When you think about your direct mail program, I’m willing to bet that unrestricted revenue is a huge consideration. Would you agree?

Of course we know that logically, before any non-profit organization or charity can start raising money, they need to employ skilled staff and provide a roof over their heads. The building houses the people that will work tirelessly to generate the funds needed to support your organization’s mission.  And along with the building (or office) comes expenditures.

If generating unrestricted revenue is the main objective, then why is it that organizations often impose so many restrictions on the stories they can tell – the tangible case for support that would yield the best response from their donors?

It’s likely that those overseeing the direct mail program don’t understand that a semi-designated ask does not necessarily mean restricting revenues.  The goal is actually to generate more revenue from the program. That’s a good thing! But in order for fundraising to be successful, organizations have to be honest and upfront with donors, both when they’re asking for money and when they’re reporting back on where the money went.

Establishing a successful mid-level program

With new donor acquisition becoming increasingly challenging (and costly), many organizations have been lured by the idea of a mid-level giving program to help improve their bottom line. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of mid-level giving, you can check out http://think.goodworksco.ca/finding-your-hidden-heroes/

But it’s not as easy as requesting a larger gift. There’s more to it than mining your donor base for loyalty and prior giving. In fact, the most crucial details need to be identified and fleshed out long before you decide who you’re going to mail to. And that’s where the semi-designated/restricted offer comes in, or as one of my colleagues recently coined it, a ‘purposeful’ donation.

You first need to decide on a semi-designated case for support. Based on what we’ve seen work for our clients, the offer needs to be both meaningful and tangible. When we’re seated across from clients, this is the part of the meeting when the eyes in the room start darting around nervously and bums start shifting uncomfortably in their seats. It’s the part of the conversation loathed by leadership.

We believe the unease stems from the fact that organizations have become so dependent on their direct mail programs to generate unrestricted (read operational) revenues, that they are fearful of shrinking that pool of unrestricted funds by way of a semi-designated ask.

I ask you, how many organizations are out there requesting support from their direct mail donors to help pay their gas and electricity bill? None. Donors absolutely need to be inspired to increase their support – they won’t give if you don’t present a strong case – and they want to know how their support will make a difference.

If we can share mission and vision statements, stories and outcomes, why should it be any different for an organization to talk about a specific piece of equipment, a program or service that would be of particular interest to their donors, and ask them to consider making a purposeful investment? It really shouldn’t be.

Semi-designated vs. unrestricted donations

I always start by reminding clients that their organization has a mission. In order to effectively support that mission, they must secure funding from the community.  And direct mail donors are savvy. They understand that in order to raise money, an organization must spend money. Funds generated are pooled to support overarching objectives, and expenditures such as heating, lighting, and experienced staff are all part of the package.

Yes, donors expect you to be a good steward of their donations, and that means investing in key areas that will have the most impact.  I challenge clients to go back to their list of funding priorities and identify one of those key areas. Perhaps it’s a particular piece of equipment. Maybe it’s a new program or research initiative that will help provide the best care or insight into new treatment options.

As a preliminary step, you may want to consider pulling together a small group of committed donors to ask what would inspire them to significantly increase their support to your organization. From there, you can take these ideas to your leadership team and board of directors for discussion. I believe it’s all in how you frame the concept of a semi-designated ask.

Once you have identified a particular need or semi-designated ask, you must then develop a solid case and think about how you will report back to donors who choose to increase their giving, and what appropriate recognition will look like. It would be perfectly acceptable for an organization to include messaging stating that these are the current needs, and that this may change, but that you promise to keep them updated if/when they do.

Has your organization introduced a semi-designated/restricted ask as part of a direct mail/mid-level program? Whether this was a success or not, I’d love to hear from you! In particular, it would be helpful to know:

  • What segment of your donor base received your mailing?
  • What was your semi-designated ask?
  • How did your donors respond? (Even if it’s just anecdotal feedback)
  • What (if any) barriers did you encounter along the way? How did you manage to overcome them?
  • What were the contributing factors to your success / failure?

This post was written by Heather Brown, former Philanthropic Counsel at Good Works and fundraiser extraordinaire. Banner image by Janet McKnight from Flickr via Creative Commons.