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Trails Nonprofit Carves Right Path for Mailer

The timing of a member acquisition mailer for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy sent in May and a cut in the size of the drop likely helped the piece pull a higher response rate than the same effort mailed in May 2002.

“At the beginning of May we were finishing the war in Iraq, and a lot of nonprofit organizations didn't have mailings out then, so I'm guessing there would have been less competition in the mail,” said Anne Chalmers, president of Chalmers Marketing Group Inc., which manages direct mail acquisition for Rails-to-Trails, a Washington-based nonprofit that works to convert abandoned railroad lines into recreational trails.

“The opener of the pitch letter is very patriotic,” she said. “It creates curiosity. You're reading it and asking, 'What are they talking about?' What brings them into the letter is the first four headlines that build curiosity above the 'Dear Friend.'”

The headlines — actually just copy presented in a mix of bold type, underlining and color — are:

· Pioneers built it. Abe Lincoln worked for it. Jesse James robbed it. And America grew on it.

· But now, the magnificent railroad system crisscrossing America is being abandoned at a shocking rate. Already more than 150,000 miles of line are out of service.

· These abandoned rail corridors can be turned into the world's greatest trail network for you and me to enjoy … if you step in to help!

· We need to know what outdoor activities you enjoy and how you could use trails. Tell us by completing the enclosed Public Opinion Poll and returning it to us as soon as possible.

The poll is the first element recipients see when they open the envelope. The last of the poll's 10 questions asks whether the recipient will make a membership contribution. This is followed by a chance to join the organization at levels ranging from $15 to $100. They also are asked to enclose an additional gift. The back of the poll includes an area to complete credit card information along with a statement informing donors that their gifts are tax deductible.

“The reason survey packages work so well … is that you ask the questions in such a way that the recipient reads the questions and says, 'Yes, I believe in this,'” Chalmers said. “And by the time they get to the bottom … you lead them to the 'ask to join.' They've convinced themselves that they believe in what the organization is doing.

“This piece has been mailed for more than 10 years quarterly. The format has changed periodically, but the copy has not changed.”

One change was the size of the mailing. The solid performance of another acquisition piece — a premium package offering a guidebook of rail trails in various regions of the nation — led to almost a 50 percent reduction in the number of poll pieces: from May 2002's total of 303,000 to 158,000 for May 2003.

“We work hard to test new lists, drop off those that are not productive, and we are always looking for better lists,” she said.

This year, 18 lists were used compared with 43 last year.

Responses started to come in two weeks after the mailing and continued through August.

The May '02 piece generated a $22.78 average gift and a 0.7 percent response rate while the May '03 effort produced a $22.37 average gift with a 0.94 percent response.

“It came in … higher than expected on the response rate, and the average gift is just about what it always comes in at,” she said. “We spent more than we brought in in revenue. The expense involved in attracting new members is always greater than the expense involved in re-soliciting members. I look to return 70 to 75 cents per dollar spent on acquisition. If I do that, my client will more than make up the difference when my client repeatedly solicits these new donors for contributions in the future.”

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