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Message Campaign Bakes Up Successful Fundraiser for Nonprofit

When Boston-area charity Community Servings prepared for its annual Pie in the Sky bake sale fundraiser last fall, the possibility that the sale might match the success of previous years seemed like so much, well, pie in the sky.

Like so many other nonprofits at the end of last year, Community Servings, which provides meals to AIDS victims and their families, had seen donations decline after Sept. 11. Fundraisers faced the double challenge of coaxing donations from consumers after many had exhausted their charitable budgets giving to Sept. 11 causes and who were in a tough position to give because of the declining economy.

But by using a prerecorded message to follow-up a direct-mail promotion for the bake sale, the nonprofit was able to hold an event that grew slightly compared to the previous year. When the receipts had been tallied, Community Servings had sold 11,000 pies for $320,000.

Tim Leahy, director of development at the Roxbury, MA-based organization, admitted that those figures were not stellar considering the event had made $310,000 in 2000 and had previously seen annual growth of 10 percent to 20 percent each year. However, Community Servings had actually expected a decline in response to the event this year. Leahy credited the prerecorded message campaign with bringing about a successful fundraiser in a tough market.

“We're not being left behind,” Leahy said. “But it's a totally different market than it was in the past. The traditional means of reaching people are doing what they had been.”

Pie in the Sky is a three-week sale starting in late October and lasting until Thanksgiving in which thousands of donated pies are sold to raise money for the organization. Bakeries, restaurants, hotels and others donate anywhere from 25 and 3,000 pies for the fundraiser, which culminates the day before Thanksgiving when consumers pick up their baked goods.

Community Servings, which depends on private donations for 60 percent of its income, had itself seen severe declines in response to its direct mail solicitations, Leahy said. Thus it was concerned about response to direct mail promotions for Pie in the Sky.

Community Servings mailed to 19,000 people about two weeks prior to the last day of the event urging them to buy pies. The mailing went to people who had bought pies in the previous year's event as well as other donors. In the week prior to Thanksgiving, the organization decided to do the message campaign.

While results of the direct mail campaign were not immediately available, Leahy said that response to his organization's direct mail solicitations in general has been well below normal. The 30-second message went to 10,000 of the 19,000 people mailed. More would have been sent, but the organization did not have telephone contact information for all its prospects, Leahy said. Community Servings broadcast the message at 10 a.m. to leave messages on voice mails and answering machines while consumers were at work.

The brief message reminded consumers of the mail they had received and urged them to buy pies before it was too late. SoundBite Communications, Burlington, MA, provided the message-broadcasting technology for the campaign at no fee.

Leahy said he had yet to analyze the financial impact the messages had on the overall campaign. But he said the messages created immediate response, as his very surprised staff saw the office's six telephone lines light up shortly after the message went out and stay lit for the whole day.

“It was funny,” Leahy said. “I didn't even mention to anyone that this could happen.” Leahy said he will need further data before deciding in the future whether to use prerecorded messages, which generally cost between 25 cents and 30 cents per call. However, Leahy said he was impressed at the ease in which message campaigns are prepared, considering his own message took only three days to design and was transmitted to SoundBite over the Internet.

“We'll have to evaluate the cost in the future,” Leahy said. “It certainly was easy. We never had to leave the building.”

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