Cold Appeal Aims to Warm Hearts

A two-sided pitch letter for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York during May that invoked the harsh winter of 2003 in the Northeast is on target to produce a final response rate of 1 percent, which is within the expected range of 0.8 percent to 1.3 percent.

“This winter was one of the most brutal on record,” it opened. “Most of us couldn't wait to get out of the freezing cold and snow each night and into the warmth and safety of our homes.

“But what if you couldn't come in from the cold? Imagine that a clean bed and a hot meal were mere memories or hopes. Imagine that you are trapped in a life without shelter or that eviction from your home is imminent. These are not just bad dreams for thousands of New Yorkers — they are reality.”

About 250,000 of the letters were mailed over two days.

“It was the hook to get people to think about the homeless,” said Michael Divers, director of development for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. “With people spending much of their time outside during the spring, I had to remind them that you can't be outside during the winter. I actually wrote the letter in March when it was still cold and miserable and I was thinking of spring.”

Names targeted in the campaign were obtained from about 15 lists that included “subscribers to certain publications and purchasers of certain products, including religious-themed products or videos,” he said.

Catalog lists were not in the mix.

The direct mail donor profile for Catholic Charities consists mainly of women ages 55-60 with an average annual household income of $50,000.

Following the opening paragraph is the three-paragraph story of Samantha, a Catholic Charities client who avoided homelessness despite owing three months back rent. But no photo of Samantha was used to elicit sympathy, as is the case with other fundraising letters. In fact, the letter contains no photos or images.

“We get desensitized,” he said. “You see so many pictures used in [nonprofits'] direct mail pieces, but I wanted this to look like a letter, and I didn't want people thinking I'm spending big money on this. People are savvy. The most important thing about the letter is the opening sentence. I didn't want it to look like a direct mail piece that could have coupons or something else inside.”

Along with the letter and the return envelope, recipients got a slip reminding them about matching gifts from participating employers and the slip asking for contributions of $25, $50 or $100 with a line that can be completed for a different amount. The average donation is $32.

“I would only expect somewhere around $21 or $22 for a typical nonprofit, so we are considerably above that,” he said.

The organization will conduct a second acquisition campaign in the fall. It uses six donor renewal campaigns during the year.

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