NARAL Pro-Choice America often is perceived as being on the fringe. That’s a given.
On the plus side, that perception helps the Washington, D.C.-based pro-choice activist organization attract passionate supporters. Indeed, Stephanie Kushner, director of development for NARAL Pro-Choice America, says her major donors need fewer tangible benefits because they’re motivated by pure zeal for the organization’s work.
But NARAL Pro-Choice America’s edgy rep has closed some fundraising avenues. Fearful that their donors and prospects will be hostile to receiving its messages, many less political nonprofits are reluctant to exchange lists with the organization. And acquisition is hard enough without this added barrier cutting off access to new, viable prospects.
That challenge has made success with reinstatement of lapsed donors and donor cultivation crucial, and for the past half decade the organization has been busy fine-tuning its fundraising and membership programs to grow its housefile.
Over the past five or six years, NARAL Pro-Choice America has become aggressively committed to building its acquisition and reinstatement program, oiled its donor-stewardship efforts, and enhanced the direct-response component of its major-donor program, the area where it has seen its greatest response and growth, according to Membership Director Jennifer Donahue.
To say these efforts have worked for the organization is an understatement: Its housefile has ballooned from about 70,000 names in 2000 to roughly 260,000 dues-paying members today.
From lure to hook
Acquisition and reinstatement for a membership-based political advocacy organization can pose challenges, especially when it brings members on — as NARAL Pro-Choice America used to — to support ever-changing hot-button issues.
Around the time of the 2000 elections, the organization realized that its housefile was shrinking. Donahue says one of the main reasons for the drop-off was its acquisition and reinstatement program, which used issue-specific messaging.
“People would join and become members, but they were crisis members. They weren’t staying with the organization, and so they would drop off and we would see that yo-yo-ing of our file,” she says.
To combat it, the organization created a direct-mail acquisition package called “Who Decides,” which conveys its basic mission statement rather than focusing on a current issue.
“It doesn’t talk about what’s in the news, it doesn’t talk about legislation that’s pending, and it’s not electoral in nature,” Donahue says. “It’s just very broad in defining our issue and reaching out to people who connect with that issue.”
The issue, she says, is the organization’s basic message that women should be free to make personal decisions about their health and future without interference from the government.
“Our polling confirms that this message of freedom, privacy and personal responsibility resonates with people, whether it’s to get people to vote or whether it’s to get people to give,” she says.
NARAL Pro-Choice America has continued to introduce campaigns centered around Supreme Court issues, pharmacy refusals to fill prescriptions for birth control, and specific legislation, but has found that though these mailings work for a time, they have been less successful at capturing long-term members.
“Again and again it comes down to that institutional message. Instead of our revenue fluctuating up and down, whether it’s an electoral presidential cycle or an off-year election, we see that revenue growth continue to slowly ratchet up, and I think that can be directly attributed to our commitment to the acquisition and reinstatement program,” Donahue says.
Building a program that yields sustainable growth required an organizational recognition of the reality of donor churn and a commitment to educating the board and its leadership that a membership organization’s strength lies in a robust acquisition program. NARAL Pro-Choice America maintains a fairly low per-donor investment, thanks mostly, Donahue says, to the success of reinstatement efforts on its housefile of deeply lapsed donors and non-donor online activists, which come in at such a low net investment that the organization still has the means to run acquisition efforts on tertiary lists.
“We are able to sustain a higher net investment to acquire those donors that we would not otherwise be able to afford,” Donahue says, adding that, on average, the organization invests about $19 to $20 to acquire one donor, but has at times invested as little as $7.
Donahue says the development staff uses these numbers to educate those at the board and executive level of the need for continued investment in acquisition, explaining that a $19-per-donor acquisition cost is worth the investment when the organization sustains an average donor value of $45 to $50. It’s also important in forwarding the organization’s mission, as Donahue says more than 90 percent of its membership file votes in both general and off-year elections. While most nonprofits usually lose money on reinstatement and tend to regard it as more of an investment in the future, NARAL Pro-Choice America nets money on its reinstatement program.
Seeking second gifts
Moving away from issue-specific prospecting and acquiring donors on a mission-focused platform has helped more than just the organization’s reinstatement efforts. It helps members develop an affinity for the cause from the start of their relationship with it and, as a result, they’re more likely to continue or increase that support.
“Whereas previously they gave based on a piece of legislation, now they’re giving because they’re connected to our root mission and to the successes of our federal presence on the hill or our grass roots presence in the states as it relates to reproductive rights,” Donahue says.
Around the same time NARAL Pro-Choice America restructured its acquisition/reinstatement program, the Internet emerged as a new DRM and fundraising frontier. Like many nonprofits, the organization has been using the Internet to do follow-up touches to members, sending them e-mail versions of campaigns they’ve received via direct mail or by phone.
“We’ve used the Internet to do the one-two punch with donors,” Donahue says. “We like to approach [donors] with one form of fundraising solicitation and then follow up with another, whether it’s a direct-mail piece and then the Internet follow up, or telemarketing and then the direct-mail follow up.”
NARAL Pro-Choice America has used this strategy along with targeted messaging that acknowledges donors’ previous gifts in the year to turn one-time gift members into multi-donors and even monthly donors. Monthly donors become Friends of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the ultimate benefit of which is the knowledge that they’re giving in the most cost-effective, reliable way and afford the organization a sustainable resource.
The organization sends a monthly donation ask within the first three weeks from the time a member’s donation is keyed into its database. The message: Our opponents have deep pockets, so we need our most loyal supporters to step up and provide us with a sustainable, reliable, cost-effective means of getting revenue. The initial sustainer ask is followed with a telemarketing ask.
Donahue says asking members to become monthly donors early on has led to a higher conversion rate and a higher average gift in the organization’s monthly giving program.
About six years ago, NARAL Pro-Choice America decided to restructure its major-donor program. According to Kushner, the organization wanted to expand its program to include two tracks: one that would include all of its traditional major-donor outreach such as meetings, personal phone calls, cultivation events, etc.; and another that would encompass high-end, high-touch direct-mail and telemarketing appeals.
The organization established the Justice Blackmun Society, a special classification for major donors — individuals who have given a single gift of $1,000 or more annually — with society members-only benefits such as invitations to and priority seating at special events, invitations to members-only conference call briefings with NARAL Pro-Choice America staff and prominent pro-choice leaders, and special recognition in the annual report.
The new direct-response program for society members includes personalized direct mail with ask strings based on the donor’s past giving history. The mail takes an insider approach in that it is much more involved and comprehensive, outlining NARAL Pro-Choice America’s political plan and keeping donors informed. For example, in regards to the upcoming mid-term elections, major donors receive a mail piece with information on the political races the organization has on the radar and the kind of work it intends to do. On the back end of the elections, they receive a briefing on the election outcomes, what the organization accomplished and how donors’ money was used.
In addition to restructuring the way it contacts its major donors, Kushner says the organization also has experimented with how often it contacts them.
“When I first came to NARAL Pro-Choice America, going on 11 years ago now, we were mailing our major donors on a quarterly basis and, overall, raising probably less than half of what we raise overall from our major donors today,” she says. “When we developed the direct-response program, we played with mailing as many as once a month to mailing every other month and some combination thereof.
“And so we’re constantly looking for ways to not overwhelm our major donors but also recognizing that, like the lower-dollar contributors, it often takes several mailings, and you don’t always know which one it is that’s going to inspire them to give,” she adds.
On the flip side, NARAL Pro-Choice America sends recent givers versions of direct-mail packages that include all the organization’s inside information minus the ask.
“We make sure to not always mail them asking for money,” says Meghan Kross, associate director of development for direct response. “Sometimes we mail them to show what their money went toward or highlight some of our programs or media coverage, so that every time they open that envelope it’s not going to be asking for money. We have to cultivate them and give them a rest now and then.”
Kushner stresses that the major-donor direct-response program complements, not replaces, the organization’s overall major-donor strategy.
“It’s really part of a whole, and it’s on a continuum with the other kinds of very traditional major-donor stewardship and cultivation activities that go on in a comprehensive program,” she explains. “But I also would say to folks that you can receive very large, substantial gifts through the mail, and a lot of people actually find it less intrusive and are very happy to write a large check. We’ve received checks upwards of $25,000 — and even some larger than that — in response to direct-mail pieces.”
According to Kross, when the new, comprehensive major-donor program began, NARAL Pro-Choice America had been raising $400,000 a year from its major-donor direct-response program. In 2005 that number was up to $700,000, and the organization projects major-donor revenue totalling about $900,000 in 2006. Kushner says that she had been skeptical about putting major donors in the hands of a telemarketing firm, but the major-donor telemarketing campaign consistently nets at least a 90 percent mail fulfillment rate, which Kross says is unheard of in a lower-dollar program.
All of NARAL Pro-Choice America’s members receive direct mail unless they specify otherwise. Only those who opt in receive online communications. Donahue says the organization works hard to get direct-mail donors to opt in to its online campaigns and to turn its direct-mail donors into Web-also donors and vice versa.
The organization sends out direct mail that pushes recipients to fulfill the ask online by including a specific URL in each piece. It also offers a special premium to direct-mail recipients who go online to give; and it captures e-mail addresses via telemarketing calls.
In addition to maintaining multi-channel contact with active members, NARAL Pro-Choice America works toward converting online non-donor activists to donors. Donahue says she meets with the managers of the online activist program three times a week to maintain a coordinated calendar that integrates all of the online advocacy and public relations messaging with the organization’s fundraising strategy.
When non-donors take an action such as signing a pledge or petition and become opted in to receive more messages from its online activist group, the Choice Action Network, the organization sends them a welcome series that includes an initial welcome message that thanks them for their involvement, a second message that asks them to take the next step and become a financial supporter, and then the regular stream of online fundraising solicitations.
All in all, NARAL Pro-Choice America sees about 8 percent to 10 percent of its revenue coming from online sources. It also has added online appeals to the Justice Blackmun Society’s repertoire and has begun to see more major donors making their gifts online. “For the first time we are actually budgeting major-donor revenue through online gifts, which is something that several years ago we would never have dreamed of, but we’re finding people are more and more responsive, even at those higher levels, online,” Kushner says.
On the move
Organizations often talk about moving donors up the giving ladder. But with acquisition and reinstatement in the black, one-time givers converting to multi- and even monthly givers, a ship-shape major-donor program, and online and offline channels at work, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s donor stewardship is more like an escalator than a ladder.
The first stage of movement is the upgrade from a $10 to a $99 donor. Donors who exceed this and give a single gift of $100 or more annually become part of the Leadership Circle. Donors then are bumped up through the Leadership Circle, from $100 to $200 to $500, etc. The organization segments circle members based on factors such as highest previous contribution, most recent contribution and total giving history, and targets specific individuals to receive upgrade asks to join the Justice Blackmun Society.
“The Leadership Circle program becomes sort of a feeder into the Justice Blackmun Society direct-response program. In turn, we’ll downgrade people if after two years they aren’t giving a single gift of $1,000 or more. We’ll move them back into the Leadership Circle program so that we’re not over-investing in terms of that. It’s a very fluid movement between the Leadership Circle program and the Justice Blackmun Society,” Kushner says.
Fluidity — and a good deal of smarts — typify how the organization manages its fundraising and membership programs. NARAL Pro-Choice America has started to analyze the performance of segments of its list and adjust its communications accordingly. For example, Donahue says that in the past the organization would send blanket appeals to everyone who didn’t fall into its renewal or reinstatement tracks. But it’s begun to look more carefully at the performance of segments on its list, sending fewer messages to segments that aren’t performing well. For these poorer-performing segments, the organization turns to the messaging on its “Who Decides” package in the hopes of reigniting their affinity with its mission.
“For those segments that are brought on with a specific message, if they’re not responding to our appeals messages, which are usually issues-based, we’re trying to go back and bring them back into a frequent-donor status by touching them with what brought them on the file in the first place,” Donahue says.
Making the effort to take a step back and retool its operations to create a smarter, more fluid fundraising program has helped grow the organization’s housefile; and for a political advocacy group, that growth means more than just increased revenue.
“As a political organization, the strength is in having those numbers of donors who are also voters and activists,” Donahue says.