by Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D.
Over the past month I am sure that you, like me, have read many blogs and articles about end of year giving. Most of these suggested ways that you might convey a message so as to ensure a response, and a generous one, on the part of the recipient. Now, at the beginning of 2013, we are already starting to receive recommendations as to how to increase donations for the coming year. I’d like to propose one idea.
Take some time to review how you wrote to your donors, when you did so and what you said. A colleague, Barbara Maduell, suggests that this is the time to take a breath, review your prospect lists and even schedule face to face appointments with current and potential donors. “Use year-end results to ‘tweak’ your prospect list,” suggests Maduell. “Sit with those prospects that made a new or upgraded major gift and ask about their motivations” as well as additional questions such as “what other information would they like to learn about your organization” and from whom they would like to “hear” and “how frequently.” I suggest you take Maduell’s advice and extend it to your written communications as well – especially those letters that you send at the end of the year.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Paul Sullivan writes that “this is a time of year when solicitations for donations are coming at you from every direction, and for good reason: the end of the year is when people make most of their gifts to charity.” He argues two perspectives on this season related benevolence. On the one side, he claims (quoting Patrick Rooney, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Research at Indiana University’s School of Philanthropy), that “you’re better off to target three, four or five charities and give larger gifts to a small number … as opposed to giving a large number of small checks.” He claims that this method will have a greater impact on the recipient organizations for two reasons: bigger gifts can have more benefits and they also save the charities from a great deal of the work involved in administering the donation; they have to “book it, deposit it, acknowledge the donor and cultivate the donor for future gifts.” He claims that there are “a lot of transaction costs for a relatively small gift.”
On the other hand, he states that “it’s your money, and if you want to give a little bit to 27 different groups, that‘s your choice.” And then he proceeds to talk about really large and focused gifts and the good they can do. Most of the people about whom he writes are beyond the means of the average, year-end donor.
I, however, want to think about how you make your charity stand out amid the “27 different groups” that all send requests more or less to the same donors that you do.
First, look very carefully at your letter. There are some things that in my mind might immediately disqualify a charity from receiving an end of year gift. Bad grammar is one of the highest on my lists. If someone is choosing among an array of solicitations and looking for a reason to disqualify one or another, then bad grammar, including misspellings, incorrect use of punctuation, repetition of words, etc. is an easy reason to dismiss one. Some may wonder if the letter is so sloppy, what kind of service does the organization deliver.
For example, I recently received a letter that included one five line sentence. Within the latter the word “local” was used twice and “group” four times. In the middle of this sentence, a comma was followed by a capital “A” – “An Arts Group” – which shouldn’t have been written as such for any reason. Moreover, the last sentence in the letter, “Thank you in advance for your support” was ended with a comma as opposed to a period. This is just careless writing.
“Donor- centered” letters are discussed in one of Gail Perry’s blogs. She suggests that you use the actual name of the donor when addressing the recipient, and I think such personalized correspondence is very important. You are distinguishing this donor from all the others. But nothing is worse than when you get the names of the donors wrong! I have received very lovely letters addressed to Mr. and Mrs. followed by my husband’s first name and then our family name. Then, I assume, based on an effort to be more persuasive and personalize the letter, the Mr. and Mrs. in the salutation are crossed out and substituted with handwritten first names and a note. Except that the names that are added are not ours! Moreover, “our firm” is asked to support a cause notwithstanding that the letter is addressed to us as individuals – with the names confused.
You laugh. I have received such letters. Even better are the solicitation letters thanking me and my husband for attending an event wherein he never showed up! And then “we” are asked for a gift because “we” heard such a compelling speaker.
So did I receive any well written and persuasive letters? I did. I was sent a letter addressed to me and my husband. In this case, the names were correct. The request was specific in terms of how the gift would have an impact on the client population, the restored building and the community at large. Three people signed it, all with original signatures and using different color pens so I knew that it was prepared with care. Finally, and really most impressive, was the following note handwritten across the top by the Executive Director, “You have been such a good friend to [name of the organization]. I’m sending you love and gratitude.” How could I refuse?
The important piece of the latter example is that the writer knew to whom she was sending the letter and personalized it not only in name, but by referring to another gift that I had made. She knew my donor history and where I resided on the donor lifecycle map in relation to her organization. (The donor lifecycle map is comprised of first gift, second, second-year active, multi-year active, major or stretch giving and ultimate giving or endowment. See Deborah Kaplan Polivy, “The Donor Lifecycle Map as a Useful Development Planning Tool,” eJewishPhilanthropy, July 10, 2012.) Her goal was to keep me involved and contributing to her organization and her personalized comments indicated as such. She also recognized, I assume, that it is much easier to maintain a donor relationship than start a new one! 
So at this time of year, when you begin to analyze last year’s results, look at your correspondence, too. Calculate what it cost to write and send and compare that to what was received in return. Carefully review the letter itself and think about how you might “tweak” it in order to stand out among all the other letters your recipients receive. (And pay attention to your thank-you note, too.)
Tell the donor how his prior gift made an impact on the organization and what a new gift will help accomplish. Make sure your letter is not only compelling, personal and just as important, correct in both content and grammar. In your plan for the following year, take a look at your salutations and make sure that the names are right. Recruit several board members to examine your lists for errors – and fix the salutation for those people wherein a spouse has died, someone has divorced, etc. Don’t be in a hurry to send out a lot of letters at the expense of accuracy.
Finally, determine who are your best prospects for these year-end mailings. I recommend only spending money on those donors from whom you have received gifts in the past and/or who are somehow linked to your organization (Subscription buyers to a theater; children with parents in an assisted living facility, memorial donors, event attendees, parents of students in a school, etc.) If an individual has never contributed to your organization, it is rare that he or she will choose an end of the year mailing to make a first time gift although it is true that often we have no idea how people learn about our organizations and we do receive surprises. I think that there has to be some kind of prior connection with the potential donor before he or she will suddenly pick up your mail over that of the sundry others to which she has given over the year. And remember, this is the time to begin putting together a development plan not only for the next year, but for several thereafter.
 More and more studies are showing that it is costlier to obtain a new donor than retain a past one. See, for example, The Urban Institute, “2012 Fundraising Effectiveness Project,” 2012.
Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D., is an independent fund raising consultant. Her website is deborahpolivy.com and her book, Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fund Raising, will be published in 2013 by John Wiley & Sons.