Someone Has Been Reading My Articles – or Maybe Not!

By Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D.

I received the best end of year mailing – at least by my standards. First, it was personalized. Second it was just three paragraphs and 7 sentences long – about a third of a page. What really made it good was the following statement, “You’ve been a dedicated friend of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, and it’s time to renew your commitment for the year ahead.” And then one sentence about what the organization does. Finally, the brief message ends with “I hope that we can count on your membership once again … and continue to be one of our most valued supporters.” (italics mine)

Why do I think that this is such a great end of year solicitation? It acknowledges that I have been an ongoing contributor. Someone took the time to ensure that the donor and prospect lists were categorized according to giving history. The letter was unique to me and all of those “dedicated” contributors like me. It was personalized with my name – not “dear friend” – and recognized my continuous support. It was not an anonymous end of year mailing that replicated the same message as the year before. It wasn’t two pages long; it was easy to read.

In an article that I posted two years ago on eJewish Philanthropy, I asked the question, “Is the annual letter worth the effort?” I concluded that if an organization is going to use an annual, end of year mailing, it must create a cogent strategy for doing so.

I have suggested in other articles that the Donor Lifecycle Map be applied in order to make these communications 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, delete the name and save some money. While I don’t know if the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation segregated its entire mailing list by number of donations – first to ongoing – it certainly paid attention to the latter.

I have always advocated for experimenting with the annual letter. Once it is created, try different models with various population groups – new contributors (just one gift), 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. Send different requests to those who have made ongoing gifts versus those who haven’t and once again, calculate outcomes. 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.

As I noted in that 2015 article, 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 capacity that is now available to us. I still think that we should be making decisions based on experimentation with different models especially with something so simple and yet so costly as an annual letter requesting support.

Small organizations might claim that they cannot muster the wherewithal to conduct research. This is a wonderful place for foundation grant making or umbrella organizations to play a role. We need to investigate what “works” and what doesn’t since we seem to continue the same methodologies year after year without any measurement.

Maybe we need to ask a prior question: Is the end of year the most advantageous time to send annual letters, and if so, to what kind of donor – prospects or ongoing. Maybe we are better off following the Jewish calendar and yet I seem to be inundated by Jewish not for profits in the spring and fall just as much as in the winter. Their frequency and amount makes me numb to these ongoing solicitations.

JCamp 180 recently sent out an email with a video explaining how to use end of year e-mails to raise last minute funds. I think that this, too, needs to be “tested” and that concept is supported in the video. The speaker says “cut your email list in half” and send the recommended messages to that group and do either “nothing” or what is normally done with the other half. He claims that this small experiment will indicate what your donors are “telling you through their personal behavior.” It would be interesting to see if these end of year emails “work” for prospects as well as different categories of donors.

We’ll never really know what is effective especially in relation to expenditures – staff resources as well as postal costs in the case of end of year snail mail – unless we begin to start experimenting and measuring as opposed to just listening to various opinions. It might also be interesting to see who responds to end of year, personalized letters based on giving history and who through emails also sent at a similar time. But again, the lists have to be carefully managed to ensure that we know what we are doing and not sending multiple requests that may or may not “work” in a complementary fashion but give us no idea of which, or if any, are useful by themselves. It’s not an easy issue but it is one that we really must address if we want to conduct cost effective and productive fundraising over the long term.

Now going back to the Crohns & Colitis Foundation. My happiness at being noticed as a “dedicated” supporter of the organization was fleeting. Within a few days, I received another piece of mail. This one was two pages and while it was personalized, it said nothing about me. It was a template – obviously sent to all donors notwithstanding giving history.

I called the Crohns & Colitis Foundation in order to ask some questions about their fundraising and particularly how they organized the end of year mailings. The Vice President of Digital Marketing was happy to talk to me and noted that they do “clean up their mailing lists;” anyone who hasn’t responded in two years is categorized as “non-responsive” but the name is maintained “to ensure they are not selected for future mailing.” In other words, they would be categorized as “inactive” although they are selective in that process. I was told that if an individual has been an ongoing donor and appears to be “lapsed,” that individual will receive a message that is “adjusted” for the situation. He explained that they do “segment the data base” by size of gift and time of last donation” before they send a second request. He welcomed not only my praise for the first mailing but also my comments about the second. He seemed to also be quite receptive to the feedback although he did not mention that he would make any changes in the future! The organization clearly has a strategic fundraising plan in that it keeps me and other ongoing donors informed through regular newsletters about the accomplishments of the Foundation between annual requests for support.

Given my thoughts about the first mailing and the willingness of the staff to talk to me, I am putting its request into my pile for check writing and I shall probably increase my contribution from the prior year notwithstanding that I wasn’t asked to do so!

Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D., is a fund development consultant and the author of
The Donor Lifecycle Map: A Model for Fundraising Success (Charity Channel Press, 2017). She also wrote Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fundraising, (Wiley, 2014). Her website is