What You Can Learn From Boys Town Direct Mail Turnaround

Boys Town is known for many things … its iconic statue … the song “He Ain’t Heavy” … the 1938 Mickey Rooney film that bears its name. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1917 by Father Edward J. Flanagan to rescue starving and homeless children from the streets of Omaha. Now nearly a century later, Boys Town has evolved into one of the largest child and family service organizations in the United States.

On October 19, Boys Town’s Director of Annual Giving Mike Vcelik made the trek from Omaha to Kansas City to present to a joint meeting of the Mid-America Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and the Kansas City Direct Marketing Association (KCDMA) held at Rockhurst University. More than 100 people, including students in Rockhurst’s Nonprofit Leadership Studies Program, turned out for the event.

Boys Town began to send direct mail in the late 1930s, and it continues to be a mainstay today. About a decade ago, Boys Town began to experience a decline in response. Rather than give up on a long standing direct mail program, the organization began aggressively testing alternative packages and copy while measuring and following the results that not only reversed the decline, but created growth through some of the most challenging fundraising times on record. The organization mails roughly 27 million direct mail pieces annually.

In his presentation, Vcelik described some of the keys to their success:
  1. Invest in Acquisition—When other organizations were cutting back on acquisition during the recent recession, Boys Town continued to invest. “Organizations who pulled back faced revenue shortfall at about the three-year mark,” he said. “We didn’t see that.”
  2. Send Premiums—Vcelik insists premiums (e.g., cards, calendars) still work in acquiring and retaining donors. He works to find premiums that have a perceived value and artwork that appeals to the donor. “In direct mail, you check your opinions at the door. It’s not about what you like—it’s about what the donor likes,” he said. 
  3. Ask Graciously—Fear and guilt appeals have no appeal to Vcelik. Consistent testing has proven that Boys Town donors prefer a gracious ask that reminds them of the good they are doing, not the bad that will happen if they don’t donate.
  4. Prepare for Fatigue—Vcelik is always thinking ahead and builds tests into every campaign with new premiums, new layouts and new messaging. “When one campaign starts to experience fatigue, I’ve got another proven campaign waiting in the wings.”
  5. Use What You Have—Vcelik applies sophisticated modeling techniques, but he insists that the good ol’ basics of direct marketing still hold up: number of gifts, response rate, net profit and calculating cost to raise a dollar. 
At the end of the presentation, Vcelik was asked about how to acquire and cultivate the elusive “younger donor.”

“Oh, the myth of the younger donor,” he said with a chuckle as clapping erupted in the room. “Giving is a lifestage event. Everyone says donors are dying, but our donors have been dying since the 1930s. A ‘young’ donor to me is age 50 to 55, after the children are gone, disposable income is higher because debt levels are generally lower and, at that point, people begin to look for ways to give back.”