DOROT's Objective: Think Like the Donor
For nonprofit mailers, knowing what your donors want is paramount. That’s why DOROT, a New York City-based charity providing Kosher meals to homebound Jewish elders in the tri-state area, tested, tested and tested some more to pinpoint how best to attract new contributors.
Its current No. 10 control package is simple in design and approach, and contains just three elements: a four-page letter, donor form and BRE. For all the flashy, four-color brochures and glossy inserts available, it often is the plain, white printed letter and envelope that carry the most impact — and cost the least — in the mail stream.
“About five years ago, DOROT’s acquisition efforts started to fall off, in part because they are a regional mailer,” says Amy Sukol, creator of this package and senior account executive for Lautman and Co., a consulting firm that specializes in member and donor development for nonprofit organizations. “We pretty much mail exclusively to the Jewish market [in New York], and you can only mail the same package for so many years to the same donors before you start to see a decline.”
Sukol’s first order of business was to revise the letter to focus primarily on DOROT’s defining organizational program: feeding the Jewish elderly. The previous control letter discussed myriad programs, including DOROT’s “University Without Walls” initiative, which matches college-aged volunteers with homebound elders for company and conversation. But according to Sukol, active donors don’t consider the program to be as critical as feeding people.
The second challenge for Sukol was to craft a letter that talked about the people who were helped by DOROT, rather than continuing to present a little old lady’s plea for help.
“I think the old control letter was a good letter, but it was getting tired,” Sukol says. “We went from, ‘Here’s a woman in a desperate situation [that] DOROT can help’ to ‘Here’s how DOROT helped me.’ I think that’s made a huge difference.”
After eight years of mailing the same letter with the same elderly woman calling out to donors for assistance, recipients mused, “Haven’t we helped this lady already?”
The Johnson box of the letter now contains three testimonials from elders who’ve been served by DOROT’s program:
“Since I broke my hip, I’m trapped at home — it’s impossible for me to shop or cook for myself.” — Estelle G., 87
“I’m afraid to go out because I don’t see so well anymore.” — Ruth P., 94
“My wife died three years ago — I feel so alone now.” … Harry N., 79
Sukol’s opening passage begins by sharing with prospective donors the remarkable impact DOROT has on needy Jewish elderly.
“ … When their hands are too crippled from arthritis to make a healthy meal, they subsist on cold cereal. … I’m sharing their words with you today to let you know the plight of thousands of homebound Jewish elders living in our community and to tell you how DOROT cares for them with support from people like you. …”
Sukol goes on to explain exactly what a specific donation amount would provide to a Jewish elder, and even employs two postscripts to push response:
“P.S. To designate how many kosher meals you would like to sponsor, please complete the enclosed meal coupon and return it with your contribution. As a token of my thanks, you will begin receiving our newsletter, Generations.
“P.P.S. If you know of anyone who needs DOROT’s services, please call us at 212.769.2850 Monday through Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and ask for the intake social worker.”
The donor form
While the revamped letter could be credited, at least partially, for lifting response, the crux of the package is the perforated meal coupons attached to the donor form.
The six coupons represent different donation amounts, e.g., “1 Week: I have enclosed $36, the cost of one week of kosher food and friendship for a homebound Jewish elder.” This particular coupon contains a cartoon drawing of one shopping bag, whereas the $180 coupon, good for five weeks, shows five bags.
The recipient is instructed to check the amount of her gift in the ask string, place a removable four-color sticker on the appropriate coupon and send the entire form back to DOROT. Her choices: $36 (one week of food), $72 (two weeks of food), $180 (five weeks of food), $360 (10 weeks of food) and other amount, with copy that reads: “I have enclosed $____ to provide kosher food and friendship to a homebound Jewish elder.”
“The reason why we chose those specific [ask amounts] is that, in Hebrew, every one of the letters has a numerical equivalent,” Sukol affirms. “The Hebrew number for ‘life’ is 18. It’s a typical thing in Jewish giving, whether you’re giving someone a wedding gift or donating to charity, to give in multiples of $18. We obviously didn’t want to start off at $18 because it was too low, so we opted for $36.”
The only challenge then was to determine precisely how much food could be purchased for each ask amount, Sukol says. The ask-string and meal-coupon strategy proved successful, according to results, increasing its average gift from $35 to $40. In the prior control, DOROT had asked donors to sign the meal coupons and send them back — a tactic that proved only marginally effective.
“A lot of [donors] were ripping the meal coupons off the form and keeping them,” Sukol shares. “We didn’t want that. We wanted [donors] to send back the entire sheet. People were sort of missing the point there. But when we added the sticker, it changed the way people interacted with the coupons.”
As simple as it sounds, the round, four-color glossy sticker of a plate of food lifted response and gave the control package the interactive feel DOROT was looking for all along.
“We thought it was a cool idea, but I couldn’t believe the difference the sticker made,” Sukol says.
The outer envelope
Another surprise came in the form of donor response, and not with a check.
DOROT’s outer-envelope treatment is as plain as it gets, with a single poly window, logo and address information on the back, and a straightforward teaser: “Meal Tickets Enclosed: Please Help Feed the Jewish Elderly.” When the package first rolled out, DOROT employed simply: “Meal Tickets Enclosed.”
“We received numerous complaints from donors who were embarrassed because they thought that their postal carrier would think they were receiving the meal tickets,” Sukol says, commenting on the decidedly older Jewish donor constituency. “They didn’t want anyone to think they were receiving charity. It was enough for us to add, ‘Please Help Feed the Jewish Elderly.’”
In September 2004, DOROT tested a new teaser, “Home Delivered Kosher Meals Urgently Needed,” but the current copy beat it handily.
Tweaks and tests
For the last three years, DOROT’s control package has been receiving an average response rate of 0.07, but its high average gift has kept costs down and actually netted the organization money on several occasions.
(For its September drop, DOROT received a 0.88 response rate with a $44.92 average gift.)
According to Sukol, DOROT recently tested rented lists of Jewish donors in the Florida area to mine for New York-area retirees and transplants. After only limited success, the campaign was discontinued.
As for future tests, Sukol says DOROT will try employing its teaser on the back of the outer envelope to see if its donors will respond any differently.