'Civility in public discourse is gone. The parties and candidates are at each others' throats. The nation's attention is riveted on an unending volley of insults and accusations."
Sound familiar? That was the lament in 1828 about the presidential race between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. The Adams campaign fliers, known as coffin bills, accused Jackson of being an adulterer and his mother of being a prostitute.
And in 2012? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Presidential elections may provoke heated supper-table debates, but do they impact fundraising? And if so, what can direct-response marketers do to optimize results during an election season?
The presidential election of 2000 found America without a clear winner for the first time in history. The Supreme Court and the recounters finally confirmed the tally, but the uncertainty held the nation's attention hostage for 36 days, and anecdotally at least, fundraising results dropped precipitously for many organizations (especially in Florida), as people were more engaged with hanging chads than response devices.
Back in 1992, Bill Clinton and Al Gore ended 12 years of Reagan-Bush rule, and many environmental organizations, still aglow from the victory, found their revenue dropped — because their donors figured that with the election, they had won the battle.
If we move beyond anecdotal evidence, there is precious little data to prove whether the presidential fundraising season helps or hinders direct-response fundraising results for nonprofits — either for acquisition or cultivation. According to Giving USA, "the Center on Philanthropy's statistical analysis of total giving and individual giving shows no correlation between rates of change in giving and presidential elections — either the year before the election or the year of the election."
Presidential elections do mean:
- More clutter in the mailbox
- Deliverability challenges
- More competition for funds and attention
- Airtime is more expensive and less available
- Media attention can turn away from causes that nonprofits address (poverty, hunger, international needs, health care research, etc.) and focus more on the horse race.
Here are some smart strategies for election-season fundraising:
Beware of the self-fulfilling prophecy
When nonprofits are afraid of the election (or anthrax or the economy) and they reduce their direct-marketing efforts, their results plummet. Guaranteed.
Know your audience
Donors to your nonprofit may be a different audience than donors to political campaigns or may be giving out of a different pocket. Keep close to your donors, and keep reminding them of the importance of your cause.
Choose mail-drop dates wisely
In the 2008 election, we worked with several clients to test acquisition timing. In short, we found it better to be in-home before Oct. 7 and after Nov. 7. Note that we didn't reduce quantity; we just shifted some timing. The packages between Oct. 7 and Nov. 7 didn't do as well as those we dropped earlier or later.
Do not skip a mailing
But consider creating a cushion around the election for cultivation. Just shift your drop dates a bit to avoid the crazy period right before and after the election when donor attention is diverted.
Check your formats
Your packages need to stand out by being different from political mail (mostly big postcards and white No. 10 envelopes). Go smaller or bigger than a No. 10 size during campaign season. Use unique colors and creative envelope styles to distinguish your mailing from all the No. 10s, and stop using postcards during this time period.
Rethink DRTV and radio fundraising
You may want to avoid news networks. Since a presidential election mucks up the national media more than local, you may want to seek out more local media buys. You may also want to shift your buy to heavy up May and September. Lighten up October and the first week of November, and heavy up after the election, where possible.
Optimize your digital spend
Digitally, the politicians and parties are focusing on social media. Nonprofits that deal with issues that will be highlighted by candidates (e.g., jobs, poverty, jobs, environment, jobs, health care) can use social media to increase relevance.
But, as for budget and time, you may want to focus more on SEO, SEM, display and e-mail. And make sure your e-mail subject line tells people it is YOU so they don't delete your message as just another political spam.
Shift your messaging
Look for ways to shift your messaging to the topics that are getting the most media coverage and are most relevant with donors. Can you be relevant? Can you highlight issues in the campaign (e.g., the economy, challenges to returning soldiers) or the fact that America is distracted by the campaign while people keep lining up for food at your shelter?
Just be careful not to lean to one side or the other — and especially avoid even the perception of electioneering (promoting one candidate over another) if you want to keep your 501(c) 3.
In summation, stay the course, and consider adjusting timing, format and messaging slightly. Remember, sometimes it's difficult and expensive to acquire donors and raise revenue. Sometimes it's easier. They key is to keep doing it. FS
Tom Harrison is CEO of Russ Reid and a member of the FundRaising Success Editorial Advisory Board. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Harrison is the former chair of Russ Reid and Omnicom's Nonprofit Group of Agencies. He served as chair of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.