The Right Questions Yield The Right Answers

This semester, I again taught the Marketing and Technology Trends in Fundraising at Rockhurst University. I assigned the students the creation of a year-end, multi-channel marketing campaign. The assignment included developing content for the channels you might expect ... direct mail, email, social, etc.

The day came to formally present the campaigns. One of the students began her presentation by saying she had chosen to leave out an entire channel completely. She then made a compelling case for her choice ... weaving in learnings from the class.

I was impressed. Yes, she had veered from the black and white requirements of the assignment. But she had asked herself not just "how" but "why."

Much too often, organizations get caught in the trap of choosing a strategy just "because." Because it worked a long, long time ago ... or because it's the next hot trend ... or because it's a VIP's favorite idea ... or the list goes on.

It's refreshing to see that tomorrow's nonprofit professionals are ready to not only find the answers, but ask entirely different questions.

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.”

Future Fundraisers Show Amazing Promise

This semester, I'm teaching Technology and Marketing Trends in Fundraising at Rockhurst University through the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

I have eight of the brightest students I've ever encountered. Most have had multiple internships, and already at their tender young ages, have volunteer experience that puts me to shame.

As much as they're learning from me, I'm learning from them. For example ...

1. They love face-to-face interaction. In their papers and in person, they tell me that nothing replaces a real interaction, and they don't want it to.
2. Technology doesn't rule them. I gave them a big speech the first night about not having their faces buried in phones or laptops. Turns out they didn't need the speech -- they aren't obsessed with their phones (unlike their instructor).
3. They're savvy givers. These students won't be waiting until they hit baby-boomer age to give ... they give what they can now and hold those nonprofits to the highest ethical standards. They participate in runs, adopt children in developed countries, help local youth.
4. They've got heart. That same beautiful spirit of giving found in today's fundraisers is alive and well in this new generation.

Much is said, and written, about the apathy of millennials, their weak work ethic and flagrant sense of entitlement. It's true in many cases -- I've seen it.

But that label doesn't work on these students ... they got this.