Grassroots groups, while constantly trying to find better ways to recruit new donors, often act as though their current donors were fragile china only to be brought out on special occasions – usually one mail appeal per year, two at most. It’s understandable that these organizations are hesitant to send frequent appeals; they keep hearing donors complain about being asked too often. Usually, however, those donors are thinking of their experiences giving to large nonprofits. They only sometimes get a thank you note, and never a handwritten, personal one. Then, six weeks or so after they give, they get another request that fails to acknowledge the previous gift, or even recognize that they are current donors. This is what makes people dislike multiple appeals – they’re left with the feeling that what they send is never enough.
As long as they are treated like whole people and not just cash machines, however, many donors do respond generously when asked for extra gifts. Studies have found that about 10 percent of donors will give each time they are asked, so any mailing you send should get a 10 percent response. But multiple appeals can have an even greater effect than that, because many people give to some appeals and not others.
This is often a matter of timing. Cash flow can vary a great deal from month to month. One month, a person may have just replaced all the tires on her car and can’t afford to give anything. Two months later, she has gotten a raise and is able to respond to an appeal that comes then. Multiple appeals can also reach the donors who missed a previous request because: they were on vacation and mail piled up, so they threw away anything that wasn’t a bill or a personal letter; they were having personal problems and could not think about anything else for a while; the appeal was lost in the mail; or the appeal was lost in a pile on their desk.
Also, some people respond better to some types of appeals than others. Some donors who regularly give $25 will give $50 or $100 or more to buy something specific for the organization, like media spots or new computers. Sending only one or two appeals a year doesn’t allow for much variety.
Finally, in addition to helping you raise money, fundraising letters help educate donors about the work of your group. Donors have a sense that a lot is going on with a group that sends several appeals a year. This may explain why donors who steadfastly give only once a year nonetheless renew those annual gifts at a higher rate if they have received multiple requests throughout the year. Multiple appeals keep your organization on the donor’s radar screen.
Clearly, it is possible to overdo multiple appeals or to do them badly. So how do you do them well? Most importantly, avoid the never-enough syndrome. When you send an extra appeal, always start by thanking people for their previous gifts. Though personal is best, this can be done even in a form letter by saying, “Dear Friend, Thank you so much for what you have given so far this year. We have used your donations to further our work. Now we have a chance to expand our work and need your help with that.” The letter should end by thanking the donor again.
Grassroots organizations generally find that sending four appeals a year works well. Some groups plan to send three appeals on a schedule and hold one as a “floater.” The floater can be sent whenever something really exciting is happening and may not be sent at all during a year when nothing lends itself to a mail appeal. Some groups send three appeal letters and one invitation to a special event; others send two appeals and an invitation, and call donors once a year.
What you do will depend on how many volunteers you have, how many donors you have, and how widely scattered your donors are. (National groups hesitate to run up their long-distance phone bills by calling and tend not to invite donors living far away to special events). To find out what works best, you may want to segment your donors and try different methods on different donor segments over the course of the year. And of course, if a donor at any point specifically requests to be asked only once per year, honor that request.
If you are hesitant to switch to several appeals a year, just add one. When you get donations from a lot of people and complaints from only one or two, then you will be more willing to try another.