Fundraiser Finds Success Getting Personal

Citymeals-on-Wheels, New York, last week made the first drop of its most aggressive acquisition mailing campaign. The 200,000-piece drop represents the first phase of a 1.5 million-piece mailing campaign that will take place over the next seven months, the busiest mailing season of the year for charitable organizations.

Citymeals-on-Wheels, a nonprofit organization founded in 1981, targets only residents of New York City. The organization provides meals and goes shopping for 14,000 elderly homebound people living in New York City. For fiscal year 1998, it raised $3.3 million, an increase of 20 percent over fiscal year 1997.

With an active donor base of 35,000, Citymeals-on-Wheels saw the response rates of its acquisition mailings continually decline to the point where it was once below 1 percent. Last year, it decided to change the envelope and the content inside. A 205,000-piece test dropped in November, and the organization saw a response rate of nearly 2 percent. The average amount of the donations increased to $47 as well. After another successful 100,000-piece mailing last spring, Citymeals-on-Wheels was convinced the new piece would turn around its slumping acquisition program.

“Based on the fact that that latest piece was extremely profitable for us and one of our most successful, we are launching the most aggressive acquisition campaign that we have ever run,” said Sara Jones, managing director at Citymeals-on-Wheels. “We are expecting the numbers of each of these upcoming drops to be comparable to the numbers we saw from the mailing last November.”

From the envelope to the content inside, Citymeals-on-Wheels created an entirely new acquisition mailing piece. The outside of the envelope reads, “I am 100 yrs old and I can't cook.” The sentence was taken from a letter written to the organization from a person seeking assistance.

“We took a more personal approach with this new piece,” Jones said. “The writing on the envelope is from a person who sent us a letter, and inside there is also writing from two other people.”

According to Jones, the old piece contained a story about a person who was created “through a compilation of a number of different stories.” This time, it uses actual people to give it a more personal effect.

“This one does a better job at tugging at the heartstrings because it talks about actual people,” she said. “If you use the actual writing like that, visually it makes a difference.”

Dean Rieck, president of the direct marketing creative firm Direct Creative, Columbus, OH, said he isn't surprised by the increase in response rates.

“I couldn't say no to a 100-year-old lady if she was asking me for help, could you?” he asked. “People seem to know the difference between when they are being hoodwinked and when the appeal is truthful. By seeing the actual handwriting and seeing that the grammar may not be correct, it does what a contrived story can't do. It is inbred in people to help those in need — and seeing that and hearing the true story, it triggers that urge to help.”

For the most recent drop, Citymeals-on-Wheels changed the outside of the new envelope slightly and the message is typed and contains a more detailed description of the person's situation.

“We wanted to try and make one more change and see if that could boost the response rates even higher,” Jones said. “After we get the response rates from this drop, we will take a look and see which envelope worked better and go with that one for the future drops.”

The piece gives prospective donors the chance to either mail their donation checks or do it over the telephone with a credit card.

Of the donors who made donations for the first time last year, nearly 45 percent of them will do so again this year, with 25 percent of those making larger donations, Jones said.

The acquisition mailings will be accompanied by one print ad appearing in The New York Times in November. According to Jones, because of the success of the new piece in the two earlier campaigns, the organization is going to focus more on using direct mail to acquire new members.

“We are going to focus on where we have had most of our success recently,” she said. “The new piece has proven to be extremely cost effective by only costing us 66 cents to raise a dollar. With an ad in the Times, it's hard to break even when you compare the cost of the ad and the amount of money it helped raise.”

Citymeals-on-Wheels will conduct four more mailings between now and March. On Oct. 5, it will send out 350,000 pieces; 500,000 pieces will go out in mid-November; and in February and March, it will send out 225,000 pieces, respectively.

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