After the Acquisition
For some months now, I’ve been collecting samples — giving small donations to a number of charities (in addition to those I usually support), so that I can get an idea of who’s doing what with their “post-gift” donor communications.
Ignoble intentions, yes. But to your benefit: I’ve found that way too many follow-up donor communications actually scuttle their mission to earn the continued trust and year-to-year support of donors.
Without debating the merit of “thank-you/please” notes or how soon a second appeal should follow the first — that’s a whole other kettle of fish — I’ll tell you that the post-gift messages I received (thank-you letters, standard replies and the like) sometimes were confusing and impersonal — even from some of the best-known nonprofits out there.
So I wasn’t surprised to read this from Adrian Sargeant, a fundraising professor at the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, in the April 5 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy: “Retention is the single biggest issue we face as a sector today.”
But there’s good news. In the same article, Sargeant also noted that boosting repeat donor ranks by just 10 percent can improve your returns up to 200 percent.
Could post-gift communications be the biggest sleeper opportunity in your organization?
You decide: Check out what your nonprofit neighbors sent me. And use these examples to avoid repeating their mistakes — or apply the accompanying tips to mend your existing messages.
In place of actual nonprofit names, I use the generic AnyName Charity in each sample below. You’ll find no finger-pointing here.
Tip No. 1: Know what’s going out the door
First, know what your donors receive. Too often, nonprofits relegate anything that isn’t an appeal to the bottom of the creative heap. And everyday replies, thank-you notes and other member communications often are handled by a department with no connection to development.
That’s a shame. Of course, your budget might make this a necessity. But still, you can overcome it.
Assign a seasoned staff member — or hire outside help — to periodically audit follow-up communications. (And yes, you should test. But you know that anyway.)
Tip No. 2: Make sense
The late direct-marketing legend Joan Throckmorton called it “the underlying law of creativity.” And it holds true for advertisers and nonprofits alike.
In her wonderful book, “Winning Direct Response Advertising,” Throckmorton wrote, “Whatever you say, however you say it … first ask, ‘Does this make sense to the customer?’” (And donors are, of course, your customers.)
An example: About four weeks after I sent my first donation to one charity, I received the typical — and personally dreaded — thank-you/please note. Near the bottom, I read this:
“I trust that you will find the enclosed literature informative and hope that you’ll become a member of the AnyName Charity today!”
I reread it, utterly confused. I double-checked the name of the charity, thinking I’d missed something. They hope I’ll become a member?
Wait a minute! I thought I just did. This sentence left me wondering if I needed to send even more money to become an “official” member.
Take-away tip: Ask questions when reading your follow-up communications. Is anything unclear? Are you bewildered? If the answer is yes to either one, you can bet that your donors will be baffled, too.
Tip No. 3: Use a ‘house’ style guide
If you rely on staff outside your department to communicate with donors and members, borrow a tip from The Stanford Fund for Undergraduate Education: Create and distribute a style guide. With the help of a style guide, students write — by hand — wildly successful thank-you notes for The Stanford Fund, which also relies on proofreaders to review each note. Here’s one example of what might end up in your nonprofit’s style guide:
You work for an animal welfare group, and members write in with questions about stray cats, neglected neighborhood dogs and so forth. You know your stuff, so you also know it’s taboo to use phrases like “dogs that …” or “cats that … .” Instead, you — and anyone who communicates with members — need to use the phrases “dogs who …” or “cats who … .” (To the uninitiated: Pet lovers think of their beloved dogs and cats as “people,” too — and they’ll take it personally if you slip up.)
A style guide, even if it’s just a single page, can save staff from using any off-putting phrases.
Tip No. 4: Manners count
Another national charity sent me a “Your gift is on its way” note, about two weeks after my thank-you letter arrived. The note read:
“This thank-you gift will be sent to you without obligation, but I hope that it will move you to send a generous contribution along with your Address Verification Form.”
Two problems here. First, I didn’t ask for a gift and there was no mention of a gift in the initial appeal. Worse, I still hadn’t received it at the time of this writing — weeks later — so I can’t tell you what the gift is.
I have no idea how effective this strategy is for the organization, although I will say the “gift/gimme” tactic raised my etiquette hackles. But that’s just me.
At the very least, common sense dictates that if you say you’ll do something, then do it. The surprise is over: Now I’m waiting for that gift. Don’t let it take another six to eight weeks to arrive.
Problem No. 2? That impersonal-sounding address verification form. I can’t fill it out unless the gift arrives. And the form sounds so official, so mass-produced, as if it came from the Internal Revenue Service.
Take-away tip: Show donors a little love! If you keep the strategy, at least rename the form. Try, “You’ll also have a chance to make any changes to your address at that time, so you won’t miss your first issue of our newsletter, for an up-to-the-minute look at how hard your gift is working.”
Tip No. 5: Write like you talk
It’s a copywriting rule that’s old as dirt. Unless your audience prefers an extremely formal style of writing, there’s nothing wrong with sprinkling a contraction or two in your letters to keep them from getting that stiff-as-a-starched-shirt sound.
And one more. Remove stilted language that doesn’t show the passion you have for your mission. Here’s an example from a member brochure:
“As an AnyName Charity member, you may take advantage of many opportunities for adventure and rewarding involvement.”
Why say, “You may take advantage of …” when you can say, “Be sure and take advantage of …” instead?
Or go one step further. Pluck a few fine phrases from the back flap of the brochure, and adapt:
“Preserve archaeological sites. Build trails. Paddle, pedal and trek. Get involved. As an AnyName Charity member, adventure and achievement await you.”
It’s not perfect, but you get the picture. More action. Less formal.
Bottom line? You work hard to acquire donors. And it costs plenty of money to do so. Now make sure every one of your follow-up communications work just as hard as that first appeal to nurture each new relationship and keep your donors committed for the long haul.
Lisa Sargent is a fundraising copywriter who runs Sargent Communications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 860.851.9755.