Is the Annual Letter Worth the Effort?

By Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D.

I received thirty-three letters asking for an end of year donation since I began to count them in November. Of these one was from my mother’s alma mater. She died more than six years ago at age 93. She never donated during the last ten years of her life; I know because I managed her checkbook.

Of the remaining 32, one organization not only sent 4 letters, but also enclosed return envelopes. I had already made a gift to this not for profit during 2014; that contribution was not acknowledged in any of the letters. After the third mailing, I asked through an e-mail message that my name be removed from the mailing list notwithstanding that I fully believe in the mission of the organization and that is why I donated in the first place. I explained that I wanted my name deleted because of the waste related to all the requests. To no avail; I received the fourth mailing. Maybe the letter was already “in the works” and couldn’t be stopped. Why were four letters sent is the real question.

Five of the remaining 31 organizations sent two letters each and one of them also made several on-line requests; I did not open any of these letters and deleted the on-line appeals. On the envelope of the second mailing of one of these was stamped “second request;” I felt like I was not only guilty but also a debtor.

Of the remaining letters (21), one had my husband’s name wrong – easy to dismiss it. I am a member of this latter organization and had requested that my husband’s name be corrected any number of times. In another case I had attended an event where a friend of mine was honored. I subsequently did send a check when asked in a personalized letter for an additional gift. However, the thank you note for that contribution was a template and the current letter was addressed “Dear Friends”; I did not respond. I had donated at one time or another to approximately one half of the organizations that had sent me letters and to just four on a regular basis.

Of the 33 requests, I sent a donation to one – a women’s shelter where my neighbor is the CEO. I was always dropping off used towels and sheets. It was easy to understand why my name was on its mailing list and I also always received personal thank you notes no matter what I contributed – in-kind or in-cash.

I am a sample of one, but I wonder how many other people are like me and I also question what I can recommend to organizations based on this experience.

First and foremost I would suggest that charities cleanse their mailing lists. Given the example of my mother’s alma mater, if someone has not been heard from in 13 years and she graduated in the 1930s, it’s pretty obvious she won’t be mailing a check or making a gift – even a bequest – anytime soon.

Second, count the amount of money realized from annual mailings; then subtract the amount of expense – paper, postage and STAFF TIME – and decide if it is worth the effort. One organization with which I have worked calculated that the net result of its annual mailing was $6000 not including the human resources involved. Maybe personal telephone calls to ongoing supporters could have resulted in better returns.

Third, if it is decided that there is some value to annual letters, create a strategy for mailing them. Determine who are likely respondents – maybe those who have made a gift or attended an event in the past three or four years. Whatever the parameter, acknowledge it in the letter.

I have suggested in other articles that the Donor Lifecycle Map be applied in order to make these mailings more efficient and personal. Send letters to people who have donated and refer to the number of donations, e.g. second gift, multi-year, etc. (See Deborah Kaplan Polivy, “The Donor Lifecycle Map as a Useful Development Planning Tool,” eJewishPhilanthropy, July 10, 2012.) If, on the other hand, no gift is received after three or four years and you know in particular that the person’s name is on the mailing list because of a one-time gift in honor or memory of a third party, delete the name and save some money.

Fourth, do not use template annual mailings to non-donors in order to entice them to make a first gift. It usually doesn’t work unless someone on the board or staff adds a personal note. The assumption here, however, is that the recipient opens the envelope and reads the letter inside. Given the number of requests that most people receive, that is unlikely to occur unless the address is hand written and the name of the person making the request is visible on the envelope. Persuasion from someone in the same social network is the most likely method to obtain first gifts from individuals, i.e. get them in the door. Annual letters could be a method to obtain these donors but with very personalized strategies.

Fifth, once a plan for using the annual letter is created, experiment with different population groups – new, second year and multi-year donors, as well as with various ways to ask for and acknowledge gifts. Try different methods for securing that first gift and subsequently thanking the donor. Maybe send a group of letters that are personalized and measure the cost and results as a model for future years. Try personalization on the envelopes or inside letters. Send different letters to those who have made ongoing gifts versus those who haven’t and once again, measure results. Determine if the annual letter is a methodology to retain donors and if so, in what form. Try personal thank you calls as well as written notes and see if there is any difference in repeat gifts. Once there are some real data, use the conclusions to inform future decision making about the annual letter – including whether to employ it at all or in what form.

We in the not for profit sector must begin to change the way we do things and simultaneously take advantage of the huge amount of technical knowledge that is now available to us. The Wall Street Journal in its December 15, 2014 (page R1) special section on charitable giving asked in an article by Anna Prior, “What Gets People to Give?

It’s a question charities have been grappling with for as long as there have been, well, charities. But researchers in recent years have begun digging deeper into the question, using controlled experiments and psychological testing to better understand why people feel compelled to donate to a good cause – or give it a pass.

We don’t have to be quite so sophisticated but we should be making decisions based on some kind of knowledge base and experimentation – especially with something so simple and yet so costly as an annual letter requesting funds.

A similar thought is posited in an article, “M.B.A. Programs Start to Follow Silicon Valley Into the Data Age,” (The New York Times, December 26, 2014, page B1.) This piece suggests that people with technical skills “in the digital-age arts of speed and constant experimentation … are not just for high-tech start-ups. They are required now in every industry” and that includes ours – the not for profit.

Small organizations might claim that they cannot muster the wherewithal to conduct research. This is a wonderful place for foundation grant making to play a role. A short-term grant (two to three years) made to undertake some studies of the responses to a variety of annual letters as well as thank yous to obtain not only first gifts but ongoing could have a long-term impact on an organization’s development budget. Any proposal has to be well thought out so that the research is really testing different strategies and can truly produce useful conclusions. However, such experimentation could be done without funding if some simple questions and data analysis were applied.

Natasha Dresner’s post on eJewishPhilanthropy (December 9, 2014) says some of the same things as above, however, her article relates only to supporters of an organization and she assumes that they will open a letter and read its contents. She doesn’t approach the letter as a tool to obtain first time donors which might be the best starting point from which to conduct research. It might reduce the huge numbers of letters that are sent and make the ones that are mailed to ongoing contributors stand out clearly and thus more likely result in a response. Again, this model is worthy of some strategic testing.

Or maybe experimentation is best launched based on whether the end of year is indeed the right time to send annual letters, and if so, to what kind of donor – prospective or ongoing. Dresner writes,

It’s that time of year when pretty much every nonprofit organization is working on its annual appeal letter. Some professional fundraisers argue that this is the best time for a solicitation because of the tax benefit, holiday spirit, and a charitable ‘knee-jerk-reaction.’ Some, instead, argue that this is the worst time because your organization gets lost in the flood of requests, and ends up being only one of the many instead of the one.

We’ll never know the answer to this quandary until we begin to measure what “works” as opposed to just listening to various opinions. It may be the best time for some kind of donors and not for others but we must understand who is our audience for these letters and how best to use them given the appropriate recipients.

Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D., is a fund development consultant and the author of “Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fundraising,” (Wiley). Her website is