Keeping the Faith
As any strong fundraiser knows, donors give from the heart. They must be emotionally moved and connect to the mission, the cause, the campaign and/or the organization in some way to compel them to donate. And a big part of giving is having faith — faith that the organization will do what it says with the donors’ money.
Likewise, fundraisers must have faith in their missions, their campaigns and their donors to execute their fundraising programs. Naturally, with so much faith involved in the fundraising industry on all sides, faith-based, religious nonprofit organizations tend to have dedicated, loyal donors — faithful donors, if you will. So for this cover story, FundRaising Success highlights how three faith-based organizations — The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Savannah, Ga.; Salesian Missions in New Rochelle, N.Y.; and Los Angeles-based Union Rescue Mission — are keeping the faith in fundraising.
You never know where or when an innovative fundraising idea may strike. It literally could happen anywhere at any time. Take, for instance, the case of Mary Clark Rechtiene, a volunteer and parishioner at The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist (aka the Savannah Cathedral) in Savannah, Ga.
While on a trip to Ottawa, Canada, Rechtiene purchased a pewter ornament of the Ottawa capitol building and thought, “Maybe we can sell something like this at the cathedral to make a little money,” she says. You see, the Savannah Cathedral, a Catholic organization that celebrates the Liturgy and is dedicated to enriching the spiritual lives of its parishioners while giving back to the Savannah community, is more than 100 years old, meaning there are always upkeep projects and renovations to be done for the building itself — not to mention the ministry costs, charitable works and Masses. Thus, the cathedral is always welcome to new ideas to raise monies, especially after a major renovation that shut down the cathedral for two years until its completion in 2000.
So Rechtiene went back to Savannah and presented her idea to the cathedral’s Monsignor Williams O’Neill.
“He seemed receptive,” Rechtiene says. “Then he went over to his bookcase and pulled out an ornament that the bishop had given him of a stained glass window at Belmont Abbey [College in Charlotte, N.C.]”
As it turns out, the bishop was thinking of something along those lines as well, and when Rechtiene approached the monsignor with a similar idea, he replied, “Well, if you think you can sell them …”
“That’s what he always says [about a fundraising idea],” Rechtiene says. “He said that it’s a great idea. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
Once she got the go-ahead, Rechtiene took a closer look at the ornament the monsignor had given her and saw a sticker on the back that said it was made by decorative keepsake maker ChemArt. So she called ChemArt and discussed what she had in mind. The Savannah Cathedral wanted an ornament made of its stained glass center window depicting its patron saint, Saint John the Baptist, baptizing Jesus Christ. The idea was to raise money in general for the cathedral, helping it pay off the interest debt from its renovation and using any other funds to help with the upkeep of the building. And then, if the ornament fundraiser turned out to be successful, the Savannah Cathedral could start a series of different ornaments, not just a one-time or one-item project.
After hammering out the details of price and quantity, Rechtiene ordered the first batch in 2007, and for the first two years the cathedral set aside one Sunday just before Christmas as Ornament Sunday. The church took pre-orders from forms inserted into the parish bulletin several weeks in advance, as well as orders at the door of each mass on Ornament Sunday, which took place the first week of Advent. Rechtiene also made printed announcements and signs personally as the coordinator of the ornament project, and a small ad was taken out in the local Catholic newspaper, the Southern Cross.
The response was overwhelming, to the point where the ornaments were gone in no time, bringing in tens of thousands of dollars for the cathedral. In fact, the response was so swift and the demand so great for the ornaments that the campaign did in fact become a series, just as Rechtiene had envisioned. Each year, a different stained glass window at the Savannah Cathedral is featured as the ornament, and the campaign has evolved from a one-day sale around Advent to a yearlong annual campaign that begins in the new year.
The ornaments have taken on such a life of their own that they are now collector’s items that basically sell themselves, according to Rechtiene. She and her husband were going to every Mass on Ornament Sunday those first two years to sell the “Christmas” ornament, and it was becoming a bit much for them to handle on their own. But then she noticed that people began to look at the ornaments at the new year as well, not just around Christmas, so the cathedral decided to start releasing a new ornament each year and sell it year-round. It was no longer viewed as a Christmas ornament, but a collector’s item. Over the past six-plus years, the ornaments have become such hot items that the Savannah Cathedral no longer even needs to take out extra ads or have those special one-day sales.
Beyond that, since Savannah is a big tourist destination and the Savannah Cathedral one of the city’s hot spots, the ornaments have become a hit with tourists as well, not just the parishioners.
“We’re open every day to tourists and worshippers alike. We have a ready-made audience, customer base,” Rechtiene says. “We’ve even had people come back because we’re a stop on the way for the snowbirds going south and then going back north, and some will stop and see Savannah. And those that might have picked up an ornament will stop just to get the ornament for the new year.”
Beyond the popularity of the ornaments themselves, Rechtiene says a big key to the success of this campaign is the low overhead. The only cost is paying ChemArt to fulfill the requests, and getting a new design is as simple as taking a photograph of the window to be featured and sending it to ChemArt. ChemArt produces the design, the order is placed, word gets out and the ornaments fly off the shelves. What does Rechtiene credit for the ornament project’s success?
“The type of item it was helps. Some local businesses, instead of giving whatever they usually give to customers for Christmas, bought these and gave them away because it was also a souvenir of the city, so to speak,” she says. “Families started making collections. People give them to each one of their children every year, just like I do. Then they become collector items, and it just sold itself.”
And her advice to those out there looking for a way to boost their organizations’ fundraising?
“First of all you have to have the idea, and don’t hesitate to go to the powers that be and present it. If you’ve got a bright idea, put it out there,” she says.
Taking Direct Response to the Next (Online) Level
Salesian Missions (SMI) is a New Rochelle, N.Y.-based, Catholic organization founded by Don Bosco — a 19th-century priest, educator and writer who dedicated his life to the betterment and education of disadvantaged youths. Its mission is to teach young people various trades to find jobs and become self-sufficient. Like many nonprofit organizations, SMI built its fundraising chops with a strong direct-mail program. And like many nonprofits that were slow to adopting the online channel, it didn’t really have an online strategy.
This is a familiar story, and one that SMI knew it had to change as donors evolve in the 21st century.
“We didn’t really have a great online presence, and we realized that that was lacking for our organization,” says Tom Peters, IT supervisor of SMI. “Our organization is really a direct-mail organization, so the online component wasn’t really a priority. We decided it should be a priority.
“In doing that, we formed a team of one person in every department and brainstormed what we should be doing online,” he adds. “We realized early on that we needed to bring in a partner.”
Enter direct-response fundraising agency Stratmark (now KerstenDirect). About two years ago, Stratmark began working with SMI as a fundraising advisor and did a lot of basic groundwork for SMI’s online presence, including redesigning the homepage, setting up an e-mail program and integrating online with direct mail.
“On its most basic level, SMI has a really long and successful direct-mail program. Direct response has been part of what Salesian Missions has done, and it’s been a key element of their fundraising strategy,” says Jarred Schremmer, digital account supervisor at KerstenDirect. “So what we really wanted to do is better coordinate and integrate with that program. Their entire audience that they had has really built and established relationships, many of which started in the direct-mail program.”
The simple tweaks of incorporating online fundraising best practices helped SMI see tremendous growth in its year-end fundraising in 2011 — to the tune of a 50 percent increase in revenue over 2010.
After such a big increase in 2011, the challenge for 2012 was to take the program to the next level. So KerstenDirect and SMI got to work on segmenting the donor base upon engagement with the direct-mail program and sending different versions of online communications to those different segments. Then they began to marry the offline and online creative and messaging to provide a more consistent donor experience. For instance, both front-end and back-end premiums work well for SMI in the mail, so interactive displays and PDFs of similar premiums were incorporated online. At the same time, Kersten and SMI wanted to use the unique advantages of visual communications online, such as adding the first true direct-response video for the year-end 2012 campaign.
“SMI had a lot of experience and had successfully utilized a lot of video in the digital space in the past, but the majority of it was very ministry-focused. So there was a lot of engagement off of it, but there really wasn’t a strong fundraising component,” Schremmer says. “In December, we were able to develop a direct-response video that we promoted in multiple areas digitally.”
Then on top of that, social media became a focal point as well to really promote engagement with the enhanced digital assets, which opened up a new audience of potential donors. Add in increased e-mail frequency and a more integrated year-end campaign, and SMI embarked on a more aggressive, and more overall integrated, campaign.
Did it work?
Coming off a year in which revenue grew by 50 percent, SMI couldn’t possibly expect such a lift in 2012, right? As it turns out, it saw nearly double that. In December alone, revenue grew by a whopping 95 percent over December 2011, and year-over-year growth in November was up 67 percent in 2012 compared to 2011. Overall, the year-end campaign saw a total year-over-year lift of 89 percent — coming off a 2011 year-end campaign that saw a 50 percent lift.
What’s more, KerstenDirect and SMI saw that even with the increased e-mail frequency, open and clickthrough rates remained relatively consistent, while there was no noticeable increase in the unsubscribe rate. And the e-mails that featured the direct-response video were a huge hit, with an open rate of more than 20 percent and nearly a 30 percent clickthrough rate to the video itself.
The more robust and integrated campaign also allowed Peters and the SMI team to better track and attribute response to the proper channels. Landing pages were incorporated for all online and offline pieces, with specific codes, so SMI could track the donor journey from all channels. It has helped SMI clean up its database and target donors better.
“Not only did it allow for cleaner management on the Salesian Missions side, but it also allowed for a more consistent donor experience. The biggest thing that we attribute the growth to is really having a very effective and consistent multichannel campaign,” Schremmer says.
It helps that SMI has one writer for all its communications — offline and online, which has helped really unify the message and feel across all mediums.
The key was, even after a 2011 year-end season of tremendous growth, to identify the areas that would take SMI to the next level and not rest on its laurels.
“Whether you realize it or not, your donor base is ready and anxious to engage with you online. They’re ready, so you have to be thinking about that strategy and you have to be thinking about consistency,” Schremmer says. “Is your organization taking full advantage of that?
“It’s very unlikely that you’re reaching your potential,” he adds. “SMI came off significant growth in 2011, but the opportunity in 2012 was still there to take it to an additional level. Identify how you can speak to your audience more effectively both through targeting as well as message testing. Find out what’s going to resonate, and continue to expand that out. That’s where the opportunity is for exponential growth.”
Branding With Calls to Action
By now, every nonprofit organization knows the story of struggling to maximize online and offline fundraising, mainly due to the digital lag many in the fundraising industry experience compared to the commercial world. Union Rescue Mission (URM), a Los Angeles-based Christian organization dedicated to serving men, women, and children experiencing homelessness, faced the familiar challenges: a website that wasn’t user-friendly, no clear creative or strategic direction, and a lack of online, data-driven analytics.
URM worked with a boutique agency to build a website from the bottom up mainly to just get an online presence out there. And after changing platforms a few times, the online component was not functioning at optimal levels. But URM had been working with fundraising agency Grizzard Communications since 2008 on its newsletters and offline appeals, and as Grizzard developed expertise in online fundraising, it began to help URM out.
“In working with URM, we started with a little bit of a different approach. We started to think about their brand first and who they are, what’s their brand promise and then what do people think they are, what’s their brand perception,” says Glenn McKinney, vice president at Grizzard. “It started with that brand work and then saying, ‘How does that apply into their newsletters, into their appeals,’ and eventually, they wanted to integrate all these communications and start from a single place, a single belief that we can change the fact that L.A. is the homeless capital of America”
So Grizzard and URM came up with a branded positioning statement, You Are the Mission, aka URM. So the online shift started from that brand positioning statement how all the communication channels fit into this big idea.
Once that unified message was established, the really difficult task began. URM had to do a complete audit of its online fundraising arm, everything from the website to e-mail and social media, and it was found to be, in the words of URM Vice President of Marketing and Development Jacqui Groseth, “a mess.”
“I’ll never forget, when we sat down with Grizzard the first time they had just looked at the website and come up with the current mapping of the wireframe, and I started laughing because even though it was a linear chart, it looked like a big ball of string that was all messy — just a disaster,” she says. “Then they showed me the direction they think we should go — to clean it up; have each page be on brand with our current colors, phrasing, terminology; have it be representative of our current programs and services; and then really just think through the different audience groups and make sure they all could find what they needed.”
To clean it all up, Grizzard and URM took a step-by-step approach, building out the aspects from the top down as opposed to the bottom-up approach URM took with its website originally. It began by driving all of URM’s online channels — website, blog, social media (CEO Andy Bales, the 2011 FundRaising Success Fundraiser of the Year, has a huge social-media following) — toward the best search engine optimization. So Grizzard took best practices and molded them to URM’s mission.
For starters, it moved URM’s blog from a different site to host it on its own website. Then in the marquee space of the homepage, it transitioned from a current cause program to focus on its mission in an impactful way. So now, instead of highlighting a different message depending on the time of the year, the first image that appears is always the same slide of a homeless person and the message: “Tonight there will be 57,000 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. There is a Solution.”
“We redesigned it to make sure it was an introduction and not assumptive that everybody who’s coming to the site knows as much about URM as their agency or as their staffers and team,” McKinney says. “We started with a more introductory statement and call to action — if you click it brings you to a compelling infographic and more imagery.”
Grizzard also added more compelling videos; made URM’s mission statement prevalent; and organized the website to make it more user-friendly by incorporating social sharing, a feed of Bales’ tweets and calls to action everywhere. The design was also tweaked to have a more gritty feel, and that new look was added across all online and offline channels.
URM also streamlined its e-mail communications. Each week, it sends an e-mail message to its constituents. Bales shares an end-of-month update. There’s a video that highlights a changed life. There’s the e-newsletter. And there’s an appeal. So Grizzard made sure those messages reflected the website redesign to make sure the creative was coming from the same source with a unified message.
Then it took an integrated approach, taking components from URM’s direct mail and highlighting them online, and doing the opposite, driving mail recipients online to online creative.
The online overhaul provided an immediate impact for URM. Online donations spiked more than $60,500 in the October-December 2012 stretch over the same period in 2011, from $400,660 to $461,249. Looking over a longer period, from October 2011 to February 2012, online giving brought in $425,025, according to Groseth, while that number spiked to $535,041 in the October 2012-February 2013 time period.
“A big part of the success was the behind-the-scenes SEO work,” McKinney says. “The SEO cleanup was a big part of the fundraising change; people found them more often. As much as it’s the creative, I also think it’s the things people don’t see that was a big impact on the success.
“The direct-response calls to action were key as well. The No. 1 reason people don’t act is because they’re not asked,” he adds. “That was a challenge from Jacqui, to make sure that it is an action-oriented website … It was one of the key directives from the organization, to make sure it’s a fundraising-based website. You see it in the results.”
Groseth also says Bales’ active social-media presence had a great impact. He’s dedicated to communicating with his followers on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn, which has really brought a more engaging crowd to URM. Her only regret is not enlisting help sooner.
“In retrospect, I probably wish I would have gotten help sooner rather than later. We were trying to do it ourselves, but we didn’t have the expertise,” she says. “The fact that it was much more user-friendly after all this was key.”