Dreaming of a Green Christmas
Christmas in July isn’t the newest marketing idea thought up to boost cash flow for organizations whose donation streams drop when temperatures rise. It is, however, highly effective.
The Salvation Army Western Pennsylvania Division put the concept to the test this year in an effort to stem donor attrition and bring lapsed donors back onto its active file in time for the winter-holiday giving season. For this effort — a test that touched a limited number of homes in the 28 counties served by the Western Pennsylvania Division — the Army eschewed its distinctive kettles and rang a different kind of bell: the telephone.
Starting July 5 and running into the beginning of September, Christian-contracted telemarketing company MDS Communications of Mesa, Ariz., called on behalf of The Salvation Army the households of donors who hadn’t given in at least 13 months. In the last round, calls went to donors who had been inactive for 48 months or more.
“We didn’t go into every ZIP code in which we serve for this particular campaign,” says Fran Brace, director of development for the division. “We went to Allegheny County ZIP codes as well as to service units where we don’t have a particular community center but where we have volunteers in the community.
“We wanted to see how well we did before we actually rolled it out to the entire division,” she says, adding that although final numbers weren’t available as of press time, the results to date looked promising.
According to Cheryl Lockhart, director of mail appeals for the division, total dollars pledged was $66,225. Of that, $45,915 had been received. Donors had the choice of giving immediately over the phone via credit card or opting to make a pledge. When a donor requested to contribute by check, he or she was sent a pledge card and remit envelope. In total, more than 35,000 lapsed donors received phone calls; 2,789 gifts were given or pledged; and 1,831 of those had come in by the beginning of September.
The next step, Lockhart says, is to get those reactivated donors back into the Army’s robust mailstream, which typically involves monthly solicitation mailings year round. The donors who came back through the telemarketing campaign will receive their next appeals at Thanksgiving and then again at Christmas.
Closing the gap
As with almost any nonprofit organization, donor attrition is a persistent concern for The Salvation Army. Lockhart says the Western Pennsylvania Division has lost a significant number of donors each year for the last three years.
“In 2005, we had 32,000 donors who didn’t support the Army with a donation,” she explains. “That’s about 39 percent of active donors that lapsed.”
The attrition numbers aren’t atypically high, but The Salvation Army knows that it’s easier and less costly to reactivate old donors than to win over new ones — hence the reactivation push.
“This was really about going back to our lapsed donors who haven’t really responded to our direct mail and pulling them back into giving back to The Salvation Army,” Brace explains. “Our hope is to pull these donors back — and to pull them back before our Christmas direct-mail pieces go out.”
In its ongoing effort to retain donors, the division is working particularly hard on communicating better with them and finding out exactly how much they want to hear from the organization. The Salvation Army mails a different direct-mail solicitation piece once a month but recently began asking donors their preference when it comes to mailing frequency. Most, Lockhart says, opt for quarterly or annual solicitations.
“We did an appeal in April called the Pledge Appeal, and we let the donors know that they could choose to limit the number of mailings that they received,” she says. “They could do quarterly, annually, semiannually, monthly. Or they could [commit to] a specific dollar amount during any of those periods.
“If they signed up for that, they also wouldn’t receive a mail appeal every month,” she says, adding that the organization mails to its entire database at Christmas, no matter the frequency choices the rest of the year. Every donor also gets The Salvation Army newsletter.
Not entirely unique
Telemarketing isn’t entirely new to The Salvation Army. Brace explains that the division’s commander will leave phone messages for active donors, alerting them to upcoming mail drops such as the Thanksgiving and fiscal year-end appeals, for example.
And the Christmas in July theme is one that went beyond telemarketing. The Western Pennsylvania Division raised nearly $40,000 in July this year through a combination of Hang-a-Kettle sales (where customers at retail locations pay a dollar for cut-out paper kettles that they write their names on and hang in a specific location in the store) and actual kettle donation locations with bell ringers like at Christmas time. This summer, the Army teamed up with the Eckerd pharmacy chain for the program. While the national Salvation Army is there as a resource for its many local divisions, the Christmas in July campaign — both in stores and on the phone — was an idea that came from the Western Pennsylvania Division.
Naturally, the best time for donations for The Salvation Army is October through early January, with spikes around Easter and its May/June campaign appeal. The slowest time is midsummer, and the overriding message for any campaign during that time, Brace says, basically is, “Hey … people still need us!”
“Because of the increase in utilities and gasoline, the price of most everything has gone up,” she explains. “This means that more and more families are struggling to make ends meet and are turning to us for help.
“A lot of times we use the fact that [donations] are slow during the summer and direct-mail [response] is down in that time but that
the need in the communities is up,” she adds.