When it comes to your direct mail campaigns, you’ve probably over-farmed your land.
You’ve been emailing and snail mailing the same donors you have done for a decade. It is time to leave the land fallow and let the lists rest. You have probably responded to lower donations and attention by relinquishing too much power to your direct marketing firm and they have been much more aggressive than you’re comfortable with, sending out many more snail mail and email donation requests than ever before. You used to blame the economy for decreased giving but you’re starting to believe it has more to do with the fertility of the donor list than it does with the economic collapse of 2008–or a lot less than you’ve been led to believe. You realize that the nonprofit space is ever more competitive, but your brand is strong and respected and comes up well in Charity Navigator, so what gives?
Well, in agriculture, it is possible to over-farm your land. Indeed, it is probable, in a couple ways:
Ultimately, you need to do one or more of a couple things: allow the land to rest, either ceasing farming completely or throttling down substantially, though this is impossible if you’re tending only one plot of land; enrich the land you already have with better aeration, nutrition, and pesticides with the expectation that you will be able to increase your yield; rotate your crops within the land you already have with crops that tend to enrich the soil that has been depleted by your main crop, naturally returning your field to a cycle of fertility; or you can expand your fields, distributing your yield over a larger plot of land, reaching into a greater diversity of quality of land, essentially hedging your bets over land of varying quality, durability, fertility, and health, resulting in a more consistent crop that is less dependent on any particular geographic focal point.
What this means to fundraising messaging is that you can no longer beat the same drums and rally the same troops. Not only is the economy in the sort of slump that is putting 100-year-old charities into seizure but there is less barrier to starting a charity or foundation, there is less trust that a charity will deliver the goods to the issues they purport to support, and then there is the Internet, allowing anyone to initiate a financial call-to-action on their own, completely by-passing traditional charities. So, while there used to be a very strong field from which to harvest donations, each crop results in a much lower yield. Deafness to your message because of over-mailing is only one symptom of this “over-farming.” The deafness is caused by direct mail firms stepping up the seven touches to 11, hitting the same lists again and again, going back further historically, and also buying cold lists from other organizations for cold hard cash, all in an attempt to make quarterly forecasts and budgets. This has proven a dangerous game because these are all very short games and the outcome has been devastating: people are deleting your emails and throwing away–hopefully recycling–your physical mailings.
Ceasing farming completely or throttling down substantially: This is almost always impossible unless you’re sitting on a huge pile of foundation or grant cash. We at Abraham Harrison use email lists all the time and we never reach out more than three times to one recipient over the course of one campaign (one harvest) and then retire it until the next harvest. We sometimes go one step further by retiring some recipients if there haven’t been any recent conversions. Sometimes we allow that list to rest completely, not using it in any other campaigns, either, because the list had been completely over-used. This most often happens with tech blogs and parenting blogs (mommy bloggers, daddy bloggers, etc). Letting lists rest is not optional, it is essential. The only question is to whether you have more than one field in play or can increase the health and yield of your plot through some methods I will discuss below.
Enrich the land you already have with better aeration, nutrition, and pesticides: As an aside, I am trying to get back into shape. This doesn’t only require exercising and diet, it also requires cross-training. Your muscles quickly become accustomed to the same workout routine, the theory being that you need to constantly “surprise” your muscle groups with different challenges–to mix it up. It’s the same thing with messaging as well as farming. How has the state of the art progressed? Are there new pesticides or pest-resistant strains of crops you can use? Or fertilizers? Or farming methods?
Have you been feeding the earth as well as the crops? Well, at Abraham Harrison, we’re working towards the best relationship advice ever: give the gift your recipient wants rather than giving the gift you want to give. It can be tricky. What do the members want that you have not given them? It is a challenge to praise your donors for their generosity, their support, and their sacrifice–effusively–when you feel like they’re being selfish cheap bastards. Is that true? Are you offering tote bags when nobody wants totes anymore? Could you reward your donors in a more public way?
The Internet allows much smaller donors to be actively appreciated for their micro-donations. My favorite podcast, No Agenda, while not a charity, spends well over half-an-hour of its 150-minutes lavishing praise on the people who donate cash-money to support their Thursday and Sunday live show. If you donate more than $33, have a birthday, or do something that Adam Curry and John C Dvorak consider to be PR, you get a shout-out.
If you pay in a few hundred dollars on a single show, you become an official producer, and if you accrue $1,000 in donations over-time, you receive an 0n-air “Knighting.” And their zealous listeners, myself included, eat it up. While this isn’t possible for many charities (why not?), I experience push-back again and again from my past charity clients who are uncomfortable with thanking bloggers who have promoted their cause or furthered their message because “we don’t do these sorts of endorsements.”
The biggest enemy of hallowed and honored charities and foundations is their resistance to innovation and reinvention and their addiction to tradition. Why can’t you shake up your routine? Why can’t you do things a different way? Why can’t you lavish praise on the smallest of donors?
The Internet allows all of these things to be easily and readily tested. Go ahead and play? Go ahead and borrow, copy, and steal things that have worked for other organizations, and don’t be afraid to invest more in your lists than you expect to extract, allowing some good will and equity to be left over after harvest for the next.
Rotate your crops within the land you already have with crops that tend to enrich the soil: I touched on this above a little bit: give more than you get and switch it up. That said, there is more. It is important to not harp on the same thing in your messaging all the time. How hard are you plucking people’s heart strings, and are you plucking the same string over and over? Fear, guilt, and shame are very powerful motivators but they’re also such strong elixirs that they can kill their emotional receptors, pitching the recipient into hopelessness and retreat, “why do I even write these checks anymore? There’s no hope anyway and I am throwing good money after bad, what’s the use?” That is surely two steps too far, to the point where the earth seems salted, a wasteland! That’s a bad place to be and generally unrecoverable, as far as that donor goes.
We have been helping the Fresh Air Fund for years and we were under retainer to amplify their yearly requirements and goals. What we did for them, with regards to crop-rotation, was to break the year into seasonal requests: Winter donations request, Spring search for host families and camp counselors, Summer camp stories and experience-sharing, and Fall thank you campaigns. While only one of those seasons focused primarily on donations, since the Winter Holidays are traditionally the biggest gift-giving season, the other three were hybrid messages. The three other seasons lead with stories of urban children getting into the fresh air, into renewing and enriching Summer camp and host family experiences outside the city, lead with needs of hosts and counselors, and generous thank-yous to everyone involved. These lead messages are also followed closely with opportunity to give, to follow, to Like, and to connect.
While we did also have extensive field-expansion strategies going concurrently, as I will discuss below, the crop rotation messaging strategy allowed the Fresh Air Fund to convey much more than just a glimmer of hope, they were able to show, in black and white, the copious success of the program, the long-term relationships that were formed, the real-time joy and happiness that was the direct result of donations of time and talent. They supported the seasonal messaging with direct mail outreaches as well as daily updates shared via Social Media to their followers and friends on Facebook and Twitter.
So, in this case, crop-rotation includes rotating the message, rotating the recipient pool, as well as rotating the medium, from blogger outreach to direct email to direct snail mail, to Facebook and Twitter. In our case, we garnered over 1,800 earned-media-mentioned annually in support of their other efforts.
Expand your fields, distributing your yield over a larger plot of land: My uncle Jack used to own Oscar fish. These fish are omnivorous and are often fed small mice. They are also known to grow as large as their tank allows, though they will not outgrow their tank. That reminds me of many fundraising campaigns and the mindset of many charities and foundations. While they continue to do their best farming the lists and relationships they have, they’re often limited by what their lists are capable of producing in any particular economy or any particular news cycle, oftentimes ceding donations to the issue of the week.
In the case of the Fresh Air Fund, they were limited by a perceived relevance only to the Tri-State Area of the New York metropolitan area, the historical and logical region around Manhattan that traditionally supported the Fresh Air Fund with funds, families, camp counselors, and children. They also relied exclusively on the New York Times as a platform for development, a platform that is becoming less and less viable in the information age.
We decided that the mission, message and ministry of the Fresh Air Fund transcends New York and is compelling to not just the region but also the Nation and the world, and we were right. We started prospecting bloggers globally who were in the same vertical that the Fresh Air Fund historically had success with locally and that wrote in English. Compassion for children surely transcends the Hudson River, right? Why yes! We were able to drive conversation on behalf of the Fund internationally, rewarded again and again when bloggers would amplify their noble message, a message that has been a continued resource for inner-city youth since 1877.
Talk about expanding your field! If you can sing Olly Olly Oxen Free loudly enough to light up bloggers and blogs globally while also lighting up their associated Facebook and Twitter streams and reaching not only their readership, their followers, their friends, and their friends’ friends, you’re definitely taking a very bold and effective first step at bringing the powerful mission of your nonprofit, your foundation, you NGO, or your charity into entirely new and fresh land, raw and uncultivated but also not tough and over-farmed, either. You might have to start at zero with your seven+ touches toward giving, but you’re also not having to deal with insensitivity and deafness to message, either.
And that is to say nothing about the powerful effect that all that global conversation will do for your ranking on Google, Bing, and Yahoo! search, as well as search.twitter.com and on Facebook as well, where 800 million global denizens spend their working hours. The search benefits–the organic SEO–is beyond comprehension when it comes to the sort of due diligence that modern contributors go through before writing those checks any more. Oh, come on, you know it’s true–and why Charity Navigator scares you as much as Yelp! scares stores and restaurants to death.
None of this was even remotely possible before the efficiencies of the Internet. When dealing with Internet communications, you need to understand that this is a revolution and not an evolution. That it is now possible to easily, cheaply, and efficiently access a global market or a hyper-targeted market, reaching them right where they live and not in the hopes that they’ll open the Times on a particular date.
There are hundreds of millions of potential donors who have both never heard of you before or been emotionally abused by your incessant requests for money before. This is fresh meat!
And, while you’re cultivating these new recruits, you’ll be able to lean heavily on your oldest and main lists, allowing them some time to miss you, to rest, and to heal. To paraphrase Dan Hicks, how can they miss you when you don’t go away?