VFW Builds Credibility and Donations With Targeted Marketing

Veterans of Foreign Wars, Kansas City, MO, has used direct mail to raise more than $3 million in four years for its Operation Uplink, which distributes pre-paid telephone cards to U.S. troops abroad and hospitalized veterans.

When the program began in 1996, it was seen as “self-liquidating,” said VFW vice president Ron Browning. “If it didn't support itself, if we couldn't find a critical mass of donors, we would just let it go.”

At the beginning of February, just four months into the VFW's fiscal year, the program is already 80 percent funded, and Browning expects to raise a total of $1.2 million and send out more than 400,000 cards.

When the program began, the goal was to raise $190,000, which would provide for 50,000 phone cards plus expenses to run the program. At the end of the first year, the VFW had raised almost $350,000 and delivered more than 100,000 cards.

The VFW appeal is based on a direct mail package that contains a letter with a tear-off return form at the bottom, a return envelope and premiums such as address labels, ribbons and decals, or a pocket calendar/address book. The package is sent out once a month to 300,000 to 400,000 people whose names are culled from the VFW database and rented lists. The cost per package is 30 cents, and the return rate runs from 7 percent to 8 percent; the average donation is less than $10, Browning said.

Letters vary according to which group is being targeted: donor members, nondonor members or prospective donors, said Joanne Dickerson, the VFW's manager of special programs and projects. A letter may thank a donor, ask a nondonor member to join his comrades who have already donated or remind a prospective donor that these are people who keep them safe and need to be told that they are appreciated, she said.

A year and a half ago, Browning started sending out a full-color, one-page folded brochure with a return envelope to those who had donated more than $150 in a single year. The brochure has a tear-off form for sponsoring someone for a phone card and another tear-off form for making a donation.

Browning sends out 10,000 brochures three times a year and gets a 5 percent to 6 percent return. The brochures cost only 4 cents to produce, and the average gift is $175, he said.

Direct mail solicitations are supplemented by the Operation Uplink newsletter, The Connection, which is sent out three or four times a year to VFW members, ladies auxiliary members, VFW posts and nonmember donors, for a total of 50,000 copies. Newsletters are accompanied by a return envelope and donation form.

Besides carefully targeting his market, Browning said the secret to his success is a “bounce-back card” distributed to the military personnel who get the telephone cards. “When a military person gets the card, they have a chance to use the bounce-back card to tell us how they feel about it. We use the quotes in future mailings,” he said.

The resulting direct mail pieces are so compelling, said Browning, that 50 percent to 60 percent of donations are now spontaneous, and the VFW has been able to meet its budget with 50 percent less mail.

“People write in asking us for the brochure. They want more information, and they want to share it with their friends,” he said.

Operation Uplink's strategy proved so successful that Browning used it when the VFW decided to raise funds for the World War II memorial in Washington two years ago. The only change was that direct mail used quotes from people like former Sen. Bob Dole, himself a World War II veteran, instead of current military personnel.

The memorial campaign is over and will raise $6 million after all the matching corporate gifts come in, which makes the VFW “the No. 1 contributing nonprofit” to the World War II memorial, Browning said.

“We've always exceeded projections — targeting the right people with our direct mail pieces and creating a desire for them,” Browning said.

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