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It may be tempting, but do not pull out of the mail when the economy goes south. Make some strategic changes to communicate well with your donors and manage your ROI.

Staying the course during tough times, particularly with your direct mail efforts, is the key to long-term fundraising success and database health. During difficult economic times, you don't want to shy away from your donors. You want to stay in touch, while communicating that you are sensitive to the economic environment they—and you—are operating in. (You may also want to download a free copy of Fundraising When Times Are Bad.)  

I am often asked if a nonprofit should slow down fundraising efforts during difficult times, such as recessions or periods of high inflation—or even just the general uneasiness in the world we are witnessing today.

Most of what is going on, the noise around us, is just that: noise. It’s a distraction from the real world. Economic upturns and downturns are part of life. We need to be aware of the noise, but more importantly, we should not jump to conclusions or make hasty decisions based on what we are hearing, seeing, or presuming is going on in the donor’s mind.

We need to acknowledge that during difficult times, total charitable giving may decline and the overall number of donors may decrease. We are also likely to attract fewer new donors during these difficult times.

At the same time, we should not assume donors will stop giving or that they will stop being our advocates. Donors that love you today will likely continue to love you tomorrow even though they may change their giving routine. They still care deeply about your mission, which is just as important during tough times as it was during great times.

At the beginning of the Covid stay-at-home orders, American Philanthropic gave a loud cry from the rooftop to all our clients and anyone who would listen: do NOT slow anything down! In fact, we encouraged those that were able to step on the gas—not hit the brakes. For the clients that listened, things turned out well, and in some cases very well. Those that didn’t listen may have survived, but they didn’t thrive during the chaos.

THREE RULES FOR MAILING IN BAD TIMES

  1. First and foremost, people need to hear from you. Your donors and advocates are accustomed to a cadence of communication from you. If you stop that communication, it causes all sorts of confusion and dissonance, even if subconsciously, on the donor’s part.
  2. If you are not in front of your donor presenting opportunities to give or get involved, they won’t, and can’t, do so. In fact, if they don’t hear from you, they may fall in love with another organization—and you will become a bygone memory.
  3. Can you just reduce the number of solicitations during the downturn? Yes, you can. But do so with the utmost caution: again, reduced communication translates to fewer opportunities for donors to give, which in turn translates to fewer gifts.

GETTING INTO SPECIFICS

  1. Share tons of gratitude with all your donors. Your donors supported you in the past and that loyalty needs to be affirmed. Thank you notes, updates, reminders of the great work accomplished with their help, and so forth. It’s tough to go overboard with gratitude. The economic downturn will end, things will get better—and you’ll want your donors to feel appreciated when that happens.
  2. Continue the communication stream but modify the cadence a bit. Consider reducing the number of hard solicitations and integrating small newsletters or updates: occasions to be in touch and opportunities for a donor to give, but without an outright request.
  3. Modify the audience segments you mail and alter the ask arrays. Look at how you are framing the ask string and consider a more open-ended ask or a smaller multiplier of the donor’s previous giving. Be careful and thoughtful here: you don’t want to totally abandon what worked in the past, but at the same time, you want to subtly address that many people have fewer discretionary funds. Open asks or smaller strings demonstrate sensitivity to people’s personal situation.
  4. Tailor your list selects to cut out lower-value segments. You may stop mailing (or mail less often) donors whose most recent gift was under $25, for instance. You can make up for the smaller audience by going deeper into your lapsed file for larger donors: for $100+ or $500+ donors, you may go back further (36 or 48 months lapsed, for instance).
  5. Focus on two-way communication. In so many cases direct mailers view the communication cadence as a one-way street, with the exception of expecting donations to be returned. But we should look for ways for donors to engage with the cause outside of the donation transaction: can you do a survey, ask for words of encouragement to the clients your organization serves, encourage a petition or food drive or something similar, invite people for tours, events, lectures, or webinars? If you are decreasing solicitations a bit (see #2 above), you might be in touch with missional ways for them to be involved.
  6. Try to cut costs. Instead of stopping mailing—which during the pandemic stretch proved to be a terrible idea—you can and should look for ways to cut costs on your packages. Can some of your appeals be reduced in size or complexity to reduce the printing and lettershop costs without damaging your brand identity? The key here is to keep mailing but find ways to make it cheaper: fewer pages, two-sided printing, less color, even presorted postage can all help cut costs.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  1. Use social media like you have never done before—but first make sure your social outreach, including emails and website, are 100% aligned with your direct mail and other fundraising efforts. The one thing we learned during the pandemic lockdown is that we have finally turned the corner and donors are multi-channel people!
  2. It is critical that all channels are in sync. Messaging and calls to action must be consistent so the donor journey and overall experience is seamless. We are seeing a significant increase in direct mail recipients giving their gift online—that means that the donation landing page must look, feel, and say the same thing as the direct mail appeal.
  3. Double down on gratitude, sharing, authenticity, being human and personal, etc. These principles will help build trust and connectivity between you, your brand, and your advocates.
  4. Remember that the bad times will pass. They always do. Your goal during the downturn is to strengthen your relationships so that when you emerge on the other side your donor relationships are stronger and more fruitful than ever before. Your donor list may be a bit smaller, but it will be filled with more loyal, more dedicated, and more authentic relationships.

Want to learn more about fundraising when times are bad? You can download a free copy of Jeremy Beer's e-bookFundraising When Times Are Bad, and stay tuned in here for future advice! Drop your comments, questions, and ideas below.


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