Almost two and a half years after the start of the pandemic, Dominique Calixte is tired of hearing the word “pivot”. But as inflation and Covid cases remain stubbornly high and the economic outlook sours, Calixte, associate director of annual giving and special events at YW Boston, says pivoting is exactly what she and others fundraisers have to do.
“I feel like every day there’s something in the news that says to me, ‘Well, this might affect my fundraising campaign,'” she says.
Supply chain pitfalls complicate fundraisers’ year-end plans. Direct mail campaigns have become more difficult to plan over the past year as paper, envelopes and labels have all been in short supply.
“We’re planning about six months ahead now just to make sure we can grab the product that’s on the floor of our mail center,” says Sue Swan, national director of development at the American Lung Association.
In early July, Swan had already looked into the charity’s sending out of Christmas stamps, the 115-year-old campaign that sends supporters festive and branded stickers and an appeal for donations during the holidays. Almost 22% of the charity’s direct mail revenue comes from this campaign alone.
As fundraisers grapple with these challenges, many of their organizations are seeing an increased need for their services. “Nonprofits are not just feeling a pinch; they feel a punch,” says Melissa Stevens, executive director of the Milken Institute for Strategic Philanthropy, a think tank.
Given these headwinds, the the Chronicle discussed with fundraisers and industry experts how to plan the most important fundraising campaign of the year during volatile times.
It is essential to start early
According to Polly Papsadore, director of marketing and business development at PMG, a company that produces direct mail campaigns for nonprofit organizations, one of the significant planning changes is the longer lead times needed to prepare calls by the job.
In a schedule Papsadore set up for a potential customer, a charity whose shipment was scheduled for Nov. 16 had to submit paper and label orders by Aug. 3. If the customer wanted artwork on the envelope, it had to be submitted by August 10. The extra time creates leeway for paper mills to process other unfulfilled orders and accommodate delays in transporting paper to the plant where the letters are produced. Like so many other companies, Papsadore says many factories don’t have the staff to run their floors at full capacity – either because their employees are sick with Covid or because they can’t hire the qualified staff. what they need. Meeting earlier approval deadlines allows a smaller team to produce more mail on time.
The backbone of a direct mail campaign is paper, and fundraisers shouldn’t assume there will be enough to send out a direct mail. Instead, they should place their orders early so that their supplier reserves some of the paper they make for the campaign.
“It’s part of the new normal,” Papsadore says. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, we want to do this shipment.’ You must sign an order form.
Getting paper is one thing, but budgeting for it is another. Without a reliable supply, the price of paper is likely to fluctuate. Papsadore warns that the final price may differ from the price indicated on the order form.
All the extra hurdles to a successful direct mail campaign completely turn off some fundraisers — at least for now.
YW Boston suspended shipments at the start of the pandemic. He hoped to ease the pressure on frontline postmen and also acknowledged that many people felt uncomfortable touching their mail at a time when little was known about Covid-19 transmission.
“I don’t feel pressured to go back to direct mail — and that’s coming from someone who loves direct mail,” Calixte says. This year, his team is focusing on email outreach and icing letters sent through the mail. They will consider returning to support next year if supplies stabilize and make direct mail less “of a headache”, Calixte says.
Nonprofits need to be flexible
The mixed supply chain forces nonprofits to make changes to their direct mail programs without testing them first. When a shortage of labels prevented the American Lung Association from including its usual return address stickers in its June mailing to supporters, Swan, the main fundraiser, had to make a nerve-wracking decision. . Supporters were used to receiving bounties from the charity, so she didn’t want to completely ignore the giveaway. Instead, she decided to attach a printed sheet of paper with a bookmark, a small calendar, and a list of vacation dates.
“Normally, in situations like this, we would test the devil before embarking on a full-fledged change,” Swan says. “It forces us to be more flexible without testing, and it’s an uncomfortable place for anyone with direct response experience.”
Yet the change did not seem to deter donors. While full revenue totals aren’t yet available, Swan says her group “held on” on the revised campaign.
Papsadore, the direct mail marketer, encourages fundraisers to be open to changing long-standing mail habits, even when it’s scary. This can mean choosing lower quality paper or even opting for sustainably produced or recycled papers. It’s been a particularly heartbreaking decision for some environmental nonprofit fundraisers, Papsadore says.
“Now is a good time for people to remember not to think too much about direct mail,” Papsadore says. “There is something temporary about direct mail, and the point is to get your message in front of your donor often. It’s not like you’re printing a high quality coffee table book.
With social media, email and other digital tools, fundraisers can send donors real-time messages rooted in the context of the moment. It’s always hard to do with direct mail, but extended delivery times have made it even harder.
Swan fears the messages in the now-approved letters may sound “deaf” by the time supporters open them this winter. “This part is a real challenge because of course we want the content of our requests to be relevant,” she explains. “Yet, especially with direct mail, we’re between that rock and the anvil that we have to plan so far in advance in order to claim available product.”
Swan says she expects year-end email messages to contain more specific references to the day’s challenges than an endorsed letter in July ever could. But donors won’t care if a letter doesn’t address current events head-on, according to Papsadore. Even if a letter refers to an event that is no longer happening — like skyrocketing gas prices — Papsadore says she could remind donors of the challenges faced this year.
Keep donors close – even if they can’t give
Despite all the hurdles to giving this season — from tighter budgets to logistical issues — experts say fundraisers should continue to ask their supporters for donations as the year draws to a close.
“Donor engagement is key,” says Rick Happy, president of CCS, a fundraising consulting firm. “At a time like this where you may experience some hesitation: communicate – overcommunicate, don’t undercommunicate.”
Happy says donors reported being positive about his clients who stayed in close contact during the first six months of the pandemic, and he points to findings that some charities who kept their development programs strong during the financial crisis emerged with more income.
But he also notes the reality that some donors are slipping away due to economic constraints. “The longer-term trend is that there are fewer donors across the whole philanthropic pool.”
Fundraisers should ensure that their organization remains a priority with their existing supporters by communicating with them frequently and asking them to donate or otherwise participate in your mission, Happy says.
He recommends that fundraisers recognize the challenges facing both donors and their organization. Fundraisers have never been able to prevent external events from affecting how and why people give.
“But we can control how we present our case, how we ask, who we ask, how much we ask, how well and how enthusiastically we ask,” Happy says. “Anyone who stops, delays, slows down is making a big mistake.”
At YW Boston, Calixte is looking for ways to keep all of his supporters close, including those who can’t donate this year. Like many fundraisers, she fears that donors who contribute small amounts may be reluctant to give because of inflation.
“Our small donors are people who are very committed to our organization. These are the people who are probably alumni of our programs or attend all the events,” says Calixte. His team pays special attention to their supporters who show up regularly at events and read their email newsletters and think of ways to recognize this commitment as they would a gift.
“We’re having conversations and really trying to intensify how we look at the overall engagement of our constituents instead of just looking at, ‘Hey they gave then they should give again,'” Calixte says.
The implicit reality of these discussions is that if donors hold back, overall fundraising revenue could decline this year. It’s a specter that haunts nonprofits at all levels. At the American Lung Association, Swan said, “We’re kind of putting our seat belts on and expecting to see a drop in individual donations.”
With so many world events beyond their control, advises Calixte, “give thanks to your fundraisers.”