The Little Mailing That Did
The Vermont Foodbank is the only food bank in the state of Vermont. For years, CEO Deborah Flateman says, it had relied on volunteers to produce its acquisition and renewal mailings in-house. The pieces themselves were inexpensive, consisting mostly of a letter with the organization’s letterhead and simple reply elements.
But in 2004, VFB moved its headquarters to a location that was harder for its direct-mail volunteers to get to. Faced with that situation and a growing desire to pump up its donor base, VFB enlisted the help of L.W. Robbins Associates, a Holliston, Mass.-based direct-response fundraising firm that works with more than 30 food banks across the country, to create a holiday acquisition appeal.
The goal was modest: to acquire 500 new donors with a $25 or more average gift, so the mailing would break even. The main target for the mailing was Vermont residents who had supported a nonprofit organization in the past and who were direct-mail responsive. With no prior list acquisition results for VFB and a limited universe offered by the sparsely populated, rural state of Vermont, L.W. Robbins relied on rented lists of about 25,000 direct-mail responsive individuals who were prior donors to various nonprofits, catalog purchasers and magazine subscribers.
Creatively, the goal was to design an inexpensive package that conveyed a sense of urgency. At the time, L.W. Robbins was mailing name labels for a number of its other food bank clients’ holiday acquisitions, but to keep costs down, it turned instead to a mini note-card format and a blind envelope.
Inside the 4-inch-by-6-inch blind outer envelope is a horizontally folded 5-inch-by-7-inch note card with a 3-inch-by-5-inch reply device laying in its fold and a BRE. The front panel of the note card shows a warm, country kitchen illustration with a table filled with plenty: baskets of apples, jars of sweets, a loaf of bread, a pie, etc. Inside the note card is copy in letter format that is brief — six short paragraphs and a P.S. — and to the point, laying out the need in urgent terms: At this time when many people are enjoying food, friends and family, many of your neighbors will have nothing to eat. The reply is personalized to the recipient’s name and home town. It shows a thumbnail picture of a child at a table alongside the ask: “Mr. Sample, we need you now more than ever so that we can feed hungry children, seniors and families in [town name] this holiday season. Please be as generous as possible. Thank you and happy holidays.” The ask string is $25; $15; $35; $50; and other.
The response rate for the mailing was 2.62 percent, surpassing VFB’s goal by 31 percent. The average gift also was greater than the goal, exceeding it by $10.47, at $35.47. VFB continues to experience great results with the mailing. It used the mini note-card format in its Thanksgiving acquisition campaign in October 2005 and had a response rate of 2.87 percent and an average gift of $40.
Kent Rohrbach, senior account director for L.W. Robbins Associates, credits good list selection for much of the mailing’s success. Mailing only direct-mail responsive individuals is key. The timing of the mailing’s message also helped response.
“If there’s any time of the year when donors and prospects alike are going to respond to the issue of hunger, it’s during that Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukkah time period,” he says.
The mailing’s holiday-card style is a familiar sight at that time of the year as well. Flateman agrees, crediting the campaign’s design with the high response, increased frequency of giving among donors and more than doubling the amount of new donors in just one year.
The mailing’s localization to the town in which the prospect resides also pushes response. Localizing mailings depends on the degree of specific information that each client organization can provide. The only difficulty with localizing across the board is if the prospect lives in a wealthy area. In that case, Rohrbach says, donors might be less inclined to believe that hungry people exist there. To get around this, L.W. Robbins works with clients to determine the degree to which the mailings should be localized: town, county, state, etc. In other cases, an organization might not have a program in every community of the city or state that it serves, so mailings are localized to the nearest program.
The mailing employs very little paper and it lacks a freemium such as address labels, making it cost effective, and it does just as well as the more expensive name label package both in terms of response rate and average gift.
L.W. Robbins likes to test a variety of ask strings in client mailings but has found that the best ask string is $35, $25, $50, other. Because VFB was a new client, it wanted to expand the gift array as much as possible and included a low ask of $15 and a high of $50. But since the mailing garnered an average gift of $35.47, it has since done away with the $15 ask and now uses the tried-and-true $35, $25, $50. When asked why $25 is put in between two higher amounts, Rohrbach says the $25, $35, $50 was tested against $35, $25, $50 and lost because most people choose the first gift amount they see.
A real winner
Not only have the mailing’s results been stellar, but its success has inspired the organization to expand its mailing efforts.
“[It has] developed our relationship from a one-time mailing with the client to now we do four acquisitions and eight donor-renewal mailings a year,” Rohrbach says.