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Smooth Mailing

Can direct mail still take your annual fund where you want it to go?

By Tracey Palmer


In fundraising today, a wealth of communications tools makes it increasingly easier to contact prospective donors—but is it getting harder to really connect with them? Do the new tools work as well as the old ones?

In the second decade of online marketing, all the tools of the trade are subject to scrutiny. Direct mail has been a mainstay of the annual fund for years, but recent studies show that it's not as effective as it used to be. Should you scrap your mail campaign and focus on e-mail and online solicitations? And what about social media? Young alumni are using Facebook and Twitter, right? Should you be there, too?

"The reality is, it's all of the above," says Paul Barry, who specializes in higher education for the integrated marketing firm Perrone Group in Hingham, Mass.

Traditional direct mail isn't dead yet, adds Barry, but you can't do business as usual. Many of Barry's clients incorporate other available forms of communication into the mix and even leave room for the technology to come. For clues on the future of direct mail, consider the catalog industry, he says.

Many companies still send paper catalogs, despite the fact that fewer people order via mail these days. Customers flip through catalog pages, get the information they need, and then buy over the phone or online. Or maybe they don't make a purchase until after receiving an e-mail coupon. The Direct Marketing Association reports that nearly 33 percent of people respond to direct mail by going online. But it is often the direct mail offer that initiates the process. The same happens with direct mail fundraising appeals.

Jane Q. Donor takes your letter from her mailbox and reads it (you hope!). Later that day, she might go to your Web site. Perhaps she'll donate with her credit card then and there online, or maybe she'll go back to the reply form and mail in a check. On the other hand, she could wait until you call or e-mail her asking for a pledge. Then again, she might see your Facebook page and click to donate from there. Should her gift be credited to direct mail, a phonathon, or the Web site? It's a tough call.

The important thing is to make all giving options available, says Tammie Ruda, executive director of annual giving at Rhode Island's Brown University. None of them is better than the other. In fact, they all work together.

"It's the accumulation of asks that triggers giving," says Ruda. "We're all busy; you never know which time is the time that tips the scale."

Beyond the traditional

At Brown, direct mail continues to be the largest source of annual fund income at the college, more than phone requests and online giving, says Ruda. But it's not your grandmother's direct mail.

"I'm not sure that I've ever done ‘traditional' direct mail," says Ruda. Her strategy involves a high level of personalization delivered and reinforced through multiple communication channels.

"You'll never get a ‘Dear Classmate' or ‘Dear Brown Alum' salutation from Brown," says Ruda, who notes that her primary segmentation is by gift capacity. Every solicitation includes a five-year giving history up to the recipient's most recent date and a list of consecutive years of giving without skipping. And in every appeal, Ruda deploys a great deal of specific information.

"Within the letter," she says, "we customize and personalize previous gift, areas of interest, how gift is used, reunion, son or daughter graduating, married couples ... as many ways as we can. They're little things, but they add up collectively."

For example, as a follow-up to a solicitation letter from a scholarship student, Ruda e-mails prospects a link to a video featuring the student, paired with a link to give online.

"I'm a big believer in putting all people in all channels," says Ruda.

Lately, Ruda is employing a new tool: PURLs, or personal URLs. These are customized Web addresses that take you to a personal Web page populated with information tailored to your interests. Each donor's PURL is included in a direct mail letter and subsequent e-mails. But PURLs aren't just a cool gimmick meant to impress tech-savvy alumni. They're much more than that.

"Integrating solicitations isn't just using different mediums to say, ‘Hi, support us,' it's about capturing information," says Barry, whose company creates PURL campaigns for higher education clients.

On the personalized Web pages, Ruda can ask donors for updated contact information and survey them on preferences and interests. This is how she discovered that young alumni want less direct mail and more e-mail. (From February through June, Brown alumni get almost one e-mail per month asking for a gift.)

"Traditionally, we haven't had a close relationship among phone, mail, e-mail, and Web. But now, I'm going to contact you every way I can," says Ruda. "Whichever one works first, good for that."

"Our experience has been that schools often communicate from the perspective of the school, not the donor," says Barry. A direct-mail-to-Web or e-mail-to-Web-PURL strategy is about personalized communication and interaction. It's a conversation. It's learning what donors want. "And then giving them what they want," says Barry. "One size does not fit all anymore."

For Ruda, a PURL campaign isn't just about increasing response rates and raising dollars. With PURL data, she can further customize her communications to match donor interests and needs. And when it comes time to make the ask, isn't that what counts?

"We act like we know you," says Ruda, "and we actually do."

Going old school

With rising postal rates, substantial paper costs, a growing demand for green practices, and a population that spends more and more of its time online, it's no surprise that some development offices are ditching traditional direct mail in favor of Web and e-mail marketing in the hopes of reaching a larger audience for less investment. Barry thinks this is a mistake.

"We're all facing the same problems—reduced staff, reduced budgets, and increased goals," says Barry. "Lurching into a whole new medium and dropping the old one, you'll lose people." Instead, Barry recommends holding on to successful direct mail tactics and enhancing them with other media.

"The reports of the death of direct mail have been greatly exaggerated," says Larry Lafferty, assistant vice president for development at Ohio University, loosely paraphrasing Mark Twain. Lafferty, who teaches annual fund and direct mail courses for CASE and other organizations, knows a lot about mail. A full 98 percent of consumers bring in their mail the day it is delivered, he says, and 77 percent sort it immediately.

"People expect to get mail," says Lafferty. "Mail will almost always find the right person, and mail has a loyal readership and a staying power other media don't provide."

At conferences and workshops, Lafferty often asks participants this question: What's the longest time you've ever seen between an annual giving direct mail solicitation and receipt of gift? The most outrageous answer so far? Nineteen years.

"We've been loyal to direct mail because direct mail has been loyal to us," says Lafferty. "We still firmly rely on it as a primary component."

And why shouldn't he? At Ohio, response rates to direct mail are steady. As of October 2009, consecutive-year donor response rates were at 24 percent (including three-, five-, and 10-year givers). Ohio's LYBUNT (last-year-but-not-this) appeal in 2008-2009 pulled 14 percent, raising more than $100,000 from about 16,000 pieces of mail. And the last time Lafferty's staff did a 150,000 piece mailing, only 4 percent was kicked back.

That's great, you think, but direct mail only resonates with older alumni, right? Wrong. Lafferty points to a recent U.S. Postal Service report that found that 53 percent of Gen Xers and 50 percent of Gen Ys said they had read a direct mail piece in the seven days prior to the survey.

"The key word here is read," notes Lafferty.

"The shift to digital media is resource-based," says Lafferty. "It's seen as a way to save money. It isn't because people don't want mail."

Lafferty's team uses e-mail and online vehicles judiciously, but he's not overly enthusiastic about either.

E-mail is cost-effective, but donors know it's free and therefore don't hold the messages it delivers in very high regard, says Lafferty. Plus, it's become riddled with scams and junk. According to The Economist's 2009 Media Convergence Forum, 90 percent of the 2 billion e-mails sent every day are spam. Add to this the difficulty of keeping alumni e-mail addresses up-to-date, and it makes sense that many fundraisers and marketers are proceeding cautiously. Still, e-mail is widespread; even older generations are using it now to communicate, which brings up another problem. E-mail is just not as cool as it used to be, especially among young alumni.

"E-mail is an over-35 phenomenon," says Lafferty. "If you're younger than that, it's just passé."

David Jones, senior director of annual and special giving and prospect development at the University of Georgia in Athens, agrees.

"E-mail to young alumni is toxic," says Jones, who also teaches the annual fund sessions at the CASE Summer Institute in Educational Fundraising. If the message doesn't end up in a junk folder, he says, it gets deleted as soon as the receiver recognizes it as an institutional message. You think it's easy to toss an unopened letter in the recycling? See how fast you can hit the delete key.

"A return to the basics is serving us well right now," says Jones, who admits to experimenting with a variety of new techniques—some he wishes he hadn't. For instance, thanks to a gee-whiz computer application, each donor received an appeal brochure with his or her name spelled out by the school's marching band standing in formation on the university's field.

"It was really slick," Jones says, "but the response rate was no greater than our usual response."

In another creative solicitation, UGA alumni received a "newsletter" customized with their name in the headline.

"Four-color, glossy, high-end personalized stuff generated a lot of buzz," says Jones, "but we weren't seeing greater participation. And with budgets the way they are, we can't justify them."

However, this doesn't preclude Jones from incorporating a digital layer in his annual appeals. He recommends an integrated e-mail follow-up, with corresponding design elements and messaging. At UGA, all direct mail has an e-component intended to drive donors to the university's Web site or back to the paper reply form to give. Phone pledges are followed by an e-confirmation.

"Meanwhile, I don't think any of this replaces the media we understand and have relied on," says Jones.

Hyper-personalization and cutting-edge digital techniques are not as important as a well-written, sincere letter in a #10 envelope, with a personalized contribution form and a relevant ask amount, he says. Jones tracks online giving at UGA, but direct mail, he says, is still performing better. What's more, Jones doesn't like the direction Web-based philanthropy is headed.

"Online giving has shifted from donor-centered to donor-controlled," he says.

People are beginning to route their online gifts via third-party Web sites, such as This makes it impossible to track the original donor, Jones says. Plus, some of these sites keep a piece of the gift.

Regardless, direct mail isn't going to be killed by e-mail or online marketing any time soon. Dollars raised via the Web are increasing, but the fact is, online giving still represents a small proportion of overall philanthropy in the Unites States.

"I've never seen it hit 5 percent anywhere I've looked," says Lafferty. "It's a good acquisition tool, but at OU, online donors tend to renew at a lower rate and tend not to renew online. More migrate to direct mail."

At UGA, direct mail is still performing better than online, says Jones. What are his plans for next year's annual fund?

"We're kind of going retro," he quips, affirming UGA's commitment to snail mail.

Friend me

So what about Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and blogs? Many schools have social media pages, but what are they doing with them?

"A lot of people are getting on that bandwagon, afraid of being left behind," says Jones, "but that's not a great strategy." And the bottom line is, you will never be cool enough, he adds.

"We need to let our constituents get comfortable there first, and then go find them," cautions Jones. "As soon as we, as institutions, try to manipulate those sites, that's counter to how those sites operate."

"You ignore social media at your peril, but it is in its infancy" says Lafferty. "For now, combine it with more traditional media."

That's the approach Ruda is taking. As Brown alumni self-identify on Facebook, Ruda can bracket them by age; customize a message; and then, when she's ready, buy ads that will pop up on their pages as a direct mail piece hits. Only 12 gifts have come in via Facebook, but Ruda is hopeful.

"I think everyone is out there exploring," says Ruda. "The danger is looking for immediate results."

Perhaps the most valuable benefit of using social media is in building community and developing relationships with your donors—which could ultimately determine the effectiveness of your ask, no matter what the vehicle. Brown's annual fund has a Facebook page of its own and 247 fans at last check.

The third screen

According to The Economist's 2009 Media Convergence Forum, 93 percent of adults in the United States own a cell phone. And by 2020, they predict, mobile devices will be the world's largest connection tool to the Internet.

"I guess the big question is, ‘Will today's students ever be direct-mail responsive?'" asks Ruda. "Looking to the future, at my students today as alumni, they probably won't be."

That's why forward-thinking fundraisers like Ruda and Jones are testing the waters in programming for the third screen—mobile devices.

At a recent UGA sporting event, Jones told spectators that if they texted a certain message to a specified number, the sponsoring phone company would give $5 to the university for each call. The total amount raised was hard to track because of the way the phone company recorded it, says Jones, but it was a start.

At Brown young alumni gatherings, Ruda ran a campaign called "Give Us Your Cell Phone for a Chance to Win an iPhone." If alumni gave Brown their cell phone numbers along with permission to text them (the winner was texted), then they were entered in a drawing to win an iPhone.

"It was fun," says Ruda. But even more important are the cell phone numbers and the permissions to text that she collected, which Ruda says she is "saving for the day" when she's ready to make texting part of her strategy.

Bigger toolbox

"At the end of the day, you can't beat a well-written letter," says Barry, "one with an emotional tug that tells me why I should care."

People don't want to know that you need money; they want to know what impact their gift will have, and with direct mail, you can make that case.

"So much other media is coming at us," Lafferty says. "Mail is a softer sell, more targeted, more personal, and flexible. And it's tangible."

It can be re-read and held in the hands of the target audience, he adds. Remove as many barriers to giving as possible, and make it as convenient as possible—this used to be Lafferty's philosophy.

"Now I question that," he says. "I think we can overload our audience. There's such a thing as too many options."

Some people are using a kitchen-sink approach, he says, when really it's all about crafting a good message.

"The most coveted skill in fundraising is the ability to articulate a case in a compelling and original fashion," says Penelope Burk in her book Donor-Centered Fundraising. Communication tools will continue to evolve, and as they do, it will be your job to become familiar with them and determine if they fit within your strategy. But whatever the vehicle, if your message isn't interesting, well-written, and sincere, with a clear call to action, it won't stand a chance. This simple goal of clear communication and connection remains at the heart of a fundraiser's work.


In Short

One word. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is just one word worth? Plenty, for the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Edinburgh's "One Word" campaign is featured in the CASE book More Innovations in Annual Giving by Robert A. Burdenski. Postcards, sent to alumni in advance of a phonathon, asked each of them to think of one word to sum up their university experience. The cards did triple duty: a heads-up on the coming call, an icebreaker for the conversation, and a chance to gather the best responses for a feature story in the alumni magazine.

On point. The Direct Marketing Association has plenty of resources related to direct mail. But that doesn't mean the organization is ignoring online marketing. In fact, the DMA offers its own online-only, digital magazine (find it at Point tackles just one topic from a variety of angles. The fall 2009 issue delves into social media and includes an article by Andre Agassi, who uses Facebook to stay in touch with supporters of his educational foundation. Lesley Seymour, editor in chief of More, describes how she uses Facebook to deepen her connection to readers.

Economic upturn. Many annual funds took big hits in last year's rough economy. Not so for the Western Michigan University Foundation. Thanks to careful monitoring and a nimble response, the fund went from a projected decline of 20–25 percent in December 2008 to an actual loss of just 2 percent by the end of that fiscal year. Direct mail was a big part of the mix that helped Western make up the difference, reports Director of Annual Giving Suzanne BealsDauchy. She and her team sent mailings out earlier and used pledge reminder mailings, in addition to new phonathon segmentation strategies. Fulfilled gifts went up 4 percent.

The cheque is in the pail? The Institute of Fundraising in the U.K. is in the process of surveying its members to find out if charities favor a plan to phase out cheques (aka checks, to some North Americans) by 2018. The U.K.'s Payments Council is behind the proposal that seeks to have all payments shift to cash or electronic means: credit cards, debit cards, and Web and mobile-phone methods. "If there is enough pressure from our members about the issue, we will take further action," says a spokeswoman for the institute. For more information on the proposal and the council, go to

About the Author Tracey Palmer Tracey Palmer

Tracey Palmer is an award-winning marketing and development communications professional with more than 20 years' experience. She specializes in writing, editing, coaching and project management for education clients, healthcare organizations and other nonprofits, through her consulting company, Palmer Communications.

Formerly, Palmer was senior university writer and magazine editor for Suffolk University; director of publications, public relations and advertising for Curry College; and marketing associate for an international academic publisher.

A highly rated workshop leader and coach, Palmer is passionate about helping others write better. She is a longtime CASE faculty member and volunteer, serving on the Persuasive Development Writing Conference faculty since 2004. Most recently, Palmer served as a judge for the CASE District 1 best Magazine Article competition. She also presents workshops for APF-Massachusetts, Cape Cod Philanthropy Day, and the Northeast Annual Giving Conference. Palmer is the founder of Chicks Who Write—a 200-member professional networking group for women who freelance as writers in greater Boston.

Palmer has a bachelor's degree in American literature from The George Washington University and a master's degree in communication (PR and advertising) from Suffolk University, and studied in the U.K. at the University of East Anglia. Last year, she completed Grub Street's Novel Incubator program in Boston, and now serves on the group's board.




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