We All Need Each Other—Why Going Solo Doesn’t Work: Direct Response is Beautiful!

Many non-profit fundraising departments are dualistic in their set-up.  Usually I find that either they are direct-response driven or annual fund/event/major gift driven. (For simplicity, let’s call this annual fund driven.)  Both are wonderful…yet deeply flawed if one discipline significantly outweighs the other.

The best development departments are both/and rather than either/or.

Here is how I see this played out on a daily basis.   For an annual fund driven shop, whenever I suggest a mailing  6-8 times per year along with a monthly e-appeal in contrast to their regular once or twice per year, you would think by the look on the development director’s face I had just committed murder.

The very idea that I would suggest we “bombard” their donors with appeals, e-mails and viral campaigns is unconscionable.  “We don’t want to upset our donors,” they tell me.  Then, I will retort, “Do you have a need? Do you have all the revenue you need right now?”  Of course they answer yes, and NO they don’t have all the revenue they need, to which I respond,  “Well, why are you afraid to tell your donors you have a need?”

Silence.

Then I talk about the fact that if you want your major gift program to expand, you have to cultivate the donors who will one day become a part of that major gift program.  You can’t do that by communicating with them a couple of times per year.

Get over the fear that you are over-communicating with your donors and that they will be upset with you.  Donors have life beyond giving just once per year.  The more times they give to you each year, the deeper their commitment to you.  The deeper their commitment to you, the greater the chance that one day they will be in your major gift program.

Now, let’s talk about the direct-response driven shop.  There are many non-profits out there who were birthed through direct-mail, telemarketing and print ads.  I mean, they literally grew up overnight because they started aggressive direct-response acquisition campaigns and brought in thousands of donors.  That’s awesome.

However, over time they realized that in order for them to create more revenue for their programs, they had to start developing strategies to move donors up the giving ladder.  The answer was a lot more direct-response.  And, for some time, that has been working pretty well.

For many it continues to work well.  Maybe not like the “good old days”, but still, not too badly.  Well, the smart development professionals are now savvy to the fact that they must start major gift programs if they want to survive long-term and keep their fundraising ratios in line.

The problem I find in the direct-response driven shop is that they don’t want to let go of “their donors.”  There is a mistrust of the major gift team.  Plus, because of bad leadership, the direct-marketers, being judged by the revenue they bring in, fear their results will start to look bad if their best donors are now on a caseload and out of “their” program.

I cannot begin to tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with direct-response teams and the major gift teams who were all about protecting their turf.

And, it goes both ways.

The major gift team does not often recognize the good work that the direct-response team does.  I mean, where do you think your major donors are going to come from? I also know MGO’s who will hold on to underperforming donors for way too long because they don’t want to put them back into the regular mail stream.

Folks, we have to stop this.  We need to realize that to have a really successful, growing major gift program, there has to be a really strong direct-response program.  And the direct-marketers AND their bosses need to understand that part of their success should be evaluated by how many of “their” donors move to a major gift caseload.

All boats need to rise together.

Let me give you a quick example of a former client of mine who did this right.  Back in 2001, while working for The Domain Group (which was one of the largest direct-response agencies working with non-profits at that time), I was the account lead on a major national non-profit charity we had just landed.

At that time they had roughly 50,000 donors and brought in about $4MM in revenue in their direct-response activities, however they had NO major gift team.  So, essentially,  the majority of their donations came from direct-response.

What did we do?  Because this charity had forward-thinking leadership, we invested heavily into their direct-response program. (Now hold on, major gift people, this gets good.)  We went from 9 appeals to 18 appeals, from navel-gazing newsletters to “donor-amazing” newsletters (I just coined that, but you can use it.) We stressed how donors’ gifts made a difference, along with highlighting the needs that had to be met.  We became incredibly aggressive in new donor acquisition.

Two years into working with this client we started to see donors rise to the top, so much so that they had to hire their first major gift officer.  Each year that number started to increase.  And, each year, they had to hire more major gift officers.

Where are they now?  They have well over 400,000 donors,  bring in over $50MM in revenue and now over 40% of that revenue comes from major donors.  Remember, 11 years earlier there was virtually nothing coming from major donors.

What happened?  Besides investing heavily in acquiring and cultivating donors, this forward-thinking leadership team realized that engaging donors and moving them up and OUT of the direct-response program would lead to a more robust FUNDRAISING program overall.  They did it by understanding that in order to have a great major gift program they had to have a great direct-response program.  And you know what?   The major gift program knew this, appreciated this and even used some of the strategies of the direct-response program to cultivate their major donors.

In other words, they appreciated what each brought to the table!

What does this mean for you?  Now, I’m not advocating that you start communicating 40 times per year (although for some of you, perhaps you should.)  But I want you to realize that one program cannot be successful without the other.  It won’t happen overnight.  Remember, it’s taken many years for the non-profit I highlighted to get to where they are now, but they did have the foresight to begin the process and get it right.

Even if you’re a one-person development shop, appreciating the strengths of both disciplines will help you create a healthy fundraising program that is not dualistic in it’s approach, but inclusive.

Remember, we all need each other…

Jeff

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About Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry

Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry have over 55 years of experience fundraising for non-profits. Richard Perry was co-owner of Domain Group until 2005. Jeff Schreifels was a Senior Strategist for Domain Group for 12 years. They came together a few years ago to start Veritus Group, a full-service major gift fundraising agency. Veritus Group has a unique, data-driven approach unlike any agency focused on major gifts. Jeff and Richard are passionate about their work, passionate about life and hopes this blog will provide you with insights and tangible benefits for you and your work. Thank you for reading!
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