Is Anybody Out There? | Sharpe Group
Posted April 1st, 1999

Is Anybody Out There?

Editor’s Note: Occasionally in Give & Take we reprint articles from the past that are often requested by readers. The following is an updated version of an article that appeared in the March 1994 issue of Give & Take.

Over the years we have seen response rates from various gift planning mailing approaches that range from 10% (and more) to one-tenth of 1% or less. Ironically, some of the development executives receiving five responses in 5,000 are the most pleased. They often find that the results are much greater from a few highly interested respondents than from a multitude of “lookers.”

In today’s competitive and cost-conscious environment, we believe the most prudent course of action in most instances is to emphasize quality of response over quantity. The goal is to find people who, while they might also be considering a planned gift to other organizations, can be convinced that your cause is the one that will make the most of their investment in the future.

That is, after all, what usually motivates the person making the planned gift. Few programs can afford to qualify large numbers of persons who are simply seeking free information. Resist the temptation to play the “numbers game.”

The response you want

Response to various planned gift development efforts can be “engineered” to almost any level. Any number of factors influence the response one can expect. Among them:

1. The giving history of the recipients. Usually only long-term, frequent donors will respond to materials with a heavy emphasis on donative intent. The most casual donor, on the other hand, can be coaxed into responding to materials that primarily emphasize self-interest.

2. The average age of the recipients. Mailing to all donors, regardless of age, can have a negative impact on response rates where the gift plan discussed is designed to best meet the needs of a certain age group.

3. The content of the cover letter, if any. A letter that emphasizes the cause to be supported rather than the self-interest of the donor will generally result in a smaller quantity, but much higher quality, response.

4. The person who signs the letter. A letter from a person who has already made a particular type of gift will often yield greater quality response than a letter from someone else.

5. The level of personalization of the cover letter. Highly personalized cover letters may not do as well as impersonal, printed letters. Where very personal information is concerned, an arm’s length approach may be more effective. Test various levels of personalization to determine which works best for you.

6. The level of personalization on the carrier envelope. It may be better to invest in laser-addressing the envelope rather than personalizing the cover letter. This will improve the “opening” rate in many cases.

7. Whether or not first class or bulk mail is used. Up to 10% of bulk mail may never be delivered.

8. If first class, the day of the week mailed. Mail timed to “land” in homes on a Friday or Saturday may be more widely read, especially if the content is geared toward younger people who may still be in the work force.

9. The content of the materials. The more directed the materials are toward the donor’s self-interest, the higher the quantity of response to be expected. But is your role really to dispense free information on estate planning with only tangential references to the charitable dimension?

10. What is offered on the response device. For example, contrast the booklet title “How to Avoid Estate Taxes” with “Giving Through Your Will.” Would you rather have 50 respondents to the first title or 10 respondents to the latter? Does your response device ask whether a donor has already provided for your organization in his or her estate plan? This may depress response by as much as 50%, primarily from those persons who would have otherwise been motivated by self-interest. Often, you must decide whether you wish to forgo a high quantity to identify the very persons you are seeking.

11. The level of confidentiality conveyed in all of the materials. Response can be improved by making it clear that all replies will be held in strictest confidence. Self-mailer reply cards may be convenient and less expensive, but some who use them report that their best responses using such cards come enclosed in the donor’s own envelope in an effort by the donor to ensure confidentiality.

12. Whether or not “free services” are offered. While we do not believe it is the province of development officers to plan donors’ estates, nevertheless some programs will offer to do so. If the offer is made, there will be a noticeable increase in response. Expect a lower, though often more productive, response to offers to help people better plan their charitable gifts.

13. Presence of a reply envelope. When budget is a concern, it is usually better to save money elsewhere than to skip the return envelope. Making it easy to reply boosts response, probably from both serious inquirers and casual “lookers.” See factor #11, too.

14. Whether or not the reply envelope is prepaid. Many programs are not willing to lose a good prospect for a gift because the person didn’t have a stamp close by. The use of a prepaid envelope can be wise when the rest of the package is geared toward the charitable element of the planned gift rather than “free information.” In the same vein, an 800 number may be a good investment. Clients report that many of their wealthiest donors will not make a long-distance phone call at their own expense, while they will donate thousands of dollars!

15. Number of previous mailings to the same list. If you have been regularly mailing planned giving material to the same group for a number of years, that is no reason to stop, since new people become interested each year. This pattern, however, will result in a lower response level over time.

The longer you have been mailing to the same group, the higher the quality level of response which does still come from that list.

16. Amount of recognition offered to respondents. If you have a recognition program for planned gifts, featuring this element in your marketing package can sometimes have a positive impact on the number and quality of response. Others may be turned off by offers of recognition as they are concerned that they may lose their anonymity if they respond.

17. The “feel” of the materials. Do they seem like advertising, or are they helpful information? Avoid materials that are too slick or resemble financial product advertising too closely.

Misuse of four-color printing, glossy paper, overly sophisticated graphics, and other elements can give the wrong impression to the target audience, which will often be persons predominantly over the age of 65. Looking too much like investment marketing materials can invite the comparisons you will almost always lose.

It is better to keep the feel more in line with your other fund-raising materials, which is, after all, what you are about.

18. The time of the year the material is sent. The effect varies by geographic location, age distributions, and other factors. Avoid mailing in times of the year when many persons are traveling (if a factor in your locale.)

19. Amount of other mail being received from the organization. Avoid mail to younger donors who are not prospects for most planned gifts in any event. Ideally, the amount of current gift mail to the older donors should be reduced as they age, while the amount of deferred gift material should increase.

20. How the recipient perceives the organization at the time the material is received. Has there been negative publicity, a scandal, a controversial change in leadership, etc.?

Over the years, we have seen hundreds of combinations of the above factors and others which have produced results that differ greatly.

The makeup of the prospect file, the level of commitment to the cause, and prior development efforts are probably the most vital determinants of both the quantity and quality of response received.

Seek quality, not quantity

As we enter a new millennium in planned gift marketing, in a time of unprecedented activity in this area, “less may be more.” Tell your story and show the most interested among your supporters the best ways to make their gifts. Work closely with and serve those who express the greatest degree of commitment. Then judge the results of your efforts over time, rather than by the number of cards on your desk tomorrow morning.

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The publisher of Sharpe Insights 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 Sharpe Insights 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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