No one can deny it—the Internet offers a powerful way for people to communicate with one another. Not surprisingly, many planned gift development programs are increasingly turning to e-mail and Internet-based techniques to share gift planning concepts with donors and prospective donors.
But, since effective gift planning depends heavily on building and maintaining personal relationships, how much reliance should one place on e-marketing? Here are some basic questions to ask when considering employing the digital world to help build awareness of gift planning opportunities.
1. Who is online?
Take into consideration online demographics. Your best planned gift prospects—those age 70 and older—are not likely to be online. According to a study released in December 2005 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, only 26% of seniors age 70 to 75 regularly use the Internet. For those age 76 or older, the percentage of Americans who go online shrinks to 17%. Contrast this information with the fact that, according to the American Council on Gift Annuities, the average age of those who enter into gift annuities is 78.3.
In another Pew study from October 2005, younger seniors are more likely to have Internet access, with slightly more than half (53%) of those between age 60 and 69 being online. But, even with that increase in Internet use among younger seniors, it is clear that the majority of older Americans are not online. While there seems to be a small group of “wired” seniors who go online to check e-mail and communicate with friends and family, the Pew study reiterates that the best way to reach most older Americans is still through more traditional, offline mediums.
2. Just because you can, should you?
For those of your constituents who are plugged into life on the Internet, you may still want to exercise restraint when it comes to broadcast e-mail communications. Why?
Internet providers filter billions of e-mails every day that they consider spam. In some cases this includes messages sent to multiple parties. Since unsolicited e-mails on a regular basis may not be welcome, the messages that do get through spam filters may be deleted by the recipient before ever being opened. With the most popular e-mail programs, a donor need only right click your address and, with another click or two, automatically delete all future e-mail from your address. Deluging a donor with e-mail could be perceived as an annoyance and at best may have a numbing effect that may result in the information you are sending being ignored.
E-mail will be much more welcomed by those who have voluntarily provided their addresses for a specific purpose. Just as you would ask a personal friend if he or she prefers to be called or e-mailed, consider asking donors how they would like to be contacted. For those who do prefer e-mail communications, be sure to honor their requests by sending e-mail when possible. You may even want to include links to the planned gift information on your Web site so donors can access more information at their leisure.
A recent NCPG Council study showed that the top two reasons donors make planned gifts are a belief in the mission and work of the charity and a long-term relationship with the organization (see page 4 of the April 2006 Give & Take). Remember that planned gifts often stem from building relationships with older donors and prospective donors. Just as you would never consider letting e-mails replace all other forms of communication with your friends and family, don’t be tempted to let e-mails completely replace the tried and true methods of communicating with your donors—face-to-face visits when possible, telephone conversations when appropriate, personal handwritten letters, and other traditional mail.
3. Are they “up to speed?”
- Once you know which donors like to receive e-mail, you still have to be careful about the type of e-mail messages you send to your older constituents. Keep in mind that you may be dealing with the following challenges:
- Older eyes that may not be able to read small type and certain low-contrast color schemes and may only be able to focus on computer screens for limited periods of time
- Older persons may also have difficulty typing due to complications of arthritis or other physical and mental disabilities
- Older persons may prefer reading formal letter formats including a date line, salutation line, traditional paragraph structure, and appropriate closing before the sender’s name and title
- Older computer equipment that may include slower dial-up Internet connections that can take too much time to download files. The December Pew study reported that only 8% of persons age 70 to 75 had high speed Internet connections and only 4% of those 76 and older have this capability. Donors may also worry about downloading a virus along with the attached file
When asking donors to print out “e-brochures,” keep in mind they may be upset if they print pieces that feature large color solids or other design elements that deplete their printer’s ink cartridge
Couple the lack of speedy Internet access with generational preferences and physical challenges, and you may find that certain e-marketing strategies will have to be carefully written, designed, and e-mailed in ways that will please—rather than annoy—older donors. For more information about seniors and Internet usage see www.pewinternet.org.
Real connection is key
In this fast-paced world, we often turn to technology to help us be more connected both personally and professionally. But many are questioning how “connected” we truly are, with some experts blaming our affinity for computers and gadgets for chipping away at our ability to connect with each other and create strong and lasting relationships.
Development officers should very carefully integrate online communications efforts into their traditional methods of reaching older donors, including the telephone, mail, personal visits, and group gatherings. The mix of approaches will vary depending on the organization’s constituency, and this mix of communications tools will surely change considerably over time.
Most would agree that success in major and planned gift development results largely from building solid relationships with donors. It is these relationships that, over time, may lead to significant gifts for your organization or institution.
As with all other marketing and communications techniques you utilize, when considering online communications, you must always ask yourself, “How will these efforts strengthen my organization’s personal relationship with the donor?”