Reactivating lapsed donors doesn’t have to be complicated

Yesterday, my blog post titled “Take great care when trying to reactivate your LYBUNT donors” focused on a direct mail story of mine that I thought contained some valuable lessons for all of us. Today, I will attempt to pivot and start a discussion about simple things you can do to reactivate lapsed donors at the end of the year.

Last week, I spent the entire week in Indianapolis at Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Midwest Leadership Conference as an exhibitor and trainer. When I saw one of my favorite bloggers — Gail Perry at Fired-Up Fundraising — as a general session speaker, I got very excited because she is a bundle of energy when it comes to fundraising.

As she dazzled the audience with her fundraising stories, she turned her attention for just a moment to the idea of reactivating lapsed donors. She talked about the boring, ineffective and sometimes upsetting LYBUNT letters (like the one I talked about in yesterday’s post) that too many non-profit organizations use at the end of the year to re-engage lapsed donors. While direct mail is probably a necessary re-engagement tool, Gail suggested that throwing a party for some of those donors might be a better strategy. She shared a story about such a party that she had themed:

“We love you, we miss you, we want you back!”

These 10 simple words got my mental wheels turning. I envisioned a Thanksgiving or holiday themed event with a room full of lapsed donors who didn’t pay a penny to attend. I pictured mission-focused activities and possibly even activities (e.g. focus groups) designed to solicit input on how to improve your fundraising and donor communication programs.

Hmmm . . . how does this strategy compare to the HRC letter strategy that I talked about in yesterday’s post? For me, it feels like night and day. I like Gail’s suggestion of throwing a party for the following reasons:

  1. It feels personal
  2. It is what we do with our family and friends (and aren’t donors part of our extended family and friends circle)
  3. It is fun and energetic
  4. It fits with the spirit of the season
  5. It sends a donor-centered message rather than a “me-me-me” message

For some non-profit agencies that have a large direct mail program and hundreds (or thousands) of lapsed donors, this strategy might be a little more difficult to implement. However, this problem is easily overcome by segmenting your LYBUNT report into two lists: 1) those who get invited to a party and solicited at the event or using a follow-up solicitation letter AND 2) those who just get a well-crafted, personal LYBUNT letter that doesn’t use “guilt” as the message.

There is literally a bushel basket full of good ideas and best practices when it comes to reactivating your lapsed donors at the end of the year. Throwing a party is just one of those ideas.

Would you please take 60 seconds out of your busy day and share one idea from your agency’s year-end LYBUNT strategy playbook? You can easily and quickly do this by using the comment box found at the bottom of this blog page. Please? After all, we can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Take great care when trying to reactivate your LYBUNT donors

When I resigned from my last job in May 2011 to start my non-profit consulting practice, my partner and I sat down and reviewed our charitable giving portfolio. We made the decision to temporarily stop giving to certain organizations because our household income was about to drop. Needless to say, I showed up on a number of LYBUNT (aka Last Year But Unfortunately Not This Year) donor database reports and we’re still digging out from underneath the avalanche of direct mail.

Today, I want to share a few things from a donor’s perspective that might be helpful as you put together your year-end lapsed donor strategies.

One of the charities affected by my decision to change jobs was the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Throughout the years, my partner was a Federal Club member, and I was a member of their Partners monthly giving program.

This big, bad national non-profit advocacy organization has a very slick direct mail program and a hundred thousand or more individuals as donors. In fact, it is so big that in addition to calling me by my first name, it is common for this agency to reference me by my membership number (which truth be told always makes the hair on the back of my neck bristle).

Two months ago on a lazy Saturday afternoon, my partner was canning vegetables from our garden in our kitchen and I was opening mail that had built up in our mailbox. For what seemed to be the umpteenth time since we made the decision to temporarily withdraw our support from HRC, I opened another “Won’t you please come back” letter from this organization.

The letter spurred a kitchen discussion that resulted in a decision to re-join HRC’s monthly giving program, albeit at a smaller level (but with the intent of growing our commitment in the next year or two).

As you might expect, we received a gift acknowledgement letter a few weeks later that read as follows:

“On behalf of the Human Rights Campaign’s Board, staff and volunteers, I want to thank you for joining our Partners program with a monthly contribution of $10. The leadership that you have taken . . .”

Yada, Yada, Yada. It was a typical computer generated gift acknowledgement letter, and one that I’ve read countless times throughout my life. It was technically proficient and everything I expected from this world-class direct mail giant. It made me feel good about our decision to re-engage with an organization that we had been supporting for a decade.

Unfortunately, this good feeling didn’t last very long because a few weeks later, I received another letter from HRC and this time the letterhead said it was “From The Desk Of” Cathy Nelson, who is the organization’s Vice President of Membership. I opened the letter expecting more appreciation and thanks, but my heart sunk when I read the following first few sentences:

“The news couldn’t have come at a worse time for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights movement. I wanted to write to you personally as I have heard you have not yet renewed your Human Rights Campaign membership. We are counting on our active members in this critical year . . .”

To say that I felt punched in the gut might sound a little dramatic, but it isn’t far from the truth. In the first 10 seconds, here is want went through my head as a donor:

  • OMG, did I forget to mail our check? Where is that gift acknowledgement letter confirming our re-enrollment in the monthly giving program?
  • I felt guilty upon reading the words “the news couldn’t have come at a worse time . . .
  • I felt angry because they were making our charitable giving decision seem like it was all about them, when it reality it was all about our new economic reality.
  • I felt manipulated and confused.

Any amateur fundraising professional and volunteer probably knows that these emotions and thoughts are not what you want to invoke when trying to reactivate a lapsed donors. If your non-profit organization is committed to transforming its resource development program to a donor-centered fundraising paradigm, then you need to walk away from this blog post dedicated to not replicating this bad example provided by HRC.

Over the next few days, I will blog about LYBUNT donors and provide a few tips I hope you will find helpful as you design your year-end lapsed donor appeals. So, stay tuned for more!

Have you ever been rubbed the wrong way by a lapsed donor appeal? Or has a lapsed donor ever reacted to one of your appeals and provided you with some feedback? How did you respond? Did it change your approach? If so, how? Please scroll down to the comment box and share your stories or thoughts. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

What’s in your mailbox? Part 3

We started a conversation on Tuesday about direct mail and dissected a fundraising letter from Michelle Obama. Yesterday, we changed course by looking at a newsletter from my state senator. Today, we’re going to my mailbox and pulling out a few postcards that I recently received from a few different charities in my hometown.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been receiving more and more postcards from charitie,s and I have a theory about that.

As you know, the first rule in direct mail is not creating your letter or even developing the stuff that goes into the envelope. The very first thing you need to think about is designing the outer envelope in a way that entices people to open the letter.

This is where postcards are genius. There is nothing to open. The information that you want your supporters to read is readily visible.

Larkin Center

The first postcard in my stack of mail this morning is from a behavioral health non-profit organization in Elgin, Illinois called Larkin center.

One side of this small postcard has a four-color photograph of renowned pianist and composer Emily Bear. The few words on this side of the postcard simply inform me that she is playing a concert that will benefit Larkin Center.

When I flip the postcard over, there is also very little information; however, it is everything I might need if I want to learn more about this event or register:

  • Date/time of the event
  • Location of the event
  • Where can I purchase tickets (e.g. website, phone, fax, box office hours, etc)
  • Ticket pricing

This is short and sweet and to the point. Whoever designed this postcard understood that most people spend just a few seconds with each piece of mail.

Open Door Clinic

The second postcard in my stack of mail this morning is from an AIDS treatment non-profit organization in Elgin, Illinois called Open Door.

One side of this small postcard simply has my address, their return address, the non-profit permit indicia, a barcode for postal automation, and big words that say “SAVE THE DATE”.

When you flip the piece over, you see a four-color picture that divides the postcard into two parts. One side of the postcard sports a graphics for the Chicago AIDS Run & Walk. There is one simple sentence that says:

“Join Open Door Clinic’s AIDS Walk Team & help us reach our goal by joining our team or donating at”

The other side of the post card has a beautiful picture of chocolates and encourages readers to “save the date” for their All Things Chocolate special event fundraiser on April 20, 2013.

You read that right . . . this non-profit organization has the wherewithal to tell its donors to plan for something in the next calendar year. Wow! I guess someone prides themselves on being organized and well-planned. LOL

University of Illinois Urbana Champaign College of Fine & Applied Arts

The final postcard in my stack of mail this morning is from my college alma mater.

As some of you know, I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1992 with a BA in Urban Planning and in 1994 with a Masters in Urbana Planning. For the last 18 years, I have been trying to hide from those fundraising professionals. Regardless of where I move or how many times I’ve changed my phone number, they keep finding me.

It is impressive. And the postcard they sent me is equally impressive.

he message is simple and to the point . . . we want your email address. However, they go about asking for it in a very cleaver way. Here is how they asked:

“We are gathering current email address from our alumni to start a conversation about how your education shaped your professional and life experiences. Your experiences and ideas will assist us in shaping arts education for future students. To share your address with us, please visit:”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard my  non-profit friends talk about how hard it is get more in-depth information (e.g. email addresses, birthdays, etc) out of donors, but it has been often. I just love the approach that my alma mater is taking.

So, what can we learn from these three postcards:

  1. K.I.S.S. — the information you want your supporters to see must be simple and easily digestible in a few seconds.
  2. Four-color — Reader surveys seem to indicate that people’s eyes are attracted and drawn into pictures and graphics that are vibrant and full color.
  3. Postal automation — Using a mail house to certify your mailing lists allows them to add a barcode to address label. This saves the post office money, and in turn saves you money.
  4. Not just for events — The most common use of postcards seems to be advertising an event or asking donors to save a date for an event. However, the University of Illinois example illustrates that we can be more creative with this direct mail tool if we put our minds to it.

Does your non-profit agency use postcards? If so, what for? Have you measured the effectiveness of this strategy (e.g. increased event attendance, etc)? If so, what did you find? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts because we can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

What’s in your mailbox? Part 1

I oftentimes get asked about direct mail as a fundraising vehicle by non-profit friends. My typical response is that direct mail is both an art and a science. I point them to experts like Mal Warwick and Tom Ahern, but they are always surprised when I point them to their own mailbox.

I have always said that the average American can become educated about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to direct mail if they only pay attention to what is being sent to them, what they are opening (or not opening), and how and what they’re reading (or not reading). It is with this in mind that I’ve decided to focus this week’s blog posts on my personal mailbox.

As you can imagine, I get a lot of fundraising appeals — local non-profits, national charities, advocacy groups, and politicians. Today, we’re taking a closer look at my new BFF — Michelle Obama — who can’t seem to stop sending me mail.

Let’s open one of the three letters that my household recently received and see what we have:

It is a three page letter written on double-sided paper that looks like Michelle’s personal stationary (which it obviously isn’t).

I read the salutation first. “Dear Mr. Anderson”. I immediately frown and think to myself “why is she calling ‘mister’ when I am younger than her .” Nevertheless, I trudge on and keep reading.

I read the first paragraph. It is two sentences long and doesn’t capture my attention. It says something about doctor bills and mortgages and blah blah blah.

So, I start skimming and notice that she uses my name a lot throughout the body of letter. Here are a few examples:

  • “Erik, I’m writing to ask you to . . .”
  • “Erik, that is why he is challenging us to think . . .”
  • “Erik, that is what’s at stake in 2012.”
  • “And Erik, we’re also counting on you to . . .”

I also notice that there is a lot of emotion and values language laced throughout the letter. The following are just a few of the words and phrases that catch my attention as I skim:

  • persevere
  • struggles
  • fundamental American promise
  • my brother’s keeper
  • sustained by the relationships we build

Phew . . . that was a lot of skimming. In approximately three to five seconds, as I worked my way from the salutation to the signature, I was able to pick out those key words and phrases. I now see that Michelle (or should I say “Mrs. Obama” since we obviously have a formal relationship) has signed the letter.

Yes, it was a machine signature, but it isn’t a script font. It really looks like a signature. Thank goodness for autopen machine technology because nothing kills a nice, warm, emotional letter like a script font signature.

Just when I’m done and ready to shred the letter, Ron Popeil screams out from the bottom of the letter, “But wait, there’s more!”

That’s right. There is a postscript, and I find myself reading the whole thing. It contains two short paragraphs, and the sentences are super short. The verbiage is very emotional, and it is hard not get drawn in. Here is exactly what it said:

P.S. I’m not going to kid you. This journey is going to be long. And it’s going to be hard. But the truth is, that’s how change always happens in this country. We know in our hearts that if we keep fighting the good fight, doing what we know is right, then we eventually get there. Because we always do.

As Barack has said many times, “Ordinary people can do extraordinary things. That’s what our campaign is all about. Now the obstacles are even taller and the stakes are even higher — which is exactly why Barack and I need you more than ever. Thank you.

Sigh … the hook is set, and I turn back to page one. I start reading and stop skimming.

While there is a lot more to learn about direct mail (and we will talk about some of it over the next few days), we did learn the following valuable lessons from reading just one professionally written direct mail fundraising appeal:

  1. Many people skim direct mail.
  2. The first thing people read and pass judgement on is the salutation (isn’t that right, Mrs. Obama?)
  3. People will pick-up key words and phrases as they quickly work their way from salutation to signature.
  4. Good letters appear are very personal, emotional and focused on action and engagement. They are written in a first person voice, and passive voice language is avoided.
  5. A signature (even if scanned) is always better than a script font, but a real signature is the icing on the cake for any personal letter.
  6. The postscript can be the key to the entire letter. Everyone seems to read it, and a good one sucks the reader back in and can send them back to the beginning.

Tune in again tomorrow and we’ll do something similar with another piece of mail. In the meantime, I encourage you to go to your mailbox and go through this same exercise. In no time, you will feel much better about what you’re trying to do with your non-profit organization’s direct mail program.

How do you read junk mail . . . errrr, I mean . . . direct mail? Does your agency have a direct mail program? What does it look like? What have been your successes? What are your challenges? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and questions.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

I like you so much that I don’t want to see you!

Welcome to Tuesday of individual giving week where we’re looking at different individual giving strategies as a way to replace dwindling pools of government funding. We’re using characters from the movie “Finding Nemo” to look at various individual giving strategies. Monday’s post was all about “Crush the Turtle” and the thrill seeking mentality of special event fundraising. Today, we’re looking at direct mail through the eyes of “Marlin” (the clown fish who was Nemo’s father), who said to “Dory” (the regal tang fish whose voice you recognize as Ellen DeGeneres):

“No, of course I like you. It’s because I like you, I don’t want to be with you. It’s a complicated… emotion.”

When I read this quote it made me think of those direct mail donors who love your organization’s mission so much that they can’t stand the thought of sitting down with you. I’m really not trying to be snarky here . . . there are countless numbers of people who appreciate what you do, want to make a contribution, but don’t want to sit down and chat over a pledge card. It is this reality that has made direct mail and targeted mail so successful for so very long.

Mal Warwick is one of the masters of direct mail. I encourage you to read his article where he does a great job of distilling everything down into 10 of the most important things that you need to know about a successful direct mail program:

  1. It is a “process”
  2. It is all about the long-term
  3. It is about cost-effectiveness and not so much the cost
  4. The list is super important
  5. Making “the offer”
  6. One of the keys is list segmenting
  7. It is focused on an annual giving approach
  8. Test it or you will feel your patience tested
  9. Repeating yourself isn’t a sign of old age, it is the sign of intelligence and discipline
  10. Record-keeping makes all the difference

Ugh! He is a genius. Click here to read more about what he is really saying.

After you’re dazzled by Mal Warwick’s intellect, you need to read what Tom Ahern has to say a week ago about anyone who likes to “dabble” in direct mail:

“Untrained staff and board cannot accurately judge professionally crafted direct mail. It’s impossible. Mailed appeals are a counter-intuitive enterprise, based on neuroscience, decades of testing, empiricism, and acquired skill sets of surprising depth and complexity.”

While Tom isn’t likely making many friends with this statement, he is right in the sense that direct mail is a science. It is sometimes a bizarro universe where up is down and down is up.  I suggest you click here and read what else Tom has to say about non-experts who roll up their sleeves and try to run a direct mail program without expert help.

Look . . . here is the bottom line:

  • Direct mail donors account for something in the neighborhood of one-fifth of charitable contributions,
  • Direct mail is not cheap,
  • Direct mail requires expertise,
  • Direct mail is a great way to “acquire” new donors,
  • Direct mail is constantly evolving,
  • Direct mail requires time, and
  • Direct mail needs someone with an eye for details.

Not having direct mail and targeted mail in your annual fundraising plan is like a handyman going to work without a screwdriver in his toolbox.

So, what is your agency doing with the U.S. Postal Service? How often are your soliciting? How are you using mail to cultivate new prospects or steward existing donors? What metrics are you  measuring to gauge success in the short-, mid-, and long-term? How do you move direct mail donors up your staircase of engagement? Many of you are using mailhouse services, but is anyone using technical writing consultants? If so, how has that worked for you?

Please use the comment box below because we can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847