The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to Raising $1000 Gifts by Mail

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by Martin Carolan

Starting a new fundraising program is never easy, so when I took on the role of Fundraising Executive at a hospital that had no real professional fundraising experience the gauntlet was clearly thrown down.  I inherited five databases – all on spreadsheets, and after amalgamating them I was ready to mail my first direct marketing appeal.

That was just three years ago and since then my donors have received four appeals a year, thank you letters, morning tea invitations, surveys, bequest solicitations, event invitations, and even what I described as a high value appeal – asking for a gift of $500 (that’s a significant gift for our small hospital).

From there, the challenge was how to upgrade those higher value donors to make an additional gift at least two times more than their highest ever donation. I had some ideas about what the pack should look like.  I wanted a handwritten envelope, a postage stamp, and a highly personalized letter – but what else should I include?  How do I engage my donors enough to part with a four or five figure gift, and how do I persuade them to do this on an annual basis?

It was then I remembered Mal Warwick’s book, The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to Raising $1,000 Gifts By Mail.

I eagerly sat down and read it and as I turned the pages my questions were answered. I identified that my biggest challenges were:

  1. Who do I select for my mailing? My biggest fears were missing out on a donor who may be in a position to donate at this level or selecting someone who may not be able to. What if I get my selection criteria wrong?
  2. What should the pack look like? And what’s in it for my donors?
  3. Should I develop a “giving circle” for this group? For me the jury was out on giving circles for high value donors, as it is for bequest societies, but this is really just a personal opinion. We must look to the facts and do what is proven to work.  Do gifting circles work? My first appeal was a $500 ask to become a Foundation Supporter of the Hospital. This identified more than 90 Foundation Supporters. So maybe I needed to think like a donor not a fundraiser? What, as a donor, would I like if I made this large a commitment?

After reading Mal’s book all my questions were answered. Three years on from my first appeal, this book helped me decide the criteria on which to select donors I would mail. From a small but active donor database of just over 2,000, Mal’s suggestions helped me identify that 18% of my donors fit into the high value appeal category – I was really happy with that.

From reading this book it became increasingly evident that the development of a “giving circle” is important.  It creates a sense of belonging for the donor and, more importantly, it makes them feel special. It’s critical that this group of donors has access to important people – they should be invited to key events and special briefings on the development of the organization. For me this meant access to key medical specialists at the hospital who are able to host morning teas. That gives donors the opportunity to speak with them directly about issues relating to their field of expertise, and to reinforce the significance of the donor’s support in helping the specialists to develop and improve our everyday services here.

A critical factor was our strong history in our city. Our appeal featured three founders of our hospital whose strong leadership, over 50 years, built this great hospital. Their stories were told as part of this appeal. We were in effect asking our donors to continue the work of our founders with a gift that made them a member of our giving circle.

Finally, I considered what my pack should look like. How could I make it stand out against all the normal mail that a donor receives daily? Again Mal more than hints at this. He explains clearly and directly what such a pack should look like. Elements such as a brightly-coloured envelope, postage stamp, handwritten envelope, high quality stock all add to the look and feel of the pack. He also shows samples of appeals that he has mailed, and that worked, so you too can gain an excellent understanding about your pack should end up looking like.

This pack is in production as I write this.  My goal is to raise between $27,000 and $55,000 from the mailing. Most importantly, I’m certain that this pack will help to identify a small group of donors that my team and I will steward as key donors of our organisation.

I recommend this book to fundraisers embarking on a high value appeal to help hone your skills and develop a pack based on all of the tried and tested work Mal has done to raise big gifts by direct mail.

Martin Carolan is Fundraising Executive at St Vincent’s Hospital, in Brisbane, Australia. You can connect with Martin on LinkedIn.

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