This might turn out to be a rant. But you see, I’m getting a lot of fundraising appeals I can’t read because the type is too small, the paragraphs are too long, and the copy is too intensive and technical.
I’m eligible to critique this mail, not because I’ve been in the business for 42 years but because I’m now the target audience.
Once upon a time, the majority of direct mail fundraising executives were “up in years,” retired from their primary vocation or quasi-volunteers. They understood the target audience because they were the target audience. But today, direct mail fundraising is a career path. I don’t know what the median age is, but when I go to a conference it seems that the attendees are about the age of my grandchildren.
I wonder just how much these new-era executives know about me. They are good at statistics, setting up tests and extrapolating data from test results. They are strong in research. They know how to conduct focus groups. They are savvy, specialized and know how to make things happen.
But I wonder if they really understand me. As a person, not a statistic.
I’m suspicious because, when I was their age I didn’t understand people my age. I knew a lot about demographics and psychographics. But I didn’t really understand the target audience until I became one of the 32 million Americans endorsing a Social Security check.
Don’t you dare call me ‘elderly’
Do you really know me? What do you call me? Mature? Elderly? (If so, a curse on your next appeal.)
“Senior” is okay. And I kind of like that because I’ll be 72 years old this year, and I run four miles a day and play tennis four times a week — and lie like a serial killer about how much I exercise.
I also worry about my financial future because my wife has a lot of expensive hobbies. But I have enough money to feel comfortable. So much so that when I make a donation to charity, I feel good about it — and I feel even better when they send me a little note saying how much they appreciate my support.
You see, I wonder how many direct mail fundraising executives in their 20s, 30s and 40s are actually making gifts to nonprofit organizations on a regular basis. I wonder how many of them have friends — real friends — my age. I wonder how many of them surf the AARP Web site? Or read Modern Maturity?
Do they realize that people in their 60s, 70s and 80s have fears and concerns that a 35-year-old never thinks about?
Think about real, live donors
Back at the nonprofit executive suite, direct mail fundraisers typically feel more comfortable writing case statements than emotionally wrenching letters. And they write letters that stay away from any revelation of their own emotional state.
But now I’m scolding. Sorry. I guess why I’m a little impatient here is because people over the age of 65 have a median net worth that is twice that of any other age group. And isn’t it remarkable that, while donor files are eroding and the cost of securing a new donor is escalating, the target audience is the fastest-growing, most affluent group in America?
I know, I know. Everyone wants to attract 45-year-old donors, and I’m constantly asked to create packages aimed at younger audiences.
But do you want a donor on your file who doesn’t have discretionary income? The donor I want is, well, me. Even though, unfortunately, I’m not a woman. Too bad. Maybe I’ll take up cross-dressing.
Pay more attention to women like my wife, for example. She’s got a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Her passion is porcelain painting. She sleeps six hours a night, does an hour a day on the elliptical machine, diets constantly, has experienced two cancer operations and never watches television.
Every day she drives a mile to our mailbox and comes back with her arms full. She opens every single piece. No exceptions. She supports several charities; when the mail comes from those organizations, she puts it in a special pile and tells me to leave it alone.
When she gets an annual report, she throws it away. She has a little basket where she keeps premiums that come to her. Most of them eventually go to the grandchildren. She’ll read a letter of just about any length, unless it has bulky, unindented paragraphs. My purpose in giving you this information is simply to get you thinking about a real, live donor who, in this case, won’t read letters with long paragraphs.
Launch an effort to make contact with a donor who represents your target audience. Find out all you can about her. Little details. Motivation. Likes and dislikes. Patterns. Do your own one-on-one focus group. Visit her in her own home. Peruse her kitchen. Browse through her bookshelves. Ask about her hobbies. Her favorite TV program. Her kids. Her grandkids. What does she worry about most? What makes her happy?
And finally, ask her if you can take her picture. Then, the next time you sit down and knock out a fundraising appeal, paste her picture to the upper right-hand corner of your monitor. Type her name at the top of your first page — and write a letter specifically to her.
Try to feel old, if you can
If you want to take it a step further, do a personality shift and become her. Say what she would say. Do what she would do. Then, write a letter from her to you. And in this letter, have her tell you why she would like to send a gift to your organization. Weird, but it has a purpose. Trust me.
It’s a tough exercise. When I tried this with people in seminars, most of them couldn’t really get into it. But some did, and perhaps you can.
Remember, along with folks like my wife and me, the baby boomers — all 76 million of them — are maturing nicely. The largest potential pool of new donors in history is about to explode. And baby boomers are poised to give more than their parents, because they are twice as likely to be college educated, have more discretionary income and be more responsive to mail.
Plus, as they age, boomers will inherit significant sums from their parents — on the order of roughly $6.8 trillion.
And how are you going to get your fair share from seniors? It’s available, because we have begun tidying up our affairs. We know we aren’t going to live forever. We’ve stopped accumulating. We are free to disperse.
So now do you see why I’m ranting? To redeem myself, please let me give you a few quick suggestions. Along with getting acquainted with a real donor, join the AARP. Fill out an enrollment form. Say you are age 65. Then read their stuff. Go to the Web site. Click through everything.
Start to feel old, even though we seniors refuse to admit that we’re old. It’s a healthy denial. But we feel it — and you will write better letters if you feel it, too.
Jerry Huntsinger is a freelance copywriter and a senior creative consultant at Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.