Posted September 1st, 2008

Year-end Appeals Boost Funding and Strengthen Connection to Donors

When Ruth Messick, Executive Director of Berger Health Foundation in Ohio, mails her fall appeal this year, it will not be the first time she has informed her donors about the benefits of giving before the end of the year. Why is she such a believer in the year-end mailing, and what can you learn from her successful efforts? Give & Take recently talked with Ms. Messick to find out more about how year-end marketing can yield a variety of benefits.

Emphasizing year-end giving works well

From her first days in development at Houghton College, Ms. Messick has relied on The Sharpe Group over the years to provide year-end brochures to complement her development
efforts.

“In my 29 years in fund raising, I have worked at a spectrum of organizations, from higher education to health care,” Ms. Messick says. “The last three or four months of the year can be the window through which many groups receive 60 to 70 percent of their annual income. Over the years, year-end appeals, and those that include Sharpe materials in particular, have brought very positive response, both in terms of numbers and overall dollars raised.”

Her year-end mailings generally include a cover letter, a Sharpe yearend brochure, a response device, and a return envelope. Over time, she has found that the more she personalized her year-end package, the better her response was.

“Sometimes we have five versions of our cover letter—one to top donors, one to lapsed donors, one to non-donors, etc.,” Ms. Messick explains. “Sometimes we personalize the response device. And, one year, at the suggestion of our Sharpe representative, we coordinated our cover letter design to match the look of the Sharpe brochure we were sending. The response to that mailing was 40% higher than the response the year before! It was amazing!”

Past experience guides today’s plans

Ms. Messick has been at the helm of the 4-year-old Berger Health Foundation, which supports the public Berger Hospital, for three years. While mailings at year-end have always played an important role at the various organizations she has been associated with, she notes that her last two year-end appeals at the Foundation have been largely informational. “While Berger Hospital is 77 years old and well-known in the area, the Foundation is new,” Ms. Messick explains. “For the past two years, our year-end mailings have helped explain to the community who we are and why we exist.”

This year, Ms. Messick is eager to not only continue spreading the word about the Foundation’s mission, but also to explain to donors how their past gifts are impacting patients today. “This year’s end-of-the-year appeal will take much more of a human interest approach because we have our own stories to tell,” she says. “In our cover letter, for example, we will be able to tell our donors how the Foundation helped a 42-year-old mother of four fighting breast cancer afford her chemotherapy treatments after her husband died suddenly and she needed financial assistance. These are the kinds of stories that donors want to hear about.”

With the loss of manufacturing jobs affecting the local economy, Ms. Messick also plans to focus this year’s mailing on past supporters rather than non-donors. “We plan to reach our non-donors through other means, such as our newsletter,” she says. “We are very aware that people often don’t give simply because they are not asked, and they don’t give a second time because of how they were treated when they gave the first time. We must be responsible stewards.”

Congratulations

…to John Jensen, senior vice president and consultant with The Sharpe Group, based in Washington, D.C., on being named to serve on the national board of the National Committee on Planned Giving.

Tips for year-end success

We asked Ruth Messick for some advice about how to implement a successful year-end mailing. Here are a few of her tips:

  • Use your cover letter(s) to tell your story. Don’t use your cover letter to simply reiterate what is in the brochure about how to best make gifts. Tell your donors about the good work your organization is doing. Ms. Messick plans to segment her donor base this year according to those who have contributed to specific programs, and then use special cover letters to explain how gifts to each program are helping real people. “We have received several gifts earmarked for our cancer center, which is two years old now,” she says. “So I will write one year-end cover letter detailing the story of a specific cancer center patient who was helped by the Foundation. That letter will be sent only to cancer center donors. I will write other program-specific cover letters as well, and we will segment our list accordingly.”
  • Follow-up with those who give. Thanking donors for their year-end gifts is not only part of successful stewardship, it can also lead to more gifts in the future. “After receiving a $50 year-end gift from a first-time donor, I called to let him know we appreciated his generosity,” says Ms. Messick. “Later, this donor helped establish a fund at the Foundation that helps patients pay for things not covered by insurance, such as home and auto repairs and utility bills. He has helped raise $17,000 for this fund so far. And all of his giving began with that one $50 gift in response to a year-end appeal.”
  • Keep in touch with your donors throughout the year, not just at year-end. Ms. Messick says it best: “If our donors don’t just hear from us when we want money, and we are listening to them and being responsible stewards throughout the year, then the year-end appeal will be more successful.”

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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