save the ChildrenOpens in a new window sent out the most — four — followed by Opportunity InternationalOpens in a new window with three. Two other nonprofits (CAREOpens in a new window and World Wildlife FundOpens in a new window) sent two, while the remainder sent only one in the last six days of 2013.

Preferred delivery day
Without question, Dec. 31 was “the” day for e-mail — half of the ones I received came that day. Here’s the daily breakdown:

  • Thursday, Dec. 26 – one e-mail
  • Friday, Dec. 27 – two e-mails
  • Saturday, Dec. 28 – two e-mails
  • Sunday, Dec. 29 – one e-mail
  • Monday, Dec. 30 – three e-mails
  • Tuesday, Dec. 31 – 10 e-mails
  • Wednesday, Jan. 1 – one e-mail (this one was actually sent at 10:05 a.m. on the 31st, but it apparently hung out celebrating somewhere and failed to arrive until 9:10 p.m. on the first)

Subject lines
Not surprisingly, 13 of the e-mails referenced time — last chance, “only 4 more days,” midnight, there’s still time, etc. But seven had your basic “business as usual” subject line. This seems to squander a wonderful opportunity to encourage giving, as year-end is a time when many generous people think about getting in a last gift. Also, only one mentioned “tax deductible.” I don’t know if that’s the result of testing or not, but given the sophistication of many of the senders of these e-mails, I suspect it is (and welcome anyone willing to share test results to do so in the comments below).

Also a bit unexpected, only one of the 20 e-mails used my name in the subject line. Five had at least some of the subject line in all caps, three referred to matching gifts, and one began “FWD:” and was a resend of an earlier message with an added note at the top.

Use of salutation and signature block

While 12 of the 20 e-mails began “Dear Pamela,” two referred to me only as “friend” and six jumped right into the message without a salutation. However, all but three had some name on them as the signer of the message, although Opportunity International signed its e-mails with the corporate name instead of a person’s name. On a related note, 17 of the “senders” were an organization name while the other three (from two organizations) had a person’s name as the sender.

Word count

This is clearly where I saw the greatest divergence. One e-mail, received on Dec. 28, had 705 words between the “Dear” and the “Sincerely.” On the other hand, the e-mail from Charity NavigatorOpens in a new window (which is shown above) had only 27 words in the body. Eliminating those two anomalies, the average word count was 161 words. Personally, I think sending an e-mail on New Year’s Eve that has close to 250 words seems like asking a lot from your audience. However, the least readable e-mails of all came from Opportunity International because the copy was centered. Nice photos, but the readability was greatly reduced (in my opinion) because the message was centered with line lengths ranging from five characters to more than 100.

‘Above the fold’ offers
Although three e-mails didn’t have any obvious places to click to donate that were on-screen without my having to scroll, and five e-mails only had one, two seems to be the prevailing preference as that was the case in nine e-mails. Two had four, and one had six (and considering that it had a word count of less than 90, that was pretty impressive feat). In most cases, the donate buttons were tasteful though obvious; however, two e-mails required me to slide my mouse around looking for that one magic spot where a hyperlink was embedded.

Use of graphics

Four e-mails had graphics that were specific to year-end (clock, thermometer and calendar page), and 13 used photos that were program-specific. One showed a photo of the CEO, and two dispensed with graphics altogether. Personally, the one that stood out to me the most used a less overt program photo and more unusual colors. It’s the second photo above, from the National Park FoundationOpens in a new window. Obviously, preferences are personal choices, but this is one I came back to over and over because visually it intrigued me.

So what does it all mean? 

Obviously, there are very few “right” and “wrong” things here; these are mostly my opinions, with an occasional “best practice” tossed in. However, by looking at these 20 e-mails with the intention of seeing if there were applications for next Dec. 26–31, here’s what I came away with:

  1. E-mail more than once. There’s a lot of competition in the inbox so you don’t want to risk it all on one e-mail (or one that takes 36 hours to show up).
  2. Use your subject line to convey the deadline. “Invest in XYZ today” or “Your gift x3” seemed like “business as usual,” not something I needed to deal with in the holiday season.
  3. Change up your graphics. Sending multiple e-mails that basically look the same felt like “white noise” to me. I found myself thinking, “Didn’t I see this before?” At least to me, familiarity did not increase my interest.
  4. Address the recipient by name if your e-mail is in the form of a letter or note. “Personal” gets lost when there’s no mention of my name.
  5. Try a short, to-the-point e-mail (aka. Charity Navigator). I’m busy, but reading 27 words doesn’t seem to be asking too much of me. On the other hand, 705 words??!!!
  6. Make your offers easy to find without reading the entire e-mail or having to search for clickable text. Don’t ask recipients to do too much work; they may move on to an easier option.

Agree? Disagree? I’m sure there are readers who fall into both camps. But no matter where you stand, this old dog reminds you that looking at the “competition” in the mailbox or inbox is a great way to challenge your own thinking for your future fundraising efforts — and often gives you new ideas that you can hardly wait to incorporate.

Last week,

I looked at emails received between Dec. 26 and New Year’s Eve. Clearly, I need to step up my giving, since Larissa Peters at Catholic Relief ServicesOpens in a new window sent me an impressive listing of more than 70 she received in that six-day window. A big “old dog thump-of-the-tail” in appreciation to Larissa!

True confession time: My direct-mail stats are even less impressive. In fact, I only received six pieces over those five mail delivery days. With less ability to time delivery precisely, it is more risky to target a mailing for year-end, unless a nonprofit is willing to pay First Class postage to have some level of confidence that the mail will be delivered on time. However, what I saw in my mailbox represented numerous missed opportunities.

Two of the mailings were acquisition. One had no nod to seasonality and used the now-overworked (in my opinion) teaser promising that it would “never ask for another donation again” if I would only give now. There were photos of children in need of the nonprofit’s services on both the front and back of the envelope, as well as on the letterhead and in the rather copy-heavy brochure that was included. I suspect this is a control (or control wanna-be). I would love to know how this acquisition mailing performed compared to those at other times of the year. My personal response was that a letter, dense information brochure, even-more-dense program-related brochure, insert for me to sign and send back, and a reply card asked a lot from a nondonor at year-end.

The second piece was a 9-inch by 12-inch envelope from Boys TownOpens in a new windowwith winter artwork on the front. (Now that I live in a warm climate, I find pictures of snowmen endearing; that wasn’t the case when I was shoveling the stuff.) This envelope announced three — no, make that four! — free gifts enclosed and had a personalized teaser, also talking about the gifts inside. Sure enough, when I opened it, I found a wall calendar, a pocket calendar, two other versions of a calendar, address labels and a certificate of appreciation.

I’ve received a variation of this mailing at year-end several other times, so I suspect it works. What appealed to me was that it felt seasonal without having to be timed to be in-home in a very narrow window. If I had gotten it anytime from mid-December through early January, it would have felt in-season, and the calendars wouldn’t feel inappropriate. Bottom line: The mailing stood out in a season when “standing out” matters. For a well-chosen target, it very well may break through and get attention — and responses from people who appreciate premiums.

A third mailing was from a nonprofit to which I had donated a gift-in-kind five or six years ago. The letter had a Christmas-related teaser, and the letter was very focused on that just-passed day. The takeaway here is to allow plenty of time for letters with Christmas messages to arrive pre-Christmas (substitute any other holiday that matters to your constituents). Otherwise, you risk having it arrive late, and thus it will feel even less worthy of a glance.

Two additional mailings were from nonprofits I support (but not the one that has averaged one mailing every 10 days for the last five years; I felt forgotten!). Both were timely, but in different ways. One referenced a recent disaster on the carrier (it was from an international relief agency), and the other referenced my 2014 member card. The first risked being overlooked, especially since the addressed side of the envelope was plain white with the messaging and photo on the reverse. The second again was chock-full of premiums to entice the right target to open it and claim the free gifts.

If your organization is not premium-focused, the week between Christmas and New Year’s (or even into January, when donors may be fatigued in general, not just with appeals), my observation is that you’ll need to work harder to capture attention. A “business as usual” mailing risks being set aside (perhaps permanently) or just overlooked by marginally committed, holiday-weary supporters.

The final letter was, I confess, a seed mailing from a year-end appeal from one of my clients. I mention it only because it was the only one that actually referenced (broadly) the year-end. While I don’t know how it performed, there are three things that we focused on that I believe matter for any nonprofit wanting to send out a year-end mailing. First, make it look personal. Mail to your most committed supporters, and build on that relationship. Second, keep it short. Let your donors know that you are aware they are busy with other things and you’re respecting that. Finally, mail with enough padding that it will arrive before the New Year, with language that doesn’t make it feel “wrong” if it happens to get delivered pre-Christmas.

Bottom line: This old dog is seeing less and less mail at year-end, replaced by e-appeals where the delivery date can be controlled. In fact, the dearth of mail tells me there is potentially an opportunity to stand out in the mailbox, if you make sure your year-end mail has the right look and sound and isn’t just a recycled, “one-size-fits-all” mailing that looks vaguely like white noise in the post-Christmas/pre-January week.

Posted on January 15, 2014

By Pamela Barden

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