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Donor Appeals: The HOW Matters as Much as the WHY

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I leafed through my stack of mail the other day, and there it was: another colorful, overfull packet from Treesavers International (not the nonprofit’s real name). I opened the thick envelope and pulled out a stack of stat sheets, membership forms, and return address labels I’ll never use (seriously, nobody has called me “Andrew” since 1987. Is that you calling from beyond the grave, Nana??). I support nature conservation — the mission is urgent and essential, and the numbers too compelling to overlook — but this blitz of high-impact marketing materials left me cold. I tossed the packet into the [recycling-specific] circular file. And I didn’t give. For the record, this was the third packet (all largely the same donor appeals) that I received from Treesavers in the last 12 months.

On paper (pun intended) the appeal made sense: send a prospective donor, whose interest in the big-picture cause of the organization aligns with the specific mission, some crisp, professionally produced, compelling stats, along with an easy opportunity to engage financially AND a free gift. That sounds like a recipe for donor acquisition. But it wasn’t, and the following reasons why speak to the need for nonprofits to be deliberate in HOW they appeal to prospective donors as much as WHY their missions are worth supporting.

1. The mechanics of donor appeals should NOT undermine the organization’s mission.

At a minimum, whatever means a nonprofit employs to reach out to donors, whether it’s direct mail, phone calls, blogs, etc., should not conflict with the substance of that nonprofit’s mission. My experience with Treesavers was a pretty stark exercise in cognitive dissonance: an organization whose express charge is to save our planet’s natural resources sent me over 40 pages of full-color, double-sided paper materials in an extra large envelope. And I’ve never even subscribed to their email list! If they hadn’t reached out at all, the carbon savings alone would have offset whatever monthly commitment I might have agreed to make (but didn’t).

Not every appeal is so obviously at odds with a nonprofit’s mission. But the spectrum of mismatch between the HOW of an appeal and the target audience is pretty broad. More subtle examples come to mind: membership appeals via TikTok to populations that typically don’t favor technology; and, conversely, traditional print materials to potential donors that demographically prefer to give and engage via smartphone or online.

Nonprofits are seldom accused of being cutting-edge in their fundraising and communications tactics, and I’m not suggesting that every organization host focus groups for each mailing. But most nonprofits could benefit greatly from taking a mindful approach to whether the HOW of their marketing materials and donor appeals will inspire prospective donors.

2. A “more is better” approach doesn’t necessarily resonate with prospects that haven’t engaged previously with the organization.

I mentioned that I support the Treesavers International mission’s broad strokes. I have given to conservation-focused groups in the past, so the high-level mission fit was there. But I have never given to or otherwise engaged at all with Treesavers itself. The sheer amount of information felt overwhelming and out of nowhere. It felt almost like cold calling a potential donor while standing on their front porch, and expecting them to invite me in for dinner.

At such an early stage of the relationship, where I was a mere prospect, a 20-page prospectus and all the attendant information Treesavers sent was overkill. More important, it didn’t feel personal or compelling to ME. I’m not suggesting that large, national nonprofits tailor each introductory letter to potential donors — that wouldn’t be worth it, either. But the, “send everything to everyone, plus return address labels” approach didn’t resonate at all.

I suspect the story might be different if I were an existing donor to the organization’s annual fund. I’m the type of donor that really likes hearing about impact and initiatives, but the lack of a prior connection to the mission just didn’t land.

The risk of turning off donors by sending them too much information is equally high with major donors, but that’s another article entirely. But quick pro tip: get your donors’ names right, especially if you’re going to send them return address labels.

3. Nonprofits go too big too soon, and would benefit from a simpler (and less expensive) approach to donor acquisition.

I acknowledge that I am a good prospect on paper for Treesavers and similar organizations. But whatever list they bought that included my contact information didn’t include my preferences for how I like to engage, whether colorful donor appeals speak to me, etc. In the absence of that information, Treesavers could have saved a lot of money, time, and effort if their initial outreach had been smaller.

Prospective donors don’t need to know everything about an organization in full Technicolor detail. They need a concise, compelling reason to engage. Instead of inundating prospects with information, nonprofits should adopt an attitude of curiosity about donors. The greatest advantage Treesavers had before they contacted me was that they knew I had given to similar causes in the past. That could have been a jumping-off point for engagement, and would have been a lot more effective as a brief outreach: a short email with links to more information, a simple, but interest-piquing, postcard.

I realize my experience with Treesavers was just that: a single perspective of a particular prospect. But it made me think about my own work with donors, and whether I have always been aware of the HOW in the context of the WHY. If nothing else, the world would be better off with fewer misspelled return address labels.

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