Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Are your donor communications effective?

I was attending a conference last week (imagine that) and I sat through some great sessions. In one of them, the presenter cited recent (2012) research that said only 7% of your donors read the communications you send thoroughly. I was not surprised that the number was low, but I was a bit miffed at exactly how low. Sometimes when I open my mail and email  I know why it's so low, if this were a measure of success we would receive an F-.

Are we giving our donors things they want to read, things that draw them in and make it worth their time? Have we asked them what they want to read and in what format they want to read it in? If not, are we just throwing messaging into a dark abyss and hoping they catch it and read it?

Old wisdom of direct mail and publications says time and time again that the longer the appeal letter, the more people give. There are even whole books on this topic... Most of this science comes from the nonprofit world, not higher ed or healthcare. Would this still hold true now? For your audience?  I would beg to argue that point. In an information overloaded society, if you send me a 4 page solicitation letter, there's no chance I'm reading it. But if you send me a postcard with a telling image and a concise message, I'll take action. What do you think?

I think that the times have changed greatly and we haven't changed with them.  How have you changed your communications to adapt to the changing landscape of readership? Do you know what your donors are reading? Have you asked them? Why not?

One effective thing to do is to ask your donors their preferred communication channel (mail, phone, email, social media) and speak to them through that channel primarily. Not eliminating the others, but being intentional about how you group your donors, other than giving amount. Or bucket them all based on age, assuming that most if not all 35 or 85 year olds behave the same, a shallow assumption indeed.


There's a shredder beneath our mailboxes in my apartment building for a reason. As I came back from my recent trip, my held mail contained 12 pieces from charitable organizations, all but one were in letter format and also were thick... (Insert your favorite shredding noise here) one was a well done graphic postcard that had an image of students holding up the letters Thank you and a great short message. Thanks UMass Boston, your next gift is coming soon because your postcard is on my fridge. For those nonprofits who sent me lengthy letters and "gifts" like address labels, yours met an evil shredder named Sal (what, you don't have a name for your shredder?) He's a hungry little thing. When he struggles to shred your mailing and groans in protest, I think we have a problem (and I sincerely hope you didn't send me a nickel, Sal hates Nickels, spits them back at my head). Nothing like a flying nickel or saint token coming back at you from Sal the shredder to wake you up!


So how do we effect change? How do we prove to those experts that the old format of lengthy letters and "gifts" is a ruse and we see right through it. Ask them the last time they have verifiable data with YOUR population, ask your folks. Also, every time a communication comes to you for review, ask yourself if you would turn it over or open it and read it. Who's your audience? Is this putting your best foot forward? If not, begin a discussion about change.


If you need ideas, I have many and will collect more if you need them. For now, I'll leave you with two of our favorites here that make us particularly proud.




I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.




  1. I love the recipe post card- what a wonderful idea! I am also surprised at how low the read rate is, though I knew it would be low. I am hoping we can continue to improve our communication to make it more appealing to our audiences!

  2. I'm curious to know what kind of feedback you got from the second piece inviting donors for a tour or to meet with a student. SOunds like a great idea!

  3. We receive great feedback from all of our postcards. this one is especially donor focused and effective because it allows them to engage on their time and calendar.