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Five challenges facing direct mail fundraisers

In this unutterably complex, interdependent world we live in, it is maddening to identify those trends that bear most directly on our work. Mal Warwick looks at five trends that have the greatest potential to shape our future in direct mail fundraising.

1. Coping with the competition.
The competitive problems that confront us are due to a mounting number of nonprofits competing for gifts in the mail.

Too many nonprofits have sound-alike missions, causing confusion among the public and distrust among donors. In part, this is the nature of the beast, because (in my opinion) there truly are too many nonprofits pursuing similar missions.

We frequently fail to recognise and highlight what’s truly unique about our organisations.

2. Dealing with donor demands.
Everyone knows it: today’s donors want more. But few mailers are keeping pace by giving them what they want. In the United States, the privacy movement is gaining momentum. We’ve already learned that donors must be given the option to remove themselves from list exchange and list rental arrangements.

But donors are also demanding choices. We’ve always viewed direct mail as a source of unrestricted gifts – but many donors, particularly at higher levels, seek opportunities to designate the use to which their gifts will be put. Typically, they also want to know what results their gifts have produced.

But, apart from annual reports and an occasional pie chart, are we really giving our donors this sort of information? The answer is usually no.

3. Adjusting to the Internet era.
In a world where’s ‘one-click’ ordering has become the standard by which the speed of customer service is measured, it’s foolish indeed to think that nonprofits can get away with thank yous that are mailed six weeks after gifts are received, or with letters or e-mails that go unanswered. Today’s donors expect more – and they want it now. Compounding this challenge is the proliferation of communication channels. As time goes on, we’ll have to pay increasingly greater attention to the individual communication preferences of our donors.

4. Paving the way for bequests.
Not every nonprofit can hope to secure bequests. Perhaps there’s some special reason why your organisation is not a candidate: it’s too new, too small, or too shaky financially. But if those exceptions don’t apply, you owe it to yourself and your colleagues to take a careful look at bequests.

The most effective bequest programmes begin with market research asking your donors what they think about the idea and what might motivate them to act on it. If it’s based on a solid understanding of donor attitudes, direct mail can be an effective way to promote bequests.

But here’s a word to the wise. If you launch a programme to market legacies, don’t call it ‘planned giving’, and don’t muck it up with legalistic information about charitable trusts. Promote bequests, which account for more than four out of every five ‘planned gifts’.

5. Dealing with donor attrition.
There’s only one answer to this challenge: superlative donor care. The only antidote to donor alienation and detachment is to build genuinely strong relationships with donors – by thanking them promptly and warmly for every gift, by giving them options, by keeping them fully informed, and by doing something other than asking them for money every single time you get in touch! Here’s the key: ask not what your donors can do for you, ask what you can do for your donors.

This article first appeared in Fundraising Forum: Issue 62, December 2003.

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