Planning Matters | Sharpe Group
Posted December 1st, 2003

Planning Matters

Modern communications technology offers a tremendously powerful way to communicate gift planning concepts to prospective donors. But it is also a growing curse for individuals. As in the business world, some development staffers successfully employ broadcast e-mail and telemarketing in the service of the causes and institutions in which they deeply believe, but others succeed only in making a nuisance of themselves and, by extension, the institutions they represent.

Is it possible to legitimately employ communications tools to help build awareness of gift planning opportunities and keep in touch with committed supporters without adding to the problems of an over-communicated society?

Just because we can

Just because we are able to place thousands of telemarketing calls does not necessarily mean that we should. The hotly debated federal “Do Not Call List,” activated on October 1 despite legal challenges, provides exceptions for charitable and political fund-raising calls. But as these exclusions have not been widely publicized, unsolicited calls from charitable organizations may be quite unwelcome and may be perceived as a violation of the “do not call” rules.

Marketing Tip: In this environment, it may be wise to call only those donors who have explicitly or implicitly given their consent by providing you with their telephone numbers. Consider adding a line for telephone numbers and e-mail addresses to response cards and other reply devices, but make sure that donors know that providing such information is optional. Only those who want to be called will include their phone numbers, making it more likely that your call will receive a favorable reception.

To spam or not to spam

The “CAN-SPAM Act of 2003” and other legislation now in Congress seek to limit certain unsolicited e-mail messages. For a sense of the scale of this issue, consider that America Online (AOL) is presently filtering out two billion e-mail messages every day that it considers spam, and those are the ones that AOL users never see. Estimates on the cost of spam messages to U.S. businesses range from $10 billion to $87 billion annually.

Marketing Tip: Despite costs of only fractions of a penny per message, all marketers should exercise restraint in the use of e-mail communications, especially to private home users. As with telephone numbers, e-mail will be much more welcomed by those who have voluntarily provided their addresses for a specific communications purpose.

Annoying or appreciated?

Planned gift development is all about relationships. Take your cue on how and when to use certain communications tools from the person you seek to reach. Just as you would ask a personal friend if he or she prefers to be called or e-mailed, consider asking the friends of your organization or institution how they would like to be contacted. Despite all the negative press about spam, for instance, a growing number of people prefer to use e-mail for all kinds of commercial and charitable communications. So as we use more care and limit the use of e-mail we must be sure not to eliminate a communications tool that is welcomed by and very effective for certain people.

One size does not fit all

Younger people seem to be more frequent users of e-mail and other newer means of communication such as cell phones and voice mail, but the primary communications device for older people remains the fixed home telephone. In fact, many gift planning officers report seeing old rotary dial phones when visiting with donors in their homes.

In a variation on the millionaire next door, the sense of frugality that finds no reason to replace a functioning rotary phone is the same frugality that leads to wealth accumulation on the part of a person of relatively modest means. In this light, “low-tech” donors may be among your best prospects for an estate gift!

E-mail: chat or formal letter?

Today’s older donors and prospective donors were raised in an era when people still wrote formal letters and long-distance telephone calls were considered an expensive luxury. Consequently, when you are able to determine that you have permission to use e-mail with an older gift planning prospect, think about adjusting the formatting and appearance of your message.

Marketing Tip: Consider an e-mail message to an older person to be a replacement for a letter rather than for a quick phone call or chat. You may wish to format your e-mail with a date line, inside address, and salutation line and use formal paragraph structure and an appropriate closing before the sender’s name and title.

Avoid the temptation to format your letter in a word processing program and send it as an e-mail attachment. Attachments require more experience to download and open, and they may take too much time to transfer on the dial-up systems still used by most older persons. Also, some recipients may worry about downloading a virus along with an attached file, regardless of the file type.

The more things change

We are living in an exciting world of constant change, particularly in the ways we communicate personally and professionally. Nevertheless, it is becoming a growing part of our responsibility to decide how and when to change the ways we communicate with donors and prospects.

Tried and true methods of communication may continue to prove best for older donors. A study recently reported in American Demographics magazine (October 2003, page 14), for example, finds that the most effective medium for reaching persons age 58-74 is still direct mail.

As you consider how to allocate your marketing resources, today’s environment calls for a mix of approaches. Mail combined with very selective and careful use of telemarketing and e-mail will continue to be appropriate for those persons composing the primary market for planned giving.

Editor’s note: We are interested in your experiences (both positive and negative) as you seek to navigate the uncharted waters of changing communications media. If you would like to share your stories and experiences with other readers, please contact the editor of Give & Take at

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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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