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Converting donors: how to retain donors from disaster solicitations.

Most fundraisers gleamed at the response from donors during the tsunami crisis. But everyone also asked whether those donors would help the organization down the road.

To the grateful surprise of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in New York City, the May, 2005 appeal with a challenge matching grant sparked part of an answer. The new appeal focused not on the tsunami, but showed an emotional message about a child survival project in Sierra Leone. The mailing of 52,000 included 18,977 donors who arrived because of the tsunami crisis, and 32,000 non-tsunami donors. The responses came in at a rate of 4.6 for the non-tsunami, but at an 8.6 rate for the tsunami, or an 85 percent lift.

"After all the months of our cultivating those tsunami donors, we were anxious for our May appeal," said Giselle Holloway, director of direct response at the IRC. The organization is an international humanitarian assistance program that attempts to rebuild the lives of war refugees who have lost their homes. The IRC had been involved with Banda Ache, Indonesia, when the tsunami struck.

When the tsunami crashed ashore, the IRC reached out in a different manner. The message to new donors focused on the organization rather than the emergency.

"We instinctively knew from the past that donors from emergencies tend to fall off the file unless they have a strong cultivation process," Holloway said. The IRC learned during the 1999 Kosovo crisis that a tremendous amount of donations that were folded into a direct mail stream without a cultivation strategy led to retaining only 18 percent. The usual figure is 33 percent.

The initial mailing during the tsunami crisis was framed differently than most emergencies. "Once the disaster hit, we were tempted to send out a tsunami Urgent-gram, but we knew we would attract many emergency donors who would fall off the files," she said. Instead, the IRC resisted that temptation in favor of its control package. The control had been working for a year, focusing on the Sudan. An insert in the package included a notice about the tsunami.

"We knew the people brought in initially would affect our retention rates," she said.

The cultivation process included a welcome package with a thank you letter and brochure about the IRC. "The aim is for them to learn what we do on a global scale besides the crisis area," Holloway said.

Part of the process included reporting back to donors on the scope of the relief efforts. The IRC used online newsletters with printed and direct mail communication each month.

Flash forward to the Sierra Leone appeal that drew the 85 percent lift between tsunami and non-tsunami donors. The tsunami donors received the fundraising message that recognized their support for the tsunami relief efforts. The insert described how the IRC provided shelter, water, and emergency medicine.

The control group received the standard language without that recognition.

"The results were astounding to us," Holloway said. "This was an opportunity to see how the tsunami donors would respond to an emergency not in that original area."

Instead of appealing to a one-time emergency event, make donors feel they are partners. The only way to accomplish that is by communicating once a month with a newsletter, Holloway said.

"It costs a lot of money to acquire donors," she said. "We want to retain them, but on a deeper level, we want to make donors feel they are a part of the organization."

While the tsunami donors seemed to respond to future appeals for the IRC, those people answered the call differently in other organizations.

The results for CARE U.S.A. in Atlanta were cloudy and mixed. On one hand, the average monthly Web income was significantly greater since the tsunami crisis to the tune of an average of 1,088 percent during seven months compared to 2004.

The tsunami email program exploded, according to Adam Hicks, vice president of marketing and communication for CARE. It acquired 31,684 first-time givers who chose to give their first gift online, as opposed to direct mail or telephone during the months of December through March, the key giving months of the tsunami crisis. This figure comes out of 63,761 total new givers during that time.

On the other hand, emergency donors don't have a good track record. During the past emergencies including Kosovo or Hurricane Mitch, CARE was able to obtain subsequent gifts from 22 percent of those emergency donors. This compares to 42 percent from non-emergency gifts.

"For the tsunami donors, we haven't had a full year so I wouldn't expect to reach that 22 percent," he said. "But around 8 percent have made a subsequent gift, and at this stage that should be 9 to 10, so we are slightly behind."

Cultivation strategies were modified to try to keep the tsunami donor. CARE's methods after the tsunami went beyond thanking donors to sending tax receipts, along with a communication that a long-term relationship was desired by the nonprofit.

"We wanted them to control the relationship," Hicks said. "We sent donor preference cards so they could tell us how often they wanted communication with the way they wanted the information."

In past emergencies, the approach was to thank them, and put them into the normal mail stream. "But after the tsunami, we went back to them with the significant message about CARE's mission to fight poverty," he said.

The headline theme mentioned that, "Poverty is the Silent Tsunami. "The strategy aimed to gain support for any poverty that makes people susceptible to a crisis, such as the condition of many in New Orleans. CARE set up donor reports at the 100-day mark, and six month time to show successes.

Yet Hicks believes the strategies were successful despite some figures that fail to support the impact. "If we weren't doing those things, the responses would be much less," he said. "The percent of people having an ongoing communication that we didn't have in the past is an important factor."

Part of the story about tsunami donors can be seen by whether the cultivation approach followed up online or through the mail. Catholic Relief Services (CRS), based in Baltimore, used a different method for Web donors. Just fewer than 70,000 arrived through the Web for the tsunami event. The CRS serves as one of the largest international relief agencies with development in 99 countries.

"But we don't have a strong online program," said Jean Simmons, associate director of direct response fundraising. "We just have a newsletter, so we tried to convert them to the direct mail program."

A revamped new donor series of communication included a reminder for donors about how generous they were, with reports on how the money was spent. Also, thank you calls along with a combination of a live operator and taped message aimed to give a personal touch.

"We changed the order on how we do donor series," she said. "We were telling them about the organization as a whole."

However, the CRS noticed the tsunami donors haven't been as responsive as other typical direct response donors. They were giving at a second gift rate of around 8 percent compared to the 31 to 32 percent the CRS usually obtains.

"This is similar to other emergencies like Kosovo," she said. "However, we never had such a large group come onboard--161,559 donors compared to less than 100,000."

Despite the low percentage, the report in June with a non-solicitation piece drew in an average of $150 and more. "All this work and we retained only about 8 percent," she said. "The people who responded the best were those from the Web, and from white mail."

What were the lessons learned? Convey a strong message so the donor recognizes milestones, such as the anniversary of an emergency. Describe what has been accomplished by the organization over set time frames. Maybe the other lesson is that emergency donors are more likely to be valuable when acquired through the Web.

However, converting Web people to the mail can be cumbersome. "We would rather use online strategies and move in that direction," Simmons said. "It's a shame we didn't have the system in place in time, but the type of donor usually drawn to the CRS is not a Web donor."

The American Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, D.C., acquired donors through the tsunami crisis, and also wonders about the effect of the online factor. "I don't know if the trend has moved dramatically for online donations for the emergency donors," said Steve Denne, vice president for development operations for the organization. "But the online factor has made communication more cost effective."

The ARC hasn't overlaid the tsunami donors with those from the Katrina crisis, a task that Denne says will take until 2006. But he cites an early indicator that shows tsunami online donors are opting out at a much lower rate than he previously experienced. "They are staying connected with email communications with us more than in the past," he said.

"We haven't yet worked out the mechanics to cross market to see if we could encourage visitors to volunteer," he said. "We know from previous research that an overlap exists between donation, volunteering and blood giving, but we haven't systematically cross marketed those opportunities."

For another nonprofit, an increase in second gifts has occurred from those tsunami donors. Direct Relief International (DRI), in Santa Barbara, Calif., conducts humanitarian medical aid to disaster areas. "We have seen some companies who found us on their own during the tsunami crisis who have called us back to help for Katrina," said Thomas Tighe, president and CEO for the organization.

The boost from the tsunami added a greater pool of donors who are now continuing to give. The average year usually brings in between 3,000 and 5,000 donors, but the tsunami attracted 41,000.

"We didn't solicit them up-front," he said. "Several companies came back for Katrina with about $2.3 million without marketing," he said.

Are these donors attracted to an organization for specific reasons? "The reason they chose us was because they saw us on television," he said. "In one week, we were viewed on NBC and ABC, which broadcast from our warehouse, and gave us a momentum," said Tighe.

The online information features a newsletter where viewers check bi-weekly updated details about where the funds are helping people. "This isn't a broad scale email program because we just received the capacity to do segmented lists," he said. "We think that will be our next opportunity to send emails each month with a series of links to what we're doing."

However, DRI staff don't see this as cultivation. "We've been around 57 years, and it's a change to convert our philosophy to that of asking for money."

For the IRC's Holloway, the lesson learned is that retaining emergency donors requires bonding them to the organization. "You achieve this through direct mail, online strategies, and reporting back quickly to them, and in the same way they reached you," she said. "When you ask for a gift, you have to give a compelling story about why the gift is needed, and you have to recognize their help."

Tom Pope, a New York City-based journalist, writes on management issues.
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Title Annotation:Fundraising ...
Author:Pope, Tom
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Date:Feb 15, 2006
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