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Lunch Bag Mailer Boosts Donations to City Harvest

City Harvest, a New York nonprofit that rescues unused food and delivers it to 500 food programs serving the city's poor, is spearheading its fall appeal to prospective donors with its most successful direct mail piece to date — a self-mailing, folded brown lunch bag.

The innovative campaign began in late August, and by December the nonprofit hopes to send out 450,000 pieces, more than double last year's number, direct marketing consultant Amy Leveen said.

The message is printed directly onto the bag: “Most likely having enough to fill this lunch bag isn't a problem for you. Not everybody is so lucky.” Below the headline is a letter from Julia A. Erickson, executive president of City Harvest.

Inside the bag, a response card allows donors to check boxes for $36 to help feed 41 children for a week, $53 to help feed 15 New Yorkers for a month, $139 to help feed three seniors for an entire year and any other amount to help provide food for children at 87 cents per week.

“People have to open it because it's so unlike anything they've ever gotten,” Leveen said. “Once they're in it, they follow their instincts.”

City Harvest is using a variety of rented lists that are both new and old. The nonprofit's most successful lists target people who are interested in issues of homelessness and hunger, followed by progressive activist lists that deal with issues such as AIDS, human rights and international relief. “Cultural lists also work well in New York City,” Leveen said.

The lunch bag piece became City Harvest's control in the fall of 1999, after a mailing of 40,000 pieces to prospective donors in October 1998 drew a 2.47 percent response rate and an average gift of $39. Five months before, the package had been sent to 13,843 current donors and had drawn a 7.5 percent response rate, with an average donation of $52.26.

City Harvest first got the idea for the package when the mother of a former executive director received a similar package sent by a hospital. The message suggested donors take their lunch to work and donate the money saved to the hospital.

“We looked at the package and said it would be a natural for us,” Leveen said.

Packages tested against the lunch bag control include a message sent in a standard No. 10 envelope and a package sent in a 6-inch-by-9-inch envelope with a cardboard coin and a message telling prospective donors they shouldn't have to flip a coin to decide whether to buy food or pay for other expenses. Leveen said she's planning a piece “using some kind of place mat.” But so far the lunch bag mailer is holding firm. Response rates already exceed 1 percent.

Whether the piece continues to do as well depends on outside factors, Leveen said. The election, the situation in the Middle East and the stock market were all factors that had to be considered. “Anything that unsettles people affects their patterns of giving, particularly in New York City, where the giving community is very outward-facing,” Leveen said.

In the past three years, City Harvest's direct mail campaigns have been growing steadily. In fiscal year 1999 the nonprofit sent out 650,000 pieces; in 2000 it sent 828,000; and in fiscal year 2001 the organization hopes to send out 1.1 million direct mail pieces.

Leveen thinks the lunch bag piece will continue to play a big role in City Harvest's direct mail strategy. Response rates on prospecting pieces are typically 0.8 percent or 0.9 percent, she said.

“To have a package that is doing this well is extraordinary,” said Leveen.

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