Move Donors Up, Give Them Away

Direct marketers keep their eyes on the bottom line. Goals are set scientifically using response rates, average gifts, numbers to be mailed and educated guesswork. Directors are evaluated on making their goal.

But what if direct marketers also were evaluated on how well they identified planned gifts or handed over potential major gift givers? What would be your score?

The two-edged sword for direct marketers becomes growing the file and increasing revenue vs. moving donors through direct response to one-to-one personal cultivation – and giving them away to major gift officers. Although difficult to count and evaluate, this notion must become part of the direct marketing goal. How do you do it?

Build relationships. The place to start is internally, and internal team-building could be the most difficult for the direct marketer. It requires trust, faith and honesty.

• Trust: If a direct marketer cultivates a donor, successfully upgrades the gift level and identifies the individual as a potential major donor, then the direct marketer must trust that the major gift officers are setting goals and continuing the cultivation for more donor involvement. And if the donor is not interested or does not have capacity for a major gift, then the individual should be “returned” to direct marketing.

Suggestion: Develop strong relations with the director of major gifts. Trust the director’s judgment and make decisions based on common goals for the organization. In other words, cooperate.

• Faith: By upgrading donors and moving them off the direct marketing file, the direct marketer loses the capacity for a repeat gift the following year. Replacing that gift is not easy and is the direct marketer’s biggest fear. For example, if any donor who made a gift of $1,000 or more is automatically given to the major gift unit for research and cultivation, the direct marketer probably needs to acquire 40 new donors at the $25 giving level for replacement revenue (not growth revenue). That could also mean that the direct marketer needs to mail to 4,000 prospects with an average response rate of 1 percent. That costs big dollars. Scary, isn’t it?

Suggestion: Have faith. Cultivate the other donors so there is a constant flow between direct marketing and major gifts. In other words, get over it and aim for the greater goal.

• Honesty: When developing the strategy, the direct marketer must put the challenges and turf issues on the table. Hiding feelings that make direct marketers nervous about meeting goal (and not recognizing that the fears exist) is one sure way of losing the potential within a direct marketing audience.

Suggestion: Set goals for marketing planned gifts and upgrading donors. Develop strategies focused on the high end of the direct marketing file, i.e., communicate to the vice president how direct marketing will aid and assist the major gift officers.

Best practices in upgrading the donors. Strategies to identify potential major donors are almost infinite and depend on the mission of your organization. However, some best practices that could become immediate steps in the direct marketing plan include cultivation, upgrade gift array tables and high-end focused programs.

• Cultivation: There are three steps to follow here.

1. Determine a gift level and generate a thank-you call to every donor at or above that level. Do not ask for another gift – simply thank them.

Pros: You’ll surprise the donor and create a positive feeling about your next appeal. The donor is thinking, “I remember this group. They called to thank me!”

Cons: It takes several months to see the impact on these donors. Be patient.

2. Do the above for your newly acquired donors but lower the gift level that determines the call.

Pros: It makes it easier to get that second gift.

Cons: It calls for an investment of dollars. But you have already invested money in acquiring the donor, haven’t you?

3. Send handwritten thank-you notes in addition to the regular acknowledgment.

Pros: Generates good will.

Cons: Only cost.

• Upgrade gift array tables: Challenge donors to increase gift giving, but don’t be greedy. Donors most often want to know what you need. After all, they are your organization’s best friends.

The following are myths about upgrade tables:

They cost too much.

Donors complain.

Staff complains – especially the board and CEO.

Suggesting an amount is pushy.

And the following are the truths about upgrade tables:

It works.

Data processing will cost a few extra dollars, but the net return will far outweigh the cost.

Some donors will call and let you know “they have figured out the calculation.” Many more donors will give the suggested amount.

Staff is frequently too close to the situation, projecting their feelings on donors.

Donors make their own decisions about how to give to an organization no matter what you suggest. In fact, some will give at a significantly higher level than the gift array suggests.

Upgrade tables may be based on a variety of criteria, but usually they take a recent gift, increase it by 25 percent, 50 percent and 100 percent and use that as the suggested gift amounts. Best practices look at the highest gift within a selected time frame (12 months) and use that as the basis for the table. Often the 25 percent-increase suggestion will be the first choice in the gift array, and frequently it is circled.

• High-end focused programs: Strategies for the very high end of the direct marketing can be built to help identify the potential major gift donors. But first, they should be tested. Do not just assume that donors giving $500 want to receive anything other than the direct mail piece or the phone call.

Once a gift level is defined to create the high end of the direct marketing file, send everything to them via First-Class mail. This approach ensures better deliverability and quicker change-of-address information. Test the following:

Mail short proposals to them – two or three pages in length.

Send photos from the field or programs.

Create a monthly giving program just for high gifts.

Ask them to be one of several donors supporting a specific project.

Send them special reports with “no asks.”

The high-end donors of a direct marketing file generate substantial amounts of revenue. Care must be exercised in testing because so much is at risk. The direct marketer must remain focused on measuring potential and watching results. Special tracks might need to be created, and staff capacity may require building.

A good rule for the direct marketer is to personalize and individualize as much as possible – short of making house calls.

What about planned gifts? Market them everywhere. Reminding donors that they may consider remembering the organization in their will is just the beginning. Invite them to seriously look at the charitable gift annuity. Or ask them to make their gifts in securities.

Invite the planned giving officers to mail at least twice annually into the direct marketing file. That audience is their best (and probably only) source of prospects.

Direct marketers love to discuss this issue. It’s a hot topic at conferences. Best practices require direct marketers to move past turf issues to trust. The quicker this is done, the easier it becomes for them to set goals and feel good about moving donors up and giving them away.

• Margaret Guellich is director of direct marketing at Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore. Her e-mail address is

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