An Interview With Emelie Irving, Executive Director, Southeast Texas Food Bank
"Board members thought, 'Well why doesn't she just learn to write [fundraising] letters herself,' but that would not have been successful," Irving says. "We needed expertise we didn't have. With [in-house fundraising letters] we might have gotten in a few thousand dollars, but we needed hundreds of thousands."
Buoyed by a guarantee of success by Russ Reid, Irving jumped into the relationship, and everyone was pleasantly surprised — and continues to be. The results of the first campaign out of the gate were better than even she expected.
Irving says that even if an organization does manage to produce fundraising materials in-house, the keys to success are choosing lists, testing and measuring results — very specific and scientific skill sets that not a lot of organizations can afford to staff internally.
Looking ahead, Irving says the food bank will concentrate on beefing up its online presence and also strengthening its brand in the community. But there are no plans to "fix what ain't broken" as far as direct mail. It'll remain the backbone of fundraising at the organization, and it won't be coming in-house any time soon.
Her advice for smaller nonprofits that need to spread their fundraising wings?
"Direct mail works. There's a reason why so many people do it," she says. "But don't try to do it in-house if you're a small nonprofit without the skill and expertise to be able to do the testing, the marketing, the creative work, to know where to purchase a list. There's a whole science that goes into direct marketing. Don't try to do it on the cheap."
Finally, even in light of all of the eye-opening lessons Irving and her board have learned in their journey to becoming a direct-mail fundraising powerhouse, the most important one echoes the most basic advice any nonprofit needs to know: